The Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died on November 22 aged fifty-five, burst onto the Western operatic scene when he won the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. That final also included singers who have enjoyed international careers such as Monica Groop and Hillevi Martinpelto, but it culminated in a “battle of the baritones” with Bryn Terfel (who walked away with the Lieder prize).
Hvorostovsky quickly established himself as a singer of distinction, particularly in the Russian and Italian repertoire. In the latter he was an indispensable singer for some of Verdi’s trickier and demanding roles. With his dashing looks, silvery grey (later white) hair he managed to bring allure and swagger to some of the more unpleasant and complex characters in opera.
Yet he could also play the troubled romantic roles – a suitably Byronic Eugene Onegin and an icily patrician Prince Yeletsky in The Queen of Spades. He was also an excellent recitalist, concentrating particularly on performing Russian repertoire and bringing unfamiliar songs to wider prominence.
He was born in Krasnoyarsk in Siberia in 1962 and showed an early aptitude for singing and appreciation of music. He studied at the Krasnoyarsk School for the Arts, where his vocal teacher was Yekaterina Yofel. In interviews he frequently referred to her as the lady who had the greatest influence on him and his understanding of the voice and vocal technique. In 1986 he joined the Krasnoyarsk Opera, making his professional debut in the role of Marullo In Verdi’s Rigoletto. A few competitions later and his career was launched.
The voice itself was generous, flexible and warm, and with an exciting bloom in its upper reaches, as well as suavity and charm. Hvorostovsky had excellent diction and control of dynamics, and indeed his vocal acting and colouring to emphasise both text and emotion were his hallmarks.
He sang often at Covent Garden making his debut as Riccardo in Andrei Serban’s production of Bellini’s I Puritani. His later Verdi roles there included Giorgio Germont in La traviata, Francesco in I Masnadieri, Count Luna in Il trovatore, Renato in Un ballo in maschera and the title role in Rigoletto. He also sang Onegin and Yeletsky, and, in a rare foray into French opera, Valentin in Gounod’s Faust.
Fortunately, many of these roles were committed to recordings in addition to Posa in Don Carlo (Haitink) and Grigory Gryaznoy in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride (Gergiev). These showcase his artistry and the majesty of the voice. There are many recordings of classical Russian songs, as well as of folksongs – the latter exhibiting Hvorostovsky’s charm and playful side. He will not be forgotten.