Autor: Scott Rose
Datum objave: 21.10.2011
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The Verdian

Željko Lučić ...as a Verdi baritone



OPERA NEWS
October 2010 — Vol. 75, No. 4

The Verdian

Željko Lučić has steadily built an international reputation as a Verdi baritone.

SCOTT ROSE profiles the artist, who this season returns to the Met as Count di Luna and Rigoletto.

Everything Željko Lučić says when he speaks about Giuseppe Verdi is imbued with love and respect for the great composer. His conversational voice — commanding, resonant, warmly colored — spontaneously conveys Verdian charisma. While Lučić's musical life may venture down byways with Puccini, Ponchielli and Bizet, all roads lead to Verdi.
I spoke with Lučić in New York City last December, while he was performing Michele in Il Tabarro at the Met and getting ready for an Ernani Don Carlo in Bilbao. "Don Carlo is a new role for me," he says. "So far, I've done twenty-two of twenty-six major Verdi baritone parts. I'm preparing Don Carlo exactly as I approach all roles. First, I spend a month with the score, not singing, getting familiar with the words and music. I will listen and watch CDs and DVDs. Alone, I start working a bit with the piano, and then I turn to a coach — Craig Rutenberg at the Met. I always welcome expert ears to set me right if anything I'm doing is threatening to lead away from beautiful singing."
Lučić was born on February 24, 1968, in Zrenjanin, Serbia. As a youth, he sang in the Josif Marinković Mixed Choir under Slobodan Bursać, a revered local figure. Lučić aspired to become a professional choral singer, but Maestro Bursać told him he could and should do much more with his voice. "For a while, I resisted," Lučić says, "because I was inherently shy, so I couldn't imagine singing solo in front of 2,000 people." Insisting, Bursać persuaded him to audition for Dorotea Spasić, who was then teaching in Belgrade, about fifty miles to the south.
After studying with Spasić for a time, Lučić sang "Finch'han dal vino" at a soirée in her apartment. The noted dramatic mezzo-soprano Biserka Cvejić was present at the occasion and, according to Lučić, asked Spasić, "Would you be angry if I took that guy from you? I'm teaching at the University. He could come right away, without even finishing this phase of his studies."
Somehow it was agreed that in one year, Lučić would go to Novi Sad, the Serbian Athens, to study with Cvejić. "Kammersängerin Cvejić," says Lučić, using the German honorific in reverential tones, "closed the old Met singing in La Gioconda and opened at the new Met in the same opera." (Cvejić sang "E un anatèma" with Régine Crespin at the Met's gala farewell and was Laura at the premiere of the Gioconda staging that bowed during the Met's first week at Lincoln Center.) Lučić's Met debut, as Barnaba, would come in 2006 — in the same Gioconda production that featured Cvejić's Laura. "Biserka sang on the very same stage — no farther than you are from me right now — with Corelli, Siepi and Bergonzi, Tebaldi and Arroyo. Do you know what we are talking about? The true Italian tradition.
"During lessons, I stood in front of Biserka like she was my idol, a monument of something golden, listening to her attentively, trying to remember and to practice everything she said, always striving to get better and better. I had greatest respect for her and her achievements at the Metropolitan, the Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, the world over. Biserka retained in her body and mind everything she learned onstage and transmitted the knowledge to her students. For six months, each day, we worked equalizing the vowels. She taught me pronunciation, the double consonants, an even legato, Italianità and so much more."
In his second year of studying with Cvejić, Lučić joined the National Theater in Novi Sad. His debut, as Silvio, came in April of 1993. "Okay," he says, recalling that nerve-wracking experience. "My first time onstage, ever. I thought I could kill myself easily just before going on. My heart was going to go out. I was dead, completely dead. I lost myself. But somehow, I managed to bring the performance to the end. I probably sang what I had to sing, but I cannot remember it!"
Lučić added Germont right after Silvio and then did some high baritone roles — Valentin in Faust,Belcore in L'Elisir and Enrico in Lucia — as well as Lionel in Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans and Onegin, though he did not do the Russian roles often. "I felt highly motivated to specialize in the Verdi repertoire. For six months under Biserka's tutelage, I vocalized by singing nothing but Posa's 'Per me giunto' and 'Io morrò,' perfecting every detail, painstakingly working the true Verdi style into my vocal memory. I was educated, absolutely, as a Verdi baritone. My influences were a combination of Biserka's teaching and recordings of great Italian singers, not only in my Fach but also Caruso, Lauri-Volpi, Pertile and so on. From the beginning, though, I was not copying anybody. I always sang with my voice, my color, yet listened with closed eyes, imagining what the greats were doing to produce those phenomenal sounds."
