The French philosopher Catherine Clément published, in 1979, an influential book entitled The opera, or the destruction of women (Opera, or the Undoing of Women, in its original title). A feminist reading of the libretto of the main operas of the 19th century where she denounced many darkly misogynistic aspects of their plots. But, in his argument, music is relegated to a kind of narcotic that traps us to the point of making us forget the violence exercised against women. Precisely, the musical strategies to represent female roles in opera have ended up occupying the center of this feminist debate, as Susan McClary demonstrated, in her already classic study on Carmen, by Bizet (Cambridge, 1992). Then their voices have been incorporated. And listening carefully to what the heroines of an opera sing, instead of paying attention only to what they say or suffer, allows us to restore the corporeal dimension of the music as opposed to the incorporeality of the score. A leading role that, according to the musicologist Carolyn abbate, turns operatic divas into creators of experiences.
We checked it, yesterday Saturday, at the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao, during the recital of the Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva (Plovdiv, 39 years old). A brilliant performance framed within ABAO Opera Live, the cycle of recitals that have allowed the Bilbao Association of Friends of the Opera maintain a minimum of live activity, this 2021, after the impossibility of raising the curtain since November, as a result of the strict sanitary measures against the pandemic of the Basque government. Then the only opera production of the entire season could be seen in Bilbao: Il Turco in Italy, by Rossini, shortened to 90 minutes, without a break and with a very small capacity.
But the Bilbao operatic association has reinvented itself. It has programmed virtual activities for its subscribers, such as the ABAOenCasa program and the Opera Skill Experience. And he has managed to reunite his audience at the Euskalduna Palace with the aforementioned series of recitals where some of the main operatic divas of the moment have been heard, such as Lisette Oropesa, Anita Rachvelishvili, Sondra Radvanovsky and Sonya Yoncheva, in addition to performances by Carlos Álvarez with Rocío Ignacio. The cycle will culminate, at the end of this month, with a program of arias and duets with orchestra by Ainhoa Arteta and Teodor Ilincai, replacing the postponed production of Tosca, who aspired to finish this difficult 69th season of ABAO.
Yoncheva represents a rare model of versatile singer, combining early music with great operatic repertoire. He began his career within the William Christie Vocal Academy, and made the leap to opera after winning the Operalia contest in 2010. His discography, at Sony Classical, combines French opera with Handel and Verdi, but also Italian and Spanish baroque music with a song by the swedish group Abba. And in his immense repertoire, such different roles coexist, such as Poppea from L’incoronazione di Poppea, by Monteverdi, with which she debuted in Salzburg, in 2018, bel canto singer Imogene from Il pirate, by Bellini, who did last season at the Teatro Real, and Tosca who will sing with an audience again later this month at the reopening of the Vienna Opera.
The Bulgarian soprano arrived in Bilbao after starring in two recitals last month in Madrid and Valencia, focused on in zarzuela romances Y italian songs. And he chose for his Bilbao debut a program of piano opera arias perfectly designed around important hits from his repertoire. He opened it and closed it with Massenet, to which he added the usual Habanera from Carmen of many of his recitals. In between, he dedicated a section to Slavic opera (Tchaikovsky and Dvořák) and another to Puccini. He opened fire, as in his first album, with the Salomé aria, Il est doux, il est bon, from Hérodiade, by Massenet, who sang with a fresh, homogeneous and mighty voice. But also giving life to the dynamic and emotional marks of the score. In five minutes, he managed to create a convincing vocal image of this lonely girl, who is irresistibly attracted to John the Baptist, and who will end up stabbing a dagger upon learning of the prophet’s execution. Massenet’s level of vocal introspection continued with the courtesan Thaïs and her aria from the mirror, O mon miroir fidèle, which opens the second act. And the voice turned sullen, taciturn and resentful, to become sensual, when she asks her mirror to tell her that she will be eternally beautiful, but also dark and anxious in the face of the fear of old age. Yoncheva moved with confidence throughout the tessitura, although here she avoided the final over-treble.
As an intermission between each section of arias, the French pianist Antoine Pallou, who accompanied the Bulgarian singer with more emotional than musical solvency, added a solo piece. It was the weakest part of the recital. And apart from touching the Nocturnal in C sharp minor B 49, by Chopin (and not Op. 72 as the program indicated) or a syrupy Meditation by Thaïs, he surprised us with a rarity that hadn’t been announced in the playtime. To open the section dedicated to Puccini, he touched his Foglio d’album, one of only two piano pieces by the Lucca composer, but which were not published until many years after his death. Yoncheva had sung the arious from Iolanta, and also the Song to the moon, from Rusalka. He did so comfortably in all registers, with a beautiful timbre, impeccable diction and attention to every detail of the score, but his performance connected less with Tchaikovsky’s blind princess and Dvořák’s water nymph.
Puccini’s three arias were the best of the recital. Yoncheva started with an impressive version of the cavatina of Anna, of Le Villi. And, despite her seraphic facial expression, we all feel the illusion of that young woman who puts a bouquet of forget-me-nots in her fiancé’s tarambana suitcase, while repeating with inimitable brilliance and in all possible vocal planes: “Non ti scordar di I!”. It was followed by arietta of Mimì, from the third act of La bohème. And we hear a version full of heavenly passion of Where lieta uscì, but also details, such as that vulnerable nuance that he adds to his reiteration of “Addio, senza rancor”, and that was so celebrated in his debut of that title, in extremis, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in 2014. The same could be said of A bel dì vedremo, from Madama butterfly, which stains the most dire omens.
Yoncheva returned to Massenet to finish. And, after saying goodbye to the simple domestic life with Des Grieux, in the Adieu notre petite table from Manon, the main character of Carmenby Bizet. In fact, he was almost the only character he played during the recital. He did it while singing his popular Habanera behind the pianist, which perhaps explains the little mistake he had during the accompaniment.
At the end there was much applause and the occasional bravo, among the 600 spectators, distanced and masked. Yoncheva corresponded with a brief speech in Spanish, where she recalled her recent recital at the Teatro de la Zarzuela and confessed her passion for La Marcheneraby Moreno Torroba. He sang with excellent diction and panache, along with an amazing vocality, the petenera Three hours before the day. Then he garnered the biggest ovation of the night, but he was only encouraged by another tip: Lauretta’s famous prayer, O my expensive baby, from Gianni Schicchiby Puccini. An exquisite farewell to this creator of operatic experiences that cannot be replicated either on an album or on the Internet. Tell it to the cultural critic Wayne Koestenbaum who, in his brilliant and talkative, The Queen’s Throat, confessed to having the fantasy of swallowing the soprano Leontyne Price during a recital.