I heard Sonya Yoncheva in concert on March 1, 2021 (it was live on February 27), as part of the Met Stars Live in Concert Series. Yoncheva is one of my favorite singers - - I’ve seen her in *Rigoletto,* *Iolanta,* *Luisa Miller,* *Otello,* and most memorably as Tosca. That was especially memorable because a friend in the Met Orchestra got me, my mom, and my brother Patrick backstage to meet her after the show. You can read the whole story here:
And a photo of Patrick and her. I’m a fan of hers but Patrick is a super fan!
Her concert was at Bad Schussenried in Germany, south of Stuttgart. Her pianist was Julien Quentin. She opened with a real barn-burner, “Ritorna vincitor!” from *Aida.* She has a lovely voice for the role. She’s a spinto soprano, which is a lyric soprano with heft - - a creamy sound with slice and bite for the dramatic moments. I love this aria and like any good opera queen, had my eye out for certain milestones. The phrase ending on a held B flat is my favorite moment and I was curious to hear that she attacked the note gently, then warmed up to it and grew on it, rather than kicking a field goal. A valid choice, and obviously the one that works best for her voice. Quentin was a supportive, flexible, and expressive collaborator.
Her next aria was another Verdi aria, from a little earlier in his career, “Tacea la notte placida ... Di tale amor” from *Trovatore.* She’s sung Verdi at the Met but not either of these roles, so it was a treat to hear her sing these arias. She has a wonderful voice for Verdi, the ideal mixture of warmth and drive. She doesn’t quite match Miss Price in the elusive Verdi Line, but she sounded dreamy and brought to it her own sense of the music. Quentin did a little cutesie twittering in his playing, I didn’t really care for that. Yoncheva worked her gown beautifully in this number. It was a chiffon affair with a train, voluminous sleeves, and a bow at the neck. I said to Richard:
ME: I’m describing the color in my review as tomato bisque red. Does that sound right to you?
RICHARD: I don’t know about the tomato bisque, but I would definitely call her “The Lady in Red, The Lady in Red...”
ME: Or perhaps The Rabbit in Red.
That’s how we roll in our house.
Next she sang an aria from her second opera at the Met, “Donde lieta uscì” from *La Bohème.* Her voice is wonderful for Verdi but it’s ideal for Puccini. Her voice bloomed and soared in such a glorious way in the big phrase, and her singing was melting and precise at every moment. Quentin did more twittering in this aria, I don’t know why he does that. Maybe I should explain what I mean by that. He added an upper octave to the top line and hammered at it, music box style. Not pleasing and not appreciated.
Her next aria was from an opera she was supposed to have sung at the Met in the current season, and I had tickets for it - - she sang the Song to the Moon from Dvořák’s *Rusalka.* She and Quentin perfectly captured the mixture of desperation and moonlight in this aria.
How about an aria I don’t know so well? “Se come voi piccina io fossi” from Puccini’s Le Villi.* I only know it from the Kiri te Kanawa recording, which was a little gauzy for my taste. Yoncheva was indulgent but not coy, seductive but not kittenish.
A slight surprise: she sang Dido’s Lament from *Dido and Aeneas.* This was a surprise because 1) it was in English and 2) it was Baroque, and she’s made her career singing heroines from the late 19thand early 20th centuries. But did you know that her first big gig was singing in William Christie’s vocal ensemble, Le Jardin des Voix? Christie has been one of the masters of Baroque opera for over 30 years, so I’m sure she was very well served working with him. Of course her singing was smooth and full of tragic pathos in the aria, but it was the recitative that knocked me out, so charged with drama and delicate Baroque accents. She played Monteverdi’s Poppea with Christie in the pit at Salzburg in 2018. I can only imagine how extraordinary she was on the role, which is practically all recitative.
Another Baroque chestnut, “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s *Rinaldo,* was marvelous. Yoncheva sang it in the grand manner without losing any of the Baroque subtleties. Quentin’s playing was especially beautiful in this aria, he embroidered the piano line in a tasteful way.
Back to her bread and butter, the red-blooded Romantic rep that has made her a major star on the world’s stages. “Un bel dì” from *Madama Butterfly* is one of the most beloved arias around and Yoncheva sang it with dedication, skill, and heartbreaking specificity. I hope I’ll get to hear her in this role at the Met.
She excelled with two Massenet arias, “Ah! je suis seule ... Dis-moi que je suis belle” from *Thaïs* and “Adieu, notre petite table” from *Manon.* The *Manon* aria was lovely, as expected. The *Thaïs* aria was my favorite thing on the program, it was a master class in opera singing and stage deportment. Her entrance onto the stage was diva maximus, very old school grand diva. She threw around the chiffon a bit more later on, walked all the way around the piano and then planted herself center stage for the big finish. Very Bell Telephone Hour circa 1962, and there’s nothing I love more.
Here she is singing it in concert in 2017:
Two surprises to close out the program: “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Habanera) from *Carmen.* A surprise because it’s a mezzo aria and not necessarily what you expect a soprano at the top of her form to be singing. Yoncheva voice was juicy in this lower range and she seemed to be having a great time. She toyed with the words and the rhythms in a playful way and spent a lot of time looking directly into the camera. I’m sure my brother Patrick felt she was singing right to him! And maybe she was.
She spoke a bit before her final song, telling the audience directly how much it means to her to perform again and how much she misses singing on the stage of the Met. Her speaking voice was darling with its Bulgarian accent. They ended with an Edith Piaf classic, “Hymne à l’amour.” Here it is, from the concert: