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The idea that a voice has an identity independent of its owner is widely accepted by singers, who frequently talk about their “instrument” as if it was a recalcitrant appendage.
But from a listener’s point of view, the sound a singer makes is intimately bound up with, if not indivisible from, the personality producing it. So it was a strange experience this week, in a recital by 24-year-old Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva, to hear a voice of notable personality, apparently disconnected from the person embodying it – like an app that has been downloaded on to a blank screen.
Advance publicity, carefully orchestrated by her record company, suggested a phenomenon. If this programme of Handel arias and sacred songs is any judge, Lezhneva certainly has a phenomenal gift, a voice that ranges evenly over the most intricate coloratura, with never a blemish or sign of aspirating. It is a serene, sleek voice, beatific in timbre, with a bell-like resonance that carries well. Technically it is flawless. Like a well-groomed young acrobat, Lezhneva is at an age when fear plays no part in a performer’s armoury.
But who or where is the person behind the voice? It was almost as if we were listening to Olympia, the singing doll in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. There may be nothing mechanical in Lezhneva’s vocal deportment but she sang everything – the torment of Agrippina’s Act Two finale, the sobs of “Ad te clamamus” (from the psalm-like Salve regina), the vengeful spite of Florinda’s “Pugneran con noi le stelle” (Rodrigo) – in an identically emotionless way, neither colouring the words nor showing any attempt to connect with her audience.
To her credit, she did not try to underline the soulfulness of a motet from Handel’s early Roman residency: the soul was already in the music. And what she lacked in personality was made up for by Il Giardino Armonico. This compact Italian period ensemble, conducted by Giovanni Antonini, accompanied the arias seamlessly and invested concerti grossi by Handel and Geminiani with a sure grasp of style and expression. Maybe what Lezhneva needs is a longer spell in the finishing school of life.