Tributes from every corner of the opera world have been flowing for the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The singer died on Wednesday in London – he was 55. Mark Hildrew of Askonas Holt, the agency that represented Hvorostovsky, confirmed that the cause was brain cancer. The singer was diagnosed with a brain tumour in June 2015 and had withdrawn from most of his engagements in the last few years. His occasional recital and gala appearances were always a cause for celebration, cherished by fellow singers, audience members and administration alike.
The news was confirmed on his Facebook page:
“On behalf of the Hvorostovsky family, it is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky – beloved operatic baritone, husband, father, son and friend – at age 55. After a two-and-a-half-year battle with brain cancer, he died peacefully this morning, November 22, surrounded by family near his home in London, UK. May the warmth of his voice and his spirit always be with us”.
Hvorostovsky shot to fame in 1989 when he beat Bryn Terfel to win the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, in what fans dubbed ‘the battle of the baritones’. With his then-silver mane, good looks and commanding stage presence, he ushered in a new era of HD-ready opera stars. Yet those who were only glancingly familiar with the singer knew Hvorostovsky was a consummate artist in every sense of the word. In an age where many fans deplored the lack of true Verdi singers, and that even rarer breed, Verdi baritones, Hvorostovsky was a beacon in the night. His silken legato, awe-inspiring breath control, and column of sound meant a colourful career playing jealous lovers, moody aristocrats, sullen court jesters, and thoroughly decent men. He had what Italian fans demand of their Verdi singers in spades – nobiltà and grandezza.
Yet for all his Italianate splendour, Hvorostovsky also belonged to that venerated Russian school of low voices. He brought his autumnal vocal palette and linguistic authority to that touchstone of Russian opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a role that fit him both vocally and dramatically like a glove. Some of his most treasured appearances at the Metropolitan Opera were as Onegin, and his performances with the American superstar Renée Fleming as Tatiana brought out the best in each other. Though the pair were in their 40s, audiences saw only the crackling chemistry and ardent feelings of a couple at the beginning of adulthood.
During his long and distinguished career, the particular love he brought to the stage and inspired in the audience in his final years was unmistakable. Hvorostovsky had been scheduled to appear as the dastardly Count di Luna at the Met in 2015, a few months after announcing his diagnosis. He appeared for half of the scheduled dates during a break in his cancer treatment, and the audience gave him a standing ovation as he set foot onstage on opening night. During the final curtain call, members of the orchestra showered him with white roses, while his close colleague and friend Anna Netrebko (appearing as Leonora) wiped away tears.
His surprise appearance at the Met’s 50th anniversary gala in May this year marked his farewell to a house that he had served well and that served him well in return. Although visibly unsteady on his feet, he strode across the stage with a wide smile before giving a vehement account of Rigoletto’s Cortiginia, vil razza dannata. The audience roared their acclaim and love for an artist that even then many thought would recover. The Met is dedicating its upcoming performances of Verdi’s Requiem to the singer.
Hvorostovsky is survived by his parents, his wife Florence Illi, and his four children. His first full recording of Rigoletto was released two weeks ago, considered by many to be the peak of the Verdi baritone repertoire and now a parting gift for his fans. Vale Dima.