Interview with Svetlana Aksenova from 2016

foto: Toni Suter/Tanja Dorendorf

Eight years ago she made her DNO debut as the girl Fevroniya in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesh. Dmitri Chernyakov’s production won the 2013 International Opera Award for best new production of the year, and Aksenova’s performance was described as sensational. The critics praised her velvety tones and her endurance: in the more than four-hour opera she was on stage almost continuously. Eight years ago, she was still the ‘rising star’, but by now you can safely leave out the ‘rising’ in front of her name.

Marc Albrecht (conductor), Dmitri Tcherniakov (director/sets), Dmitri Tcherniakov/Elena Zaytseva (costumes), Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting design)
Svetlana Aksenova (Fevronja) Foto: Monika Rittershaus

How does she look back on her Amsterdam debut and on the production itself? And what does she think of Fevronija? To me, she (but also Emma and Liza) embodies the Russian soul: melancholic and often depressed and grieving.

“She’s pretty other-worldly, yes, but it’s a fairy tale. Whether I can find something of the proverbial ‘Russian soul’ in her? I don’t really know. The melancholy, the wistfulness, you can find it in her music. But she is also a kind of bright spot in all the sadness.”

“I found the role very challenging. Not only in terms of the notes themselves: the production itself was demanding. It was very heavy, especially physically. I was pregnant with my son at the time, so I had to push myself to the limit. Would I ever want to sing it in the old-fashioned setting? I never really thought about it. I found the Amsterdam production extremely fascinating.”

And Emma?
“Emma is so difficult! To be honest, I’m a bit scared of Emma: she’s so expressive!  Her performance is very short, no more than fifteen minutes, but those fifteen minutes are so terribly intense!”

What do you think: does Andrej (Chovanski) love Emma? After all, he is always looking for her? And: could Emma possibly feel something for him too?
“Are you kidding? Andrej has just killed her parents and then he is raping her! She despises him! Andrej is indeed fascinated by her, but he is obsessive. You can’t call that love, can you? Emma is different too, she is not Russian, she is German. And Lutheran.“

And Marfa? How do you see her? Does she really want to protect Emma? After all, she was Andrej’s mistress and she is still in love with him?
“Interesting question. I haven’t even thought about that. Rehearsals haven’t started yet……”

But what do you yourself think? “Marfa is radical. She’s in the cult…”

But is she in it because she believes in it? Aksenova is silent for a moment.
“Interesting question,” she repeats. “I think I’ll wait and see what the director does with it,
what he will make of it”.

“But: write it down, please: I love Mussorgsky and I have high expectations of the production. It also gives me the opportunity to spend some time together with my husband (the tenor Maksim Aksenov who sings the role of Andrej). We met nine years ago and have been married for five, but it is not often that we can really be together for a while. And: I’m looking forward to seeing the chorus of DNO again. They really are so, so, so fantastic!”

Chovanshchina: trailer – De Nationale Opera | Dutch National Opera:

“And I am really looking forward to Pique Dame. To be able to sing that very role with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and under Maris Jansons… It’s more than a privilege!”

You have sung the role of Liza (Pique Dame) before. Can you compare her to Tatyana
“Liza I find a bit strange. She has an attractive and rich fiancé and yet she is attracted to the unworldly man. What should she do with it?”

 On my question of whether she sees her as a Gothic girl, she has to think for a moment. “Gothic? What do you mean by that? No, not that, but she is definitely strange. I don’t think she’s that pure and innocent. Really not. How else could she sing: in you alone I can confide what is etched into my soul, what I really feel……”

“Liza is so different from Tatyana! Tatyana is strong! She may live in her own fantasy world, but she is courageous! I admire her very much, also because I don’t know if I could have done it. Especially back then, in those days”.

Aksenova as Liza in 2011:

Svetlana Aksenova was born in St. Petersburg. She studied at the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory, after which she continued her studies in Italy with Renata Scotto.
“I was an apprentice of hers for three years. I was one of her ‘court pupils’ in her opera studio.
She taught me a lot. The most important thing was how to deal with the score. How you should move. She also always said: perfection does not exist”.

“As a child I always used to dream two different dreams: something for now (ice cream!) and something for later. For when I am big and famous. It was unrealistic maybe, but I was dreaming it anyway. I love coloratura sopranos, so I wished for roles like Lucia. Or Violetta. Sometimes I still envy my colleagues: I would really like to sing these roles, but I realise that they are not really for me.”
“I started out as a mezzo but now I’m a real spinto. Not really dramatic, but certainly not really lyrical and certainly not a coloratura.”

Aksenova as Butterfly in Oslo:

“The only really lyrical role I sang was Micaela in Carmen. It was a production by Calixto Bieito. I was a bit afraid of it, but it turned out to be a hundred per cent better than I expected. The collaboration was good. Then we did Britten’s War Requiem in Basel together and I thought that was fantastic. But then came Otello which was a real disaster. I could not understand the connection between the first, second and third acts. They were like three different characters… “

Aksenova as Desdemona:

“My dream roles? Something comical, please! I would like to be funny on stage! I have a talent for comedy, really! But it is so difficult in my type of voice. The only one I can hope for is Alice in Falstaff and that will come.

What else? I would really like to sing Salome in Herodiade by Massenet, the aria alone is so incredibly beautiful! Also Adriana Lecouvreur and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk are high on my wish list. But my absolute dream role is Maria in Mazeppa by Tchaikovsky.”

“Nowadays I prepare my roles with the great Bulgarian mezzo Alexandrina Milcheva (a.o. Marfa in the Sony recording under Tchakarov). She is now 80 years old.”

Trailer of Pique Dame in Amsterdam:

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