When Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky passed away in the early morning of November 22, 2017, his life cut tragically short at age 55 by brain cancer, the opera world lost one of its most distinctive voices and dramatic talents.

Like many of his fans, my most cherished memory of Hvorostovsky was his heartbreaking performance in the title role of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin—particularly the 2007 Metropolitan Opera production, which was broadcast into movie theaters as part of the Met’s very first season of Live in HD transmissions.

Hvorostovsky himself cited Onegin as his signature role, but with his richly colored tone, depth of expression, and charismatic stage presence, he was also a perfect fit for the tragic operas of Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Throughout his career, Hvorostovsky brought to life many of Verdi’s most difficult and complicated characters: the disapproving father figure Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, the assassin Anckarström in Un Ballo in Maschera, the villainous Count di Luna from Il Trovatore, the revolutionary Rodrigo in Don Carlo, and the title roles of Simon Boccanegra and Rigoletto.

Seven months before his passing, Hvorostovsky made a surprise appearance at the Metropolitan Opera’s 50th Anniversary Gala to give a powerful final performance of “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata” from Act II of Rigoletto. This aria is sung by the hunchbacked court jester Rigoletto to his fellow courtiers, who have abducted Rigoletto’s beloved daughter Gilda and taken her to the chambers of the licentious Duke of Mantua. Rigoletto arrives at the palace to rescue Gilda from the predatory Duke, but the courtiers block his path. At first, he rages against them and vows revenge, but then he tearfully pleads with them to take pity: “It doesn’t cost you anything to return her, while such a daughter is all the world to me.”

In his impassioned delivery of this aria, Hvorostovsky captures the full range of emotions that Rigoletto experiences in such a horrible moment: righteous anger, betrayal, pained desperation, and a father’s guilt and remorse for being helpless to prevent his daughter’s traumatic suffering.

But don’t just take my word for it: see (and hear!) Hvorostovsky for yourself.

And if you’re in the market for more:

  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Eugene Onegin, performed by Renée Fleming (Tatiana), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin), Ramón Vargas (Lenski), and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus, and Ballet, conducted by Valery Gergiev (Decca, 2007), DVD.
  • Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto, performed by Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rigoletto), Nadine Sierra (Gilda), Francesco Demura (Duke of Mantua), and the Kaunas State Choir and Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Constantine Orbelian (Delos, 2017), CD.

~ Helena Kopchick Spencer

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