Throughout this century, the Slavic countries have contributed many legendary singers to the international vocal scene - Emmy Destinn and the de Reszke brothers from Poland, Zinka Milanov from Yugoslavia, and and Galina Vishnevskaya from Russia, to name just a few. Now three exceptional women and a tenor of tremendous promise have appeared here in New York, reminding us anew of the Slavic countries' tremendous contributions to the art of vocal music.
Top on the list is the long-anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut of Bulgarian soprano Ghena Dimitrova in the title role of Puccini's ``Turandot.'' Another Bulgarian soprano, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, has been singing a superb Violetta in the Met revival of Verdi's ``La Traviata.''
And two Russians have also been lighting up the stage - tenor Vladimir Popov, singing Calaf to Dimitrova's Turandot, and mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova stepping in unexpectedly for three performances of Azucena in the Met's turgid new ``Trovatore.''
Dimitrova established herself as a vocal phenomenon many years ago, but the Met's previous regime turned a cold shoulder at least seven years ago, thus depriving us of her presence and her voice. She is here now, and in her most heralded role. The voice is a full-fledged dramatic soprano, huge and ringing at the top, and solid and secure throughout, its range. Turandot is a superb choice for her, and she sang the second act (Turandot is silent in Act I) with all the power of a hurricane.
In the third act, when the Icy Princess must melt into a woman, she reined in the voice to achieve telling musical and dramatic effects, yet again managed to be elementally thrilling when sheer power was needed. Histrionically, her performance was utterly committed, detailed, and full of nuance. And how effortlessly she fit into the often stunning framework director Franco Zeffirelli supplies this opera. (Her performance will be broadcast on the radio nationwide Feb. 13, with a different supporting cast.)
The ``Turandot'' revival was also sparked by the uneven yet stirring performance by Mr. Popov as Calaf. He is a somewhat wild singer, and, when out of control, his timbre can be strident. Yet when he phrases wisely and prepares his high notes well, the voice rings out with the sort of impact and trumpeting tone one has heard all too rarely in the past decade. When in full cry with Dimitrova, Popov helped make this a truly spine-tingling evening.
Aprile Millo sang an often effective Liu, but her voice tended to crack in the quiet passages, marring an otherwise favorable impression. In the pit, Nello Santi seemed unable to get consistent coordination either among his players or with the singers.
Conducting also marred the ``Traviata'' revival. Thomas Fulton has proved on past occasions unable to cope with genuine Italianate rubato; once again his four-square, too-slow conducting hindered his singers and emphasized the oom-pah-pah aspect of Verdi's beautiful score.
In Miss Tomowa-Sintow, however, the Met has found a soprano in the full-fledged Verdi style. She has both sufficient flexibility for the floridity of the first act and also the timbral weight for the increasingly dramatic needs of the other two acts. Her top notes are impressive in the vast expanses of the Met; her phrasing is at all times detailed, sensitive, and fully communicative of the mood of the moment; she looked wonderfully glamorous, with a rare inner radiance that illuminated the stage, and made this a consistently affecting interpretation.
Sherrill Milnes repeated his bold, familiar Germont. Neil Rosenshein, in his debut role of Alfredo, mixed moments of dramatic commitment with moments of unbearably effortful singing to offer a compromised overall impression (this cast can be heard on the radio broadcast this Saturday afternoon).
Finally, one must note the New York appearances of Miss Obraztsova, who has not sung on these shores since the Afghanistan conflict led to the suspension of cultural exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1979. She returned to New York Nov. 23 in a magnificent Carnegie Hall recital of Russian songs. Though she rarely sang out in full voice, it was clear that her mezzo was in splendid condition and that she had more than mastered all these emotionally draining songs.
Met officials immediately invited her to join the ``Trovatore'' cast for three performances. In the last of these, I was reminded of how missed this volatile singer has been at the house. Her Azucena was predictably grand-scaled, whether roaring with hysterical passion or whispering with fear. And her powerful mezzo was consistently thrilling, throughout the dynamic spectrum.