If a video-game designer were to fabricate an avatar for the perfect opera star, the male version might look and sound a lot like Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Dark of voice and pale of mane, the Russian baritone has the bearing of a man who has come to expect all the stomping ovations and proffered bouquets. These he acknowledges with a half-smile and a quick ballroom bow. He treats his job with the same nonchalant cool, dispensing tunes that fit him as snugly as those glittering suits. Whenever he’s on an opera stage, a crackling aura forms around him so that tenor and soprano become supporting voices to his leonine purr. He summons his own spotlight.
Hvorostovsky had nobody to steal a scene from at his Carnegie Hall recital on Wednesday night, except for the loyal pianist Ivari Ilja. Not many singers can hold a stage alone and fill a hall with so much aplomb, and certainly not with a set of intimate, firelit Russian songs by Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky. But Hvorostovsky is unique, a deadpan virtuoso in the Barnum-esque world of opera, who intimates depths of feeling that he’s not quite willing to unveil. Can there be a song better suited to his temperament than Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous “Amid the din of the ball”? A meditative minor-mode waltz melody hazes over the fact that the narrator isn’t dancing, and neither is the enigmatic object of his attention, whose “pensiveness” and “sad yet merry laughter” bewitch him across a crowded room. I imagine that in the course of his career, more than a couple of audience members have fantasized that he would notice them from the stage.
Great singers break down into three rough categories that have nothing to do with voice types or casting: deluxe timbres (Jussi Björling, Luciano Pavarotti) who could holler nonsense and still melt hearts; intellectuals (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Ian Bostridge) who weigh every note and phoneme; and high-octane emoters (Roberto Alagna) who overpower with generous helpings of passion. At his best, Hvorostovsky combines all three. He has a rich, barrel-aged voice that never breaks character even at the outer limits of his range, and he can light up an aria with controlled, deliberate intensity. At Carnegie Hall, he stayed away from extroverted operatic hits and sang instead of death and doubt and melancholy landscapes. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s mournful “On the Hills of Georgia,” he showed just how magically he can conjure a tragic hush.
And yet the evening had a festive quality, possibly for the same reason that Hvorostovsky sang with such affecting wistfulness: He has returned to the stage after undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. If I have buried this fact, it’s because he doesn’t need special circumstances to highlight the quality of his musicianship, and the illness has not affected his singing in any obvious ways (except, perhaps, as an incentive to keep the program short). His only non-Russian repertoire was four songs by Richard Strauss, including the exquisitely optimistic “Morgen” (“Tomorrow”): “The sun will shine again.” He has his mind on a full future, and next season he is scheduled to sing Eugene Onegin at the Met.
Hvorostovsky ended the evening singing the folk melody “Nochen’ka” (“Sweet Night”) a capella, a specialty of the great Feodor Chaliapin. It was as if he were telling the audience that a hectic life, spent amid scenery, costumes, colored lights, airplanes, hotel rooms — and, lately, hospitals, has made this utter simplicity possible: one voice, full of wood smoke and church bells, singing an old tune for a crowd of people who want nothing more.