A Young Singer Takes the Opera World by Storm
Late in the third act of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” Francesco Cilea’s irresistible potboiler of an opera, the vicious Princesse de Bouillon and Adriana, an actress, square off at a party, rivals for the love of the dashing Maurizio.
In the tumult, Maurizio makes a move toward Adriana, but the princess stops him. “Restate,” she commands, ordering him to stay by her.
On a recent morning deep within the Metropolitan Opera, where a new production of “Adriana” starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala opens on New Year’s Eve, the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili made the three syllables of “restate” a paradox: a gorgeous snarl.
Diving into her chest voice, but not milking it or pushing too hard, her tone stayed round, warm and not all that loud, an iron fist in a cashmere glove. Listening, you felt like Maurizio, pinned to your seat by her sound and authority.
The passage is over in a second, but Ms. Rachvelishvili (pronounced rahtch-vel-ish-VEEL-ee), 34, has rocketed to stardom over the past few years with performances built from brief moments just like it: combinations of arresting vocalism and thoughtful subtlety. Her sensual, even elemental presence makes her particularly ideal for the daunting mezzo roles that anchor some of Verdi’s most important operas.
“Rachvelishvili was for me a revelation,” the eminent conductor Riccardo Muti, with whom she will sing “Aida” in Chicago in June, said in an interview. “She is without doubt the best Verdi mezzo-soprano today on the planet. Without. Doubt.”
At the Met, she has been a provocatively gloomy Carmen and a dreamy Konchakovna in Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” But it was only earlier this year, as an Azucena of showstopping vocal glamour and unexpected poignancy in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” that she truly arrived.
“For me it was almost a complete transformation,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said about her turn in “Trovatore” after an absence of two seasons. “She was good, but now she was expletive great.”
In September, she sang a potent yet vulnerable Amneris opposite Ms. Netrebko in “Aida,” and adds the malignant Princesse in “Adriana” before unveiling her seductive Dalila when Saint-Saëns’s “Samson et Dalila” returns to the Met in March.
Ms. Rachvelishvili was also given the plum gig of hosting the company’s recent worldwide Live in HD broadcast of “La Traviata.” And with Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlo” on the horizon, she is fully coming into her own.
“It was too early because of my age,” Ms. Rachvelishvili said of why she waited to take on these Verdi titans, over a feast of a lunch at Oda House, a Georgian restaurant in the East Village. “My voice was ready, but you need a certain maturity to start those. Not only voice. Your attitude has to be in the right place for those roles.”
Ms. Rachvelishvili was born in 1984 in Tbilisi to creative parents: Her mother was a folk and ballet dancer, her father a bass guitarist and song composer. Both sang. She grew up amid the widespread privation in Georgia that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union: “no electricity, no water, no food, nothing,” she recalled.
But her memories of her childhood are happy; without heat, neighbors would get together in a single warm room. “We would sing, we would play cards,” she said. “We would play word and spelling games. My dad would play guitar, or mom would play piano. The music was, of course, part of 99 percent of it.”
She started studying piano as a young girl and sang jazz, soul and pop hits with friends. People remarked on the size and quality of her voice, but she didn’t think of opera until, unsure of what she wanted to study in college, she was encouraged by a family friend to audition for conservatory. She sang a Whitney Houston song and got in. She hadn’t yet seen a live opera.
Ms. Rachvelishvili studied hard to learn operatic technique and drop the style that had served her well with Mariah Carey favorites. But she felt her first concert was an underprepared disaster; it was the shot in the arm she needed.
“I said, O.K., this should never happen again,” she recalled. “I have to try, I have to get myself together. When I’m going onstage, I have to know what I’m doing. That was the moment that changed everything, when I started to look at things in a very different way.”
She was accepted into the prestigious young singers’ academy at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where she got a cinematic-style big break. Auditioning in the fall of 2008 for Mercédès, a small part in an upcoming production of “Carmen,” she was heard by Daniel Barenboim, who was set to conduct.
“The voice was really kind of a dramatic voice — in its infancy, if you want,” Mr. Barenboim said in an interview. “And she had a richness of expression. It was far too important for a little role. When singers are young, they either lack the necessary confidence or they have too much of it. And she had the right mixture.”
They hired her as the cover — an operatic understudy — for the title part, already a coup for an unknown singer in her mid-20s plucked, as it were, from the chorus line. But the following spring, the theater called. Their Carmen had canceled, and Ms. Rachvelishvili was on for one of the opera world’s most anticipated annual events: opening night of the La Scala season, opposite the tenor Jonas Kaufmann.
She relearned the role from scratch and had a triumph. “She came and sang the Carmen as if she had been doing it since she was born,” Mr. Barenboim said. “It was absolutely natural for her. Carmens are usually either vulgar or, if they try not to be, they are very withdrawn and don’t manage to bring out the liveliness and strength of personality. And she maintained a very strong character without sounding vulgar.”
Among those who heard her in Milan was Mr. Gelb, who hired her as Carmen for her Met debut in 2011.
“But I had no idea,” he said, “as gifted as I thought she was — opera singers are very fragile and you never know what’s going to happen with their development. Even though I was excited about her talent, I had no idea that she would blossom into one of the great mezzo-sopranos of the past 50 or 60 years.”
That blossoming has happened largely on her own. Ms. Rachvelishvili’s last teacher built her technique but always wanted more, more, more voice.
“But I wanted more nuances,” she said. “I wanted more pianos” — soft dynamics. “I wanted to learn how to do piano. And he would go, ‘No, no, no, piano is dangerous, don’t do piano.’ But I was like, I need to do piano. I can’t sing everything loud.”
Breaking with him, she embraced the letter of the score. A role like Azucena, often bludgeoned to death with sheer volume, became in her performance a kaleidoscope of colors and textures, revealing a more varied and affecting character than the single-mindedly grim standard portrayal.
“If you do it like it’s written, it’s beautiful,” she said. “And then people go, ‘Oh, she does something different.’ No! I just do what is written.”
She shares that scrupulous attention to detail with Mr. Muti. “She understood me immediately,” he said of their first collaboration, on Verdi’s Requiem last year, pinpointing a single technical element in that work as key to her magic. “In the Lux Eterna, the voice goes to the F sharp, and it’s a passaggio note for the mezzo-soprano” — a note between vocal registers. “And she went in such a smooth way, such a wonderful way, without changing color. That was the thing that impressed me. She followed all the intention that I had, that we had rehearsed, with such dedication.”
In addition to “Aida,” the two plan to revisit Verdi’s Requiem next summer at the Salzburg Festival and to record Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana.” Ms. Rachvelishvili is also working on more French roles, including Didon in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” and Charlotte in Massenet’s “Werther.” At the Met, she will sing Amneris in a coming new production of “Aida” directed by Michael Mayer. (They’ve had early discussions about the character committing suicide at the end.)
But even at 34 and still on the rise, she seems, unusually for a major artist, at peace with eventually letting go of singing. She has already begun to teach, and relishes it.
“Even if I stop tomorrow — thank God, please not, if I lose my voice tomorrow — I know what I’m going to be doing,” she said. “I know I’m going to be teaching. I know I’m going to be living in the mountains, having my own farm or something. That’s what I love.”
“Life is beautiful,” she added, “and you have a thousand things to do. And you have to be not afraid of doing something else.”
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