Or sheer sensationalism, maybe only opera can compare with childhood. The Ukrainian soprano Maria Guleghina, the reigning Tosca of the last decade, tells a story from her sixth year that would have raised a shudder in Puccini himself, that master torturer of heroines.
In her native Odessa, Ms. Guleghina (properly pronounced goo-LEG-ee-nuh, though the accent is usually shifted to the third syllable, even by her) caught sight of a street tough nearly three times her age and who knows how many times her size mauling a sparrow. She flew at him in outrage, quitting the field only after sustaining a broken arm with the bone sticking clear through the skin. Back in her room, she quietly bound the wound with a handkerchief and drifted to sleep. Not until the next morning, when her mother discovered the blood-soaked sheets, did she receive medical attention.
“My father didn’t want me to fight,” Ms. Guleghina remembers. “But he always said: `If you’re going to fight, you have to win or be brave enough to lose. You can’t come home and cry.’ “The spitfire who took these lessons so much to heart now specializes in heroines equally intrepid of spirit, some of them markedly sinister. In a concert performance of Verdi’s “Macbeth” by the Collegiate Chorale on Feb. 12 at Carnegie Hall, she portrays the Lady. In March, she returns to the Metropolitan Opera as the warlike Abigaille in the same composer’s “Nabucco.” Her manager, Bruce Zemsky of Columbia Artists Management, actually likens his client to a “dinosaur,” an epithet he hastens to explain: “Singing the two most terrifying Verdi roles in the same season will hopefully be a confirmation to all that she is one of the few living remnants of a dying species.”
Meanwhile, this afternoon, Ms. Guleghina makes her American solo recital debut in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series at Alice Tully Hall, in a program imaginatively juxtaposing Russian romances of Mikhail Glinka with songs of the Italian bel canto composers Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini: a reminder (if such were needed) that a diva’s staying power rests not just on temperament but also on solid technique, a point most certainly not lost on Ms. Guleghina herself, who is an outspoken critic of flash-in-the- pan careers fueled by premature recording contracts.
“A real voice, a voice that will last for a career of 30 or even 40 years, is not something that is ready in a day,” the 41- year-old soprano says. “To build a great violin, you must first choose the wood. Then you must dry the wood. You must season it. All this before you cut it and make the instrument. Then you must lacquer it. You have to wait.”
The corresponding phases for building a voice? “Scales, exercises, for years,” Ms. Guleghina says. “No songs. No arias. When people say a 12-year-old is a singer, it’s like saying that someone who takes pictures from an airplane is a pilot. It’s impossible. A singer who lasts a long time has to have good schooling.” Hers has already stood her in good stead for 14 consecutive seasons at La Scala in Milan, where the turnover of leading ladies is frightening. In the 1986-87 season, still in her early 20’s, she made her international debut there as Amelia in Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera,” with an all-star cast including Luciano Pavarotti, Leo Nucci and Fiorenza Cossoto. To save rubles, the official Soviet booking agency, Goskoncert, released her barely in time for the premiere, and it was not until later that it registered with her that she had broken into the big time. “Back home in Minsk,” she says, “I took out the poster from Italy and was in shock.”
By now Ms. Guleghina had proved blazing spirit, nerves of steel, an iron-clad technique. Many a lucrative career has been built on less, but something was still missing. Working with the director Piero Faggioni on Tosca, she discovered what it was. Bringing a character alive, he explained to her, meant more than striking the right poses and hitting her marks. “Where were you five minutes before your entrance?” he asked her, requiring her to imagine not just moments in an action but a whole way of being.
Here is another lesson Ms. Guleghina has taken to heart. Last year in Seville, her debut in the all-encompassing role of Norma, in Bellini’s bel canto tragedy of that name, elicited notices from the Spanish press that might have been dictated by the diva’s mother. “Guleghina’s powerful assumption of the tormented Druid priestess was a lesson in dramatic conviction and vocal and musical mastery,” said the critic of El Mundo. A counterpart at El País wrote: “She has music and drama in her veins, which she transmits with great conviction.” And these were the reviewers who kept their heads.
“I didn’t expect the reaction,” the soprano says. “Before we opened, all the papers were running articles about Callas, about Sutherland. Those were the great Normas, they said. So I thought: `What do I do? Go to the cemetery?’ I had always wanted to sing Norma, but I’m demanding, and I didn’t feel ready. It’s not just about voice. It’s not just emotion. It’s everything wrapped up together.” Many have shared the sentiment. Lover, mother, a woman scorned, an avenger, who in the end chooses a noble death for love: Norma combines the great female archetypes in one.
Like any diva worthy of the name, Ms. Guleghina has her quirks. Probably the most striking are her reminders, at least once an evening, that if she chose, she could triumph on decibels alone. In the beginning of her international career, before she gave up the Russian repertory to concentrate exclusively on the Italians, she used to blow audiences at Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” to kingdom come with a few well-placed gale-force blasts. As Cilea’s Maddalena de Coigny, in “Andrea Chénier,” and in the title roles of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Verdi’s “Aida,” she has hurled strategic thunderbolts as well.
If the excitement of such moments eclipses her subtler effects, that is not her intention. One summer night at the arena in Verona, Italy, she was devastated when rain washed out the last act of “Nabucco,” and with it, one last scene of Abigaille’s. “The audience has seen her evil side and heard fireworks,” she said backstage. “But they have not seen her fear, her remorse, her death.” Ms. Guleghina needed to complete the arc.
Lady Macbeth, too, takes the artist toward a haunted destination. “The character is like a serpent,” Ms. Guleghina says. “She watches, then she strikes. She watches, then she strikes.” She carries this idea through to the hushed, eerie sleepwalking scene, cultivating a dark, sibilant sound. “Piano,” she says, “is a feeling as well as a dynamic.”
Since her Scala debut, Ms. Guleghina has come a long way. Back in Minsk, as members of the opera house, she and her husband, Mark Guleghin, a baritone, would put a little extra food on their table by digging potatoes in the country on their days off. Now they make their home in Luxembourg and travel the world with their year-old Ruslan, the baby they long wished for.
“But what has changed?” Ms. Guleghina muses. “Tell me. Those were our happiest times. We went to Minsk to sing. Today, I study every day like a student. I’m just a normal person. Every day when you go on stage, it’s a test. Do you know what you need to know? Can you do it? If I’ve been singing in the best houses around the world for 14 years, I must be doing it right.”