Armenian Soprano Haroutounian Makes Sumptuous Recital Debut in SF

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By Joshua Kosman

SAN FRANCISCO (San Francisco Chronicle) — Lianna Haroutounian’s back-to-back Puccini performances with the San Francisco Opera in recent years — a formidable 2014 company debut as Tosca followed two years later by a delectable appearance in the title role of “Madama Butterfly” — served notice that the Armenian soprano was an important new presence on the operatic scene. Her contributions to both of those productions were marked by a memorable combination of vocal splendor and theatrical finesse.

On Saturday, November 25, Haroutounian returned to San Francisco to make her US recital debut in Herbst Theatre and demonstrated that those successes were no kind of fluke.

In a sumptuous and expressive program, superbly accompanied by pianist Tamara Sanikidze, Haroutounian brought her artistic powers to bear on a range of repertoire, including Italian and French opera, Russian songs and Armenian folk melodies as crafted by the musical priest Komitas. Each segment of the recital seemed to open up a window on some new corner of her artistry.

It’s not as though the triumph of this program could have come as much of a surprise. But the operatic stage and the vocal recital, in spite of their considerable overlap, draw on somewhat different combinations of skills, and success in one arena doesn’t necessarily translate to the other.

Yet Haroutounian wasted little time in demonstrating that the same qualities that had made her appearances at the War Memorial Opera House so memorable — rich-hued vocal tone, expansive breath control, a knack for shaping a melodic phrase into something at once grand and intimate — were in play here as well.

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The event was not sponsored by any of the standard local presenters, but rather by what seems to have been an ad hoc committee assembled from among the luminaries of the Bay Area’s Armenian community. It was certainly a welcome addition to the musical calendar.

Haroutounian’s particular gift, at least on this occasion, was to smuggle the big gestures of the opera house into the confines of the recital hall. In the three lyrical showpieces by Bellini that anchored her opening set, she spun out the composer’s extravagantly broad-beamed melodies without a hitch. The results, especially the apostrophe to the moon, Vaga luna, were simultaneously buoyant and probing, clothed in an air of serene grace.

There was a similar expressive urgency in her final set of arias by Cilea, Mascagni and Gounod, only now ramped up to a new level of theatrical intensity and rhythmic vigor. Io son l’umile ancella from Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” boasted a welcome luster, matched by the glittering brilliance of the Jewel Aria from Gounod’s “Faust.”

The Armenian melodies, collected and reframed by Komitas in spare but eloquent arrangements, brought out Haroutounian’s most plain-spoken and vivid singing. And in a series of songs by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff — dedicated, in a moving gesture, to the memory of the late baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who died on November 22 — Haroutounian found a splendid balance between subtlety and ardor.

Sanikidze made a gallant partner throughout, and also took a moment in the spotlight for a ravishing account of a Chopin Nocturne. The recital ended with a string of four encores, including Ebben … ne andrò lontana from Catalani’s “La Wally,” and, of all things, George Gershwin’s Summertime, delivered with wit and warmth.

Topics: opera