Lučić's Germont, on the DVD of Peter Mussbach's production of La Traviata as presented at Aix-en-Provence, demonstrates this baritone's consummate stylistic authenticity. Note and rest values, as well as dynamic indications, are meticulously observed; diction is impeccable. Because the recording was made live, there are some minor intonational imperfections that would perhaps have been smoothed out in a studio, yet a gain in spontaneous communication is palpable. In the extended Act II scene with Violetta, Lučić's vocal interplay with Mireille Delunsch unfolds with organic verisimilitude. Familiar though the music may be, the performers cast a spell. In the "Pure siccome un angelo"section, Lučić sings a true cantabile line that reaches its persuasive high point of lyric grace when Germont tells Violetta that her heart cannot possibly be insensitive to his entreaties. Later, when he is urging her to release her sorrows by crying, his artful phrasing of the repeated "Piangi, piangi"perfectly evokes a sob while remaining entirely musical.
Between 1998 and 2008, Lučić was a fixture of Oper Frankfurt's company ensemble, gradually adding key Verdi roles to his repertoire. German press from those years would refer to him as a "Publikumsliebling" — an audience darling. "I'm very thankful about what happened for me in Frankfurt," Lučić says. "I worked with truly excellent coaches, and we always had plenty of time to rehearse. Though I'm no longer fest there, I love returning to sing for that public. And my role debut as Falstaff probably will occur in Frankfurt in 2014."
Lučić lives with his wife, Gordana, and their two sons, Strahinja, sixteen, and Aleksandar, thirteen, in Frankfurt. "We'll continue living over there," he says, "because Germany is my sons' home. When I speak German, they correct my mistakes. I'm very proud of them. Both are water-polo players. Both play piano. And I have a dream of one day giving recitals with Strahinja playing piano during the first half, and Aleksandar the second."
Lučić is a smoker — a rarity among modern-day singers. "I am not drinking teas or using atomizers — I'm just a normal guy," Lučić says. "Not a chain smoker, no, but I do like a nice cigarette with my coffee after a meal." ("You must quit immediately," I say. He ignores me.) Lučić has a specific routine for the day of a performance: "I sleep as late as possible and don't eat much, because I can't sing with a full stomach. Early on, I'll test my instrument by singing just a little something from Trovatore or Ballo. If I hear everything's fine, that's it — basta! When you sing too much before a performance, you risk losing freshness, sonority and elasticity. So do not overreact with vocalizing, please!"
The subject turns to technique, and when asked if he believes in singing with an open throat, Lučić responds, "Ha! Yes, of course, open throat. We have millions of these expressions related to singing, and hardly anybody can understand us. Open your back, open a window, make a tuba, open yourself to the belly button. Open what? A window? Excuse me?" Lučić thinks of his vocal apparatus as a column of empty space, with no gravity up or down. "I start to sing in one position, maintaining that position throughout my range high to low. I imagine it rolling out, and there being a sort of cupola, a dome at the top of my head, and I think of producing a very concentrated, controlled sound that will then develop itself on the way towards the audience, so they ultimately have an impression of a big, rounded, beautiful sound."
Lučić's rendition of the "Mi si affaccia un pugnal?" scene in the Metropolitan Opera's 2007 production of Macbeth, led by James Levine, provided ample demonstration of why connoisseurs consider Lučić so valuable an exponent of this repertory. The costuming was dubious, looking as though Macbeth had been dressed off the clearance rack in the men's department at Barney's, but Lučić's vivid characterization successfully distracted the observer from it. His sound was consistently opulent. As Macbeth vacillated between determination to murder Duncan and guilt-provoked hallucinations, Lučić lived the emotions of the scene, inflecting the words with quicksilver changes of coloring.
"From the outset with Macbeth, I had in mind that he is profoundly disturbed — you could even say crazy," muses Lučić. "If you look through the part, you see that about eighty percent of it is piano, with Macbeth talking to himself, having dreams and nightmares, often fearful in his exchanges with the witches. The towering moments come in contrast to all that piano singing. But I don't really believe a singer can learn dramatic instinct or vocal color. You can nurture what you've been given, but those two things, dramatic instinct and proper coloring in your voice, you either have or you don't."
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