On the eve of her Decca solo album debut, the gifted Russian soprano talks Kiri, competitions and coloratura.
Widely praised for her purity of tone and flawless technique, Julia Lezhneva began to attract international attention at the age of 18, when she performed with Juan Diego Flórez at the opening of the 2008 Rossini Opera Festival. She made her recording debut soon after in Bach’s B Minor Mass with Marc Minkowski. Her performance as Caio in Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa, with Il Giardino Armonico, won critical acclaim as did her debut at the 2010 Salzburg Festival. Her first solo album of Rossini arias topped the French classical charts and won a Diapaison d’Or Award.
Lezhneva’s career skyrocketed, however, following her brief appearance at the 2010 Classical BRIT Awards in London. She was there at the invitation of her “mentor”, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. I ask her how that came about? “I was a student in Cardiff for two years”, she says. “She was one of the teachers that came for about a week every year to teach ─ that’s how we met. The second year she came I was in the masterclass and she especially liked what I was doing (I think). She said that she would like to invite me to perform at the Classical Brits where she was receiving an award, so I just agreed! We had never been close friends but it was her particular wish.”
Lezhneva has a natural modesty and is full of praise for colleagues. Her refreshing straightforwardness is a tribute to some fine teachers with whom she has studied over the years. Does she feel she has been lucky? And is there anyone that’s been particularly special? “It’s hard to pick because from the age of eleven when I started singing they have all been remarkable”, she says with typical generosity. “I think it’s a matter of luck and how you behave towards people. If you are open and you show that you love what people are doing you get a response. I think that’s how it was in my case.” When pressed she goes further: “Dennis O’Neill was very special to me. I was at such a tender age, about 17 or 18, and this was my first time on the road. He was the one who was most like a family member to me; not just a teacher, but a mentor.”
She has also been phenomenally successful singing in competitions, a habit she picked up at the tender age of 12. She won the Grand Prix at both of Elena Obraztsova's international competitions – the first Competition for Young Vocalists in 2006 and the sixth Competition for Young Opera Singers in 2007. How did she know her voice was ready for that kind of test at such a young age? “I entered college when I was 14 as a pianist and vocalist. My teacher told me there was a competition that Obraztsova had created for young children, and that it’s a nice competition, and that it would be nice for me to try out. I was completely sure about it as I didn’t feel any pressure, and it was perfect for my age. I felt really confident.”
I ask her what she sang in the competition. “Vivaldi’s Agitata da due venti [from Griselda] in the first round. I don’t remember precisely which round I sang what, but I sang Cenerentola’s aria – the rondo.” Those choices, it turns out, were fortuitous. “What Obraztsova told me – because afterwards we really became friends – she told me that when I appeared and started singing the Vivaldi with all that coloratura she couldn’t believe it! She was completely shocked because no children sing it.” And how about the Cenerentola aria? “I was a great fan of Cecilia Bartoli at that time and I had her Rossini solo recital album", she replies. "I was listening to it a lot and I found the score in Moscow. Obraztsova told me I have a Rossinian voice and that I had to sing Rossini! This inspired me to learn Rossini.”
That good advice turned out to be a career maker for her. The invitation to perform in the composer’s home town followed swiftly. Did she feel a lot of pressure? “Oh yes, absolutely! My god, yes! [Laughs] I was a student in Moscow in college, not even at university. I performed at the Obraztsova competition where Bruno Praticò was on the jury. I was singing Rossini and he liked it so much that he called one of the managers [of Pesaro] who contacted me. He was, I must say, quite pushy; offering me a lot of operas, like Ermione – really difficult dramatic parts. I was very careful to study the scores so as to respond properly. At that age I realised I couldn’t perform those things. I was about 17! Finally he came to me with the offer to perform with Flórez for the opening gala.”
Was performing with Flórez at that age especially nerve wracking? “Of course I was really nervous”, she replies. “There were two duets from different Rossini operas and I had to perform a little aria. This I found suitable and I found that this program, after what I had originally been offered, was really much easier! [Laughs]. It was so dramatic, but OK, I agreed to it. The second thing I agreed to was the closing concert of the festival. At that time it was great to meet Alberto Zedda too – I was a student at the academy and took master-classes.”
Her current repertoire encompasses equally both bel canto and Baroque. Are there people she particularly admires singing that repertoire? “I admire many people”, she says. “I’m really lucky; I meet the best signers, I have the best colleagues. There is so much to learn from them. I’m very lucky to be able to meet these people who are not only professional but nice – people like Karina Gauvin, Phillipe Jaroussky and Max Emanuel Cencic. They are extremely nice people with long careers. Cencic was a baby when he began, a wunderkind; to be friends with him is something you can be very proud of. He is not an easy person but once you get closer to him he is just amazing. You can feel what kind of experience he has had – as a human being.”
Still only 23-years-old, her Decca debut solo album, on which she is again partnered by Il Giardino Armonico, is released today (March 8). Entitled “Alleluia”, it’s a disc of virtuosic motets by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart, each one concluding with an “Alleluia”. While the Vivaldi, the Handel and especially the Mozart are well-known, Porpora’s motet is a world premiere recording. How did she come across it? “I was searching for a piece because I had three motets”, she confides, “but I needed a nice bridge. I realised that in the middle of the century Galuppi and Porpora are the leading composers in this genre. I realised that Porpora wrote about 70 motets and that a few of them survived. I found a list and I sent it to Decca and they looked in the British Library and sent me one. I opened the score and read the music and I fell in love with it. It was a moment of absolute love. I just said ‘I need to record this’. When I tried it out it fitted my voice so beautifully – like Chopin fits a pianist’s hands. Its joy is phenomenal – it’s a tonic to sing this music.”
Julia Lezhneva’s album "Alleluia" is released on March 8 and will be reviewed in the May edition of Limelight.
And in a Limelight reader special, here is an exclusive opportunity to hear Julia's ethereal voice singing a haunting Russian folk song.