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Superstar hits all the right notes

Siberian baritone brings to stage a sensual swagger

Dmitri Hvorostovsky credits his enduring success to the rigorous training he received in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he lived until he was 24. Dmitri Hvorostovsky credits his enduring success to the rigorous training he received in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, where he lived until he was 24. (Pavel Antonov)
By Harlow Robinson
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2011

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NEW YORK — It’s a long way from the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk to Fifth Avenue.

But over the course of his charmed career, superstar Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky has bridged that yawning distance with the same swaggering ease that he brings to the stages of the world’s great opera houses. Relaxing in his temporary home, a penthouse suite overlooking the Guggenheim Museum and the frozen Central Park reservoir, he exudes an aura of exotic, sensual serenity. With his smooth Tartar features, and striking silver hair pulled back in a casual ponytail, Hvorostovsky seems no less at peace than the multi-armed Hindu deity resting on a nearby pedestal. Siberia was the singer’s birthplace, but the world is his oyster.

Hvorostovsky was in New York to sing the title role in Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,’’ at the Metropolitan Opera. As usual, he received tumultuous ovations and rapturous reviews. New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that Hvorostovsky sang the demanding role of the 14th-century plebian pirate turned political leader of Genoa with “dusky, melting beauty.’’

Following these five performances, Hvorostovsky embarked on a recital tour of five American cities that will conclude with his appearance at Symphony Hall on Feb. 27 as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston.

In person, Hvorostovsky is tall and fit, but less imposing than he can appear onstage. He is handsome and charismatic, sufficiently carnal to deserve his reputation as “The Elvis of Opera.’’ He speaks deliberately and softly — in more than serviceable English and in his native Russian — in a smooth, resonant voice of penetrating clarity. He often laughs, or rather chuckles, as he chats with a visitor over a cup of tea.

Hvorostovsky was eager to share the experience of singing the intricate role of Boccanegra under the baton of James Levine, music director of the Metropolitan Opera and of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Not only does the plot require Simon to age by 25 years, from 25 to 50, between the prologue and Act I; he must also sing through the last two acts while gradually succumbing to the effects of poison given to him by a political rival.

“We have a lot of jokes about this poisoning on stage,’’ he confided. “It was even hard at moments not to crack up. I was starting to get heartburn, but probably from all the coffee I was drinking during the show to keep myself energetic. As for the aging, I didn’t try to do anything special. You don’t have to age, you just have to play yourself — and, you know, I’m going to be 50 years old myself very soon.’’

“Everything is there in Verdi’s music,’’ he continued. “You just have to sing it, and the voice does the rest by itself. I’m used to trusting my voice, it’s such a great instrument — knock on wood.’’ Hvorostovsky tapped lightly on his head, with a superstitious grin.

For his enduring success in a notoriously fickle business Hvorostovsky gives due credit to the rigorous training he received in Krasnoyarsk, where he lived until 24. On the Yenisei River, several days journey eastward by train from Moscow, Krasnoyarsk was remote from the world’s operatic centers, but like most Soviet cities possessed a lively state-funded musical life. Both of Hvorostovsky’s parents were passionate amateur musicians who encouraged his obvious talent from a very early age.

“My mother gained her first knowledge of the world of opera as a girl from a well-known tenor who had once sung at the Bolshoi and had been exiled to Krasnoyarsk,’’ Hvorostovsky said quietly. “Without him she wouldn’t have learned all that she passed on to me.’’ One of Hvorostovsky’s own ancestors walked to Siberia in chains after taking the blame for a crime committed by his son. “In my family background there is some German blood, from the Germans who settled in the Volga region under Tsarina Catherine the Great,’’ he explained. “Also Ukrainian, Polish, and Tartar — you name it. So I’m a good insalata mista (mixed salad)!’’

From 7 to 14, Hvorostovsky studied piano and voice in a special musical school. Later he attended a school for choral conductors, and even mastered the accordion (bayan), a fixture of Russian popular music. But as a teenager he also made a daring foray into rock music.

“At the time it was forbidden to listen to rock music in the USSR,’’ said Hvorostovsky in a conspiratorial tone. “But we would somehow get unlicensed recordings from the Radio Free Europe or Voice of America, or from friends of friends of friends who had been abroad and brought them back. The Beatles and Deep Purple — that sort of thing. And my friends and I would just try to imitate, singing by ear, not understanding what the heck we were singing about, in English. My parents were in absolute shock and terror about this, of course. But it gave me a huge amount of confidence — and all the girls were mine.’’

Hvorostovsky eventually focused on classical music. His hard work and dedication paid off when he began to win voice competitions in the late 1980s, first in the Soviet Union during the country’s final years, and later in Europe, culminating with the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, in 1989. With a sly smile, he described how he was accompanied by two “KGB ladies’’ when he competed in the Toulouse Singing Competition in France, in 1988.

“We had a great time together. Nothing could bother me then. But when I won, and I was standing on stage receiving a huge ovation from the audience, holding the envelope stuffed with the prize money in French francs, the KGB boss lady stood there offstage shouting: ‘HVOR-O-STOV-SKY, give me the money now!’ That was her mission — to get the money so that the Soviet government could take its share. But there was still plenty left over to buy lots of presents to bring back to my friends in Krasnoyarsk.’’

Today, Hvorostovsky lives in London with his second wife, with whom he has two children. He also has twins from his first marriage to a former ballet dancer from Krasnoyarsk. In Moscow he has an apartment given to him by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

Hvorostovsky travels frequently to Russia, where he has performed for huge audiences in large concert halls, singing popular songs like “Dark Is the Night’’ (“Tyomnaya noch’’) that — judging by YouTube — don’t fail to reduce the ladies (and even some of the men) to tears.

For the Boston recital, Hvorostovsky has chosen a somewhat unusual program. Only two of the four composers are Russian: Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky (Six Romances Op.73) and Sergei Taneyev (five songs from various opus numbers). He will also sing four songs in French by Gabriel Faure, and (for the first time) three songs by Franz Liszt, two of them from the “Three Sonnets of Petrarch.’’

Another interviewer is waiting. One final question. “Did you ever imagine back in Krasnoyarsk that your life would be like this?’’

“You know at a certain age I began to think of myself as me and Caruso, me and Pavarotti,’’ he responded after a short pause. “Since I began to sing, I had this in my mind, that one day I would hit the biggest and best stages in the world. Soon I will have fulfilled that dream — and I keep on fulfilling it. I’m really privileged, I know. Without my talent and all the great people who helped me I wouldn’t have done it. But obviously I did have enough talent.’’

Obviously.

Harlow Robinson can be reached at harlo@mindspring.com.