Review: Audience Is 'Gaga' for Soprano Asmik Grigorian in Recital at Vienna State Opera

"A Diva Is Born" Concert featured Pianist Hyung-ki Joo as Singer's Partner in Crime, Doing Puccini to Lady Gaga

By: Jun. 14, 2024
Review: Audience Is 'Gaga' for Soprano Asmik Grigorian in Recital at Vienna State Opera
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There was a buzz in the lobby of the opera house and scalpers galore outside the doors to the ticket office for soprano Asmik Grigorian’s recent sell-out concert at the Vienna State Opera.

Clearly, it was a night that the audience was waiting for--this first recital at the house by soprano Grigorian. The air of excitement was low-key but distinct. This was Vienna, after all, a traditional town, and we were in the city’s great opera house.  

And whether she was singing one of her fondly remembered songs of home or a Lady Gaga song from “A Star is Born,” an oddity by Poulenc or Bernstein/Sondheim’s “I Feel Pretty”—there’s no getting around the fact that this was an unusual concert that followed no rules and sometimes felt like it was concocted on the spot.

While Grigorian still isn’t necessarily all that well-known by the masses on our side of the Atlantic, except for her recent Met debut as Cio-Cio-San in MADAMA BUTTERFLY (broadcast in HD and on radio), she’s a hot commodity in Europe. That was easy to tell from the audience reaction to the first notes that came out of her mouth. She can do what she wants because that’s where she is in her career: a star.

The evening started with a short, charming piece written and played by her accompanist, the British-Korean Hyung-ki Joo. He’s a fine, indeed serious, musician, who contributed some lovely pieces to the evening, but he’s also part of a comedy act (Igudesman & Joo). And, well, you’re either a fan of his style of comedy (shtick, more accurately) or not.

He started off the program with his ode to St. Exupery’s “The Little Prince.” Then the lights went down and there was silence.

Suddenly, out of the darkness, Grigorian’s disembodied voice came floating in from somewhere in the glorious opera house. But where? The audience looked around, trying to pinpoint where the gloriously vocalizing of a traditional Armenian folk song, “Krunk,” is coming from. The second tier? The top of the house?

Finally, we spy her in the center box of the parterre, where she descends into the house and heads for the stage, continuing to vocalize, with the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 as she walks down the aisle.

The 43-year-old soprano, born in Lithuania but of Armenian descent, continues her exquisite vocalizing, eg, the Villa-Lobos, Hahn’s "Souvenir de Constantinople" or Messiaen’s "Vocalise-Etude," among others. It was undeniably beautiful to listen to, but the joke—and it was one—wore thin.

She sang the Bachianas aria, modulating her voice beautifully as she walked in the orchestra level and then started over again once she reached the stage, sounding gorgeous as we heard her voice bloom. She did a stunning job with the Messaien etude (not one of his 12-tone pieces) as well and still managed to get the emotion across though there are no words. She was completely into the music, as she was in vocalizing Joo’s lullaby.

But there was no getting around the fact that the audience was there to hear her sing—they knew by experience or reputation that it would be special—but she in turn chose to give a taste of who she is, where this diva was born and where she came from. After all, she certainly wasn’t waiting for this concert, entitled “A Diva is Born,” to be dubbed “diva”. That was already taken for granted.

After a gag from Joo about her vocalizing, she switched to nonsense words. “Words?” she says questioning. “Opera singers—we don’t care about words.” She goes on to Poulenc’s “Honoloulou” which uses sung lines of nonsense supposedly written by a made-up poet, which Joo starts to sing, as she stands in front of him, mouthing, “I’m a drama piece,” a jokey song about opera, sung in English.

Then she had a costume change, as she was brought a kimono to sing Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro,” from GIANNI SCHICCHI, one of the few arias on the program, along with BUTTERFLY’s “Un bel di” (at this point, one of her calling cards) and Bizet’s “Habanera” from CARMEN (“move those hips,” Joo tells her), which finished the even vaguely operatic part of the program.

She followed with a charming “I Feel Pretty” from WEST SIDE STORY, before the director of the company, Bogdan Roscic, brought her a leather miniskirt and she becomes a pop diva—with a hand-held mic for Sting’s smooth “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” complete with the vamp from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” interpolated.

Grigorian accompanied herself on Lady Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way” and “Shallow” (from “A Star is Born”), in which she seemed happy to be shifting gears. She finished with an old comedy work, “A Word on My Ear,” from the British team of Flanders & Swann, before Joo’s “You Just Have to Laugh.”

“I have the luxury of being myself in what I do,” she sings, directing it toward Roscic. It is a luxury and she showed us in the evening’s outing that she’s entitled to have it, from the pleasure she’s given us in her operatic work. Even if we may not always agree with the choice of material she’s given us in the recital’s program, that’s Grigorian’s prerogative in being herself. When push comes to shove, I guess that’s what we want from her: The real thing.

Caption: Asmik Grigorian and Hyung-ki Joo.

Credit: (c) Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Poehn


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