Great Performers 2014: Julia Lezhneva

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Published: 21st March, 2014

Young soprano Julia Lezhneva was the first singer to be featured in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s 2014 Great Performers series on March 19. Reviewer Heather Leviston applauded the choice, given Lezhneva’s range, repertoire and at times peerless performance.

Julia Lezhneva’s recital opened with the kind of bravura aria featured in last year’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra concerts with Simone Kermes and Philippe Jaroussky. Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti from his opera Griselda is a superb vehicle for dazzling an audience and that is exactly what Lezhneva did. There might not have been quite the level of excitement that Kermes’ extravagant style evoked, but her breathtaking agility was at least equally remarkable.

The many singers in the audience would have been fascinated to hear the similarities and differences between these first rate singers whose strengths are displayed to such telling effect in the Baroque repertoire. Cecilia Bartoli is another recent visitor, who thrilled her audience with a similar display of vocal gymnastics. What these artists also share, however, are the temperament and the range of superb vocal resources that allow them to make music with great emotional impact.

For all the technical brilliance of her opening aria it was in Handel’s O nox dulcis from his 1707 motet Saeviat tellus inter rigors that Lezhneva really came into her own. With pure, floating beauty of tone, seamless legato and pinpoint accuracy in her soft singing, this prayer for peace and serenity for the Carmelites was beautifully rendered in its expressive simplicity. Her subdued deep purple gown was also in keeping with the spirit of this piece. (It was a pity that her attempt to establish a mood of spiritual quietude was disturbed by the disrespectful practice of allowing latecomers to clomp down the aisles while she was singing!)

Lezhneva also shares Bartoli’s enthusiasm for unearthing forgotten Baroque masterpieces, in this case Porpora’s 1744 pastoral motet In caelo stelle clare. The recitative and aria Exulta, exulta o cor! is an exuberant outpouring, full of the quiverings of religious ecstasy. The intensified feeling generated by cascades of trills and ornamentation must have been just as Porpora intended. No wonder Lezhneva was thrilled to discover a work that suited her talents so perfectly. Whether tossing off joyous roulades or gracefully delineating buoyant melodies, she was in her element.

Moving from Baroque to Classical, a blend of legato and florid was found in the last two parts of the most well known item on the program: Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. Using a slightly fuller tone, the distinctive qualities of Lezhneva’s voice became even more apparent. Just as it is difficult to describe the veil or darker quality that makes Callas’s voice so distinctive and compelling, so it is with Lezhneva’s. She is far from being a soprano with just extraordinary facility. In louder passages, when more of the voice is engaged, a little of the ease at the top of the range is lost but something else is gained. At only 24 years of age her voice is still maturing; it will be interesting to hear how it develops, especially given a sense of latent power that was even evident in the Vivaldi.

This fuller sound permeated the “bel canto” second half of the program, largely comprising works by Rossini and Bellini. Her performance of the Tre canzonette, written in Rossini’s old age, was an absolute delight. Lezhneva, now in a vivid orange gown, called on playful charm and animation to capture the spirited drama of a girl watching her lover compete in a gondola race and celebrating with him afterwards. It acted as a foil to the contrasting mood of Bellini’s arietta Ma rendi pur contento, which she sang with wonderful pathos, sustaining a beautiful line of legato singing. Rossini’s ‘Tanti affeti’ from La Donna del Lago also demonstrated Lezhneva’s mastery of the coloratura embellishment that his vocal music demands.

As Lezhneva’s associate artist, several of Mikhail Antonenko’s contributions were in the form of piano transcriptions from an orchestral score. Clean and crisp in execution, they tended to be on the restrained, albeit sympathetic, side. The penultimate item on the program occasioned a more rewarding contribution in the form of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, op 90 no 3.

This connected very well with the second of two encores, Schubert’s magical Nacht und Traume that concluded the program. It sent a highly appreciative audience home feeling that such an exquisite piece of music so beautifully sung could not be surpassed.