Introducing Olga Mykytenko

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VERDI: I Masnadieri: Dall’infame banchetto…Tu del mio Carlo. Un ballo in Maschera: Morrò, ma prima in grazia. Il Trovatore: Tacea la notte placida…Di tale amor. I vespri Siciliani: Arrigo! ah! parli a un core; Mercé, dilette amiche. Il Corsaro: Egli non riede. Attila: Santo di patria; Liberamente or piangi. Ernani: Surta è la notte…Ernani, involami. Macbeth: Nel di della vittoria…Or tutti sorgete; Una macchia è qui tuttora. Luisa Miller: Tu puniscimi, o signore. La traviata: È strano!…Ah, fors e lui…Sempre libera / Olga Mykytenko, sop; Bournemouth Symphony Orch.; Kirill Karabits / Chandos CHAN 20144

In the opera world, one of the most reactionary and entrenched remnants of old-timey music, the advent of a great new Verdi soprano means 40 times more than the advent of a great new singer (of any category) whose repertoire ranges further and wider afield. The old stuff is pretty much all they ever want to hear; the few times they hear anything modern, they generally hate it or, worse yet, dismiss it as “not music”; thus when new voices are trained nowadays, they’re trained for the exact same repertoire their forebears sang a century or more ago.

Here, then, we are presented with the debut solo recital of Olga Mykytenko, so of course it’s all old stuff. Well, at least it’s Verdi and not Donizetti or Mercadante, and to show her versatility we get the (almost) obligatory arias from such early Verdi garbage as I Masnadieri and Il Cosaro along with the more standard fare. Mykytenko, who is no spring chicken (she’s 45 going on 46) and who sang at the National Opera of Ukraine in Kiev from 1995 to 2003, has had one previous recording released, a complete Iolanta conducted by Vladimir Fedoseyev on the Relief label.

Mykytenko has an excellent voice as far as Slavic sopranos go. Yes, it has that steely-brilliant sound that so many of them have, but it also has a fair amount of beauty in it as well, and she has a simply phenomenal technique, able to sing not only fast staccato and runs but also trills and grupetti (mordents and grace notes for the uninformed) with great security. Insofar as emotional expression goes, however, she is an atypical Slavic soprano in that she is generally more genteel and restrained than her sisters-at-arms. The Slavic sopranos of old would have thrown tons of chest voice into Amelia’s “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” from Un ballo in Maschera whereas Mykytenko sings it with some feeling but much more restraint. Of course, I have no idea if she has always sung thus, but it’s telling that in a recital meant to introduce her to Western audiences she emulates Emmy Destinn, the great Czech soprano who sang for most of her great years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Near the end of this aria, a flaw in Mykytenko’s voice: the penultimate high note is not only squally but not properly supported with the breath.

As the recital continues, her few vocal flaws come and go but one really begins to admire her basic technique. One chink in her armor is that she seems incapable of singing really softly when the score calls for it: “Tacea la notte placida” is sung very placida but not so much tacea. In the cabaletta, “Di tale amor,” she has the quick trills and staccato notes needed for the music, but alas her conductor, one Kirill Karabits, is one of those stodgy sticks-in-the-mud who has very little idea how to conduct Verdi and takes sluggish tempi to boot. In this scene, too, I felt that Mykytenko did very little acting with the voice, and the same goes for “Arrigo! ah parli a un core,” an aria that the late Cristina Deutekom used to sing the bloody hell out of. For Mykytenko, she might as well be pondering which gluten-free bread she hopes to find at the supermarket. The Vespri “Bolero” moves at a sluggish pace. Why, Kirill? Your soprano clearly has the goods to deliver the grace notes and trills at the written tempo. Wake the hell up and follow the score, you idiot!

But of course, given the limited scope of this recital, what I really wanted to hear were the dramatic arias from Attila and Macbeth, since these call for singers with fire in their bellies and inexhaustible high notes (pretty much what 90% of all operagoers really go to hear anyway). She opens up Odabella’s “Ancor di patria”with pretty good steel in the voice, but insofar as real feeling and drama go, she can’t hold a candle to Cheryl Studer, who was in turn not quite as incendiary as Deutekom in the role. We seem to be going down, down, down in terms of acting the with voice—dramatic interpretation—even as we train vocal acrobatics like Mykytenko. Now, if you watch one of her videos on YouTube, she constantly moves, and wriggles, and waves her hands and arms, but that’s not a substitute for real from-the-gut drama. Your wriggling around doesn’t impress me much, honey. Give everything you’ve got into the role and I’ll sing your praises from here to Mars and back.

It was almost painful for me to listen to the whole “Ernani, involami” scene, taken not only at sluggish tempi but with no forward momentum or drive in the orchestral playing. Where did Chandos get this conductor from? Was this the best they could do? Mykytenko gives us Generically Dramatic Emphasis on the words, but not one of them comes from the heart. Damn, I miss Leona Mitchell.

And then we come, at last, to the Macbeth arias. Or at least the music for them. A whole string of prior Lady Macbeths came to my mind, among them Callas, Borkh, Nilsson, Scotto, even Fiorenza Cossotto. I admit that Mykytenko does a bit better in “Or tutti sorgete” than I thought she would—for our time, this is pretty passable—but even Cossotto sounded more cracked-in-the-head and power-mad than she. Go and listen to her recording if you don’t believe me. Mykytenko sounds somewhat angry and upset, which is not the same thing. Verdi insisted that Lady Macbeth sing in a cracked, strangulated voice, particularly in the “sleepwalking scene.” Callas and late-period Scotto were absolutely perfect in “Una macchia.” Mykytenko sounds professional, and she sings the high D-flat too loudly. Karabits sounds as if he’s conducting a ballet scene from Delibes’ Sylvia.

Next up is the big nothing aria from Luisa Miller, a Verdi opera I’ve never liked and probably never will. The recital wraps up with Violetta’s big scene from the Act I finale of La traviata, which Karabits opens up as if it were the Prussian March through Poland. Here, however, Mykytenko must have gone through several takes, because her voice is perfect in legato, technique, placement and tone from start to finish. Again, there’s no “inner” feeling when she sings “Ah, fors’ e lui,” but she does do a short messa da voce on the word “amor” before she starts singing “Ah, quell’amor,” and she does sound moderately happy in “Sempre libera,” again conducted too slowly.

But maybe Mykytenko got shafted in this recital. If you go to YouTube and listen to her very different performance of “Sempre libera” from 2009, everything is more secure and she sings with much more feeling (plus the tempo is faster). Deterioration from a decade ago? Possibly, but maybe not. Maybe she was having vocal difficulties during these sessions and she and Karabits didn’t get along.

So there you have it. Without having seen or heard her “live,” my judgment is that Mykytenko is a good soprano with some real attributes, among them musicianship and a pretty solid technique, and some real problems, most notably uneven voice support and inability to feel the characters she is singing from within. If this is what you want, go for it. I’d rather pull out my Sondra Radvanosky recital disc and hear some real singing in the old stuff.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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