A Diva Debuts

Classic Arts Features   A Diva Debuts
Mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko sings the Mussorgsky cycle Songs and Dances of Death with the New York Philharmonic this month.

Mezzo-soprano Marina Domashenko will present New York Philharmonic audiences with a rare experience when she offers Mussorgsky's remarkable cycle, Songs and Dances of Death, in Shostakovich's arrangement, under the direction of Riccardo Chailly. These four riveting songs, with Death as the chief protagonist, are usually the province of bass and baritone voices. Philharmonic audiences may recall performances by Dmitri Hvorostovsky in March 1995 and November 2002. The handful of major female artists to have tackled it have included Galina Vishnevskaya, Elisabeth Söderström, and Brigitte Fassbaender. "I think that it is not important which voice sings, whether male or female," says Ms. Domashenko, who is making her Philharmonic debut. "The important issue is to express the mood, the tremendous number of shades and colors contained in that music."

Expressing shades and colors is what this singer, who made her Metropolitan Opera debut last fall, does best. But there's more to Ms. Domashenko than a voice recently described as "utterly ravishing": she started out studying conducting and isn't ruling it out as a future interest. But, she says, "It is necessary to devote a lot of time to conducting, which I lack at the moment. Of course, I would like very much to work with an orchestra, but I do not know if it is possible in the near future."

For now Philharmonic audiences can enjoy her interpretation of the Mussorgsky, which she describes as "unsettling, grim, and dark. Mussorgsky is one of my favorite composers. I started to work on that cycle at the conservatory, and for years I have kept returning to it, finding new details and colors. The composer himself," she adds, "leads the singer rather precisely and in a sophisticated way; Mussorgsky's melodic line is very close to human speech."

Ms. Domashenko finds much resonance for today's world in the cycle: "It's certainly topical," she says, pointing to the fourth song, "Polkovodets," with the battlefield, pointless sacrifices, soldiers who have died, rising under the common banner of Death. The image conjured up is clear and terrible and, unfortunately, well known up to this day."

Jeannie Williams writes about opera for various publications, and is the author of the biography Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life (1999, Northeastern University Press).

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