Going west for a change

Galina Gorchakova made her first appearance as the title character of the Metropolitan Opera's Madama Butterfly in January under a parasol hung with what looked like mosquito netting. Tall and robust, she nonetheless managed, with a little tilt of the head, a smile, to give an impression of shy eagerness, of a woman ready to leave her own culture behind, to give herself entirely in love. And when she began to sing, the emontional depths of Cio-Cio-San could be heard in the amazing, dark richness of her body vibrate with possibillities. In her first meeting with the cad Pinkerton, its sound was soft and contained, yet resonant enough to fill the house.

But as Butterfly's tragic tale continued, the powerfull, superbly controlled voice let loose throuhout its range, and all the way up to the clarion, steely quality it attained at full volume, it gave sonic dimension to the betrayed geisha's passion and despair.

Gorchakova, a 32-year-old Siberian soprano, was making her Met debut with no orchestra rehearsal and one walk-through on Giancarlo del Monaco's fairly complicated set. Under the circumstances, it was probably not surprising that her acting was rudimentary, and that whenever she sang, she was careful to face the audience regardless of what her charaster was supposed to be doing. Yet even with these drawbacks, Gorchakova made an indelible impression. With her at its centre, the production, formerly a collection of irritating fidgets, acquired dignity.


Galina Gorchakova in Metropolitan OperaHer Butterfly was not a fragile flower crushed beneath the insensitivity of the Ugly American. Gorchakova's portrayal served as a reminder that Puccini wrote the part for a singer with lungs of steel, able to carry over a big orchestra. The music portrays a character with immense desires - a woman who seeks her proper emotional match, only to be horribly disappointed. Gorchakova did not yet summon up the pathos of Butterfly: "Un bel di' is supposed to make you cry because she's so sure Pinkerton is coming back to her, and you know he isn't. Gorchakova's strength is such that you think she'll be fine no matter what happens. But in the final scene, when Butterfly rushes out of the house crying, "Dov'e? Dov'e?" ( Where is be?), and the only person there is Kate Pinkerton who has come to take her child away, Gorchakova invested those words with such longing ther you could feel the edifice of her faith to come crashing down. With a good director, she could probably be a knockout as Butterfly, to say nothing of Tosca. Hint for the future: the Tosca she most admires is Maria Callas.

Gorchakova burst on the Western operatic scene in 1991, when she sang, the role of the demented Renata in a concert version of Prokofiev's The Fiery angel at the BBC Promenade Concerts, causing reviewers all over London to stop in their tracks. At the time, she was based at the Sverdlovsk Opera, and singing occasional parts with conductor Valery Gergiev and the Kirov Opera in St Petersburg. Her return to London the following summer for a staged Fiery Angel in the Kirov-Covent Garden co-production with Georgiev confirmed all the excitement, and Gorchakova started to get more invitations to Covent Garden, Cologne and LaScala. By then, she had moved to St Petersburg to become a regular member of the Kirov company.


American audiences first heard Gorchakova in the summer of 1992, when the Kirov Fiery Angel appeared at the Met. The same production was mounted at the San Francisco Opera last October. MeanWhile, a series of fortuitous cancellations enabled her to step in as Butterfly, first in Houston and Los Angeles, and finally at the Met. She was scheduled to return to New York in late February with the Kirov in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Invisible City of Kitezh at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and she can be heard, dark and intense, as Maria on Deutsche Grammophon's new recording of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa.

Gorchakova is coming into her own at a good time, for Russian artist are no longer restricted in their acceptance of engagements outside the country. Indeed, starting next season, the West will probably be hearing more of this singer than St Peterburg will, for what with Toscas in London and Paris and Butterfly at La Scala and in Japan, Gorchakova won't have much time for her home company. But she will do foreign tours with the Kirov, and is featured on their Philips recording of Prince Igor, due out this month on 442-537-2, and also starring Olga Borodina; The Fiery Angel and Iolanta, are also due out this year, and Kitezh was recorded in February. But as of September 1994, Gorchakova has her own deal with the label, and is going to record three solo albums, one of them with orchestra, plus Butterfly and Tosca with Seiji Ozawa, and Simon Boccanegra (with Haitink), La foeza deldestino ( with Gergiev) and Aida with a conductor stiil to be determined.

Along with her move away from her homeland, Gorchakova is heading away from the Rissian repertoire into the Italian. Onegin and Lisa in Pique dame will remain, but The Fiery Angel has been dropped. She has to protect her voice a bit, - says her English manager, Mark Hildrew. And don't expect her to tackle Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; even Gergiev hasn's been able to talk her into that one. The rigours of Puccini and Verdi, it appears, are preferable to those of the Russians.


In New York, Gorchakova was stayng at a bare-bones residence hotel a few blocks from the Met. The room was grey and functional, adorned only with a few bouquets from her opening night. Gorchakova looked similarly severe; long black hair scraped back into a ponytail, casual black shirt and trousers, no smile. Her husband Kolya, a voice teacher, sat beside her on the sofa, intent on a pocket computer. He had made the trip for the Met debut; usually he stays home in St Peterdburg with their eight-year-old son Andrei, who studies piano and for whom the singer says, We have big hopes.

Self-possessed and format, the singer seemed infazed by the demands of travel or the vagaries of different conductors and opera houses. Music is an international art form, - she says through an interpreter ( she speaks only a little English and Italian ). "There are some changes. We have a constant group at the Kirov. I know everyone in my theatre - the administrators, the directors, the stage directors, the artists. Here, I have to get to know people for the first time. But in terms of work, there are the same demands everywhere. I have to learn my parts, I have to listen to comments from conductors and stage directors and do my best not to violate their concept, yet to put my own art into it."

New conductors and colleagues, she says, add elements to her interpretations, but she is loath to specify what. 'You're can't point out what you get from every conductor. It's not like you go into a store, and in this store you bought a carton of eggs. It isn't that concrete. Every conductor has things that you like, some things that you grow with. As many as there are people, that's how many characteristics there are. Someone is impulsive, someone else is calmer, and you learn from each one."