The First Famous Opera Prima Donna of Lithuania - Violeta Urmana: Soprano and Mezzo-soprano Roles on Major Opera Stages

By Rima Jūraitė 2020 09 27 APAC info
Violeta Urmana is a prima of large (largest - in true sense of the word) scenes, arenas and grand productions. Violeta Urmana as Leonora in Verdi's “La Forza del Destino” (directed by Dalia Ibelhauptaitė, Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre). Photo by Martynas Aleksa
Violeta Urmana is a prima of large (largest - in true sense of the word) scenes, arenas and grand productions. Violeta Urmana as Leonora in Verdi's “La Forza del Destino” (directed by Dalia Ibelhauptaitė, Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre). Photo by Martynas Aleksa

Lithuanian opera soloist Violeta Urmanavičiūtė-Urmana - known as Violeta Urmana throughout all major opera theatres is renown worldwide for her roles performed at New York Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Alla Scala Milan, The Opéra Bastille - Opéra national de Paris, Wiener Staatsoper, Teatro Real Madrid, etc. The soloist has won numerous awards at international competitions; she is the recipient of the Lithuanian National Culture and Arts Prize and Doctor of Honour at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre.

Variety of the repertoire is a trait that distinguishes Violeta Urmana from other opera soloists; her opera appearances can be divided into three stages: the singer began her career as a mezzo-soprano, later she switched to soprano roles and several years ago Urmana has returned to the mezzo-soprano parts. Pianist and musicologist Leonidas Melnikas, who was the person to grant the Honorary Doctorate Regalia of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre to Violeta in 2012, said: “She became one of the most remarkable sopranos of the 20th century. And she did not stop there. Led by her talent, following her inner voice, she made a step forward - changed her image and became a soprano. On the eve of the honorary doctoral degree ceremony she surprised her followers once again, announcing that she had decided to revert to the mezzo-soprano repertoire. What was that? A caprice of an opera diva or, to the contrary - a rational and well-founded decision, a subtle approach to her own inner voice? The answer is clear: a view directed forwards, not backwards; an ability to unravel new worlds of personal expression.” 

Despite changing roles determined by vocal characteristics, all the heroines Urmana has ever performed are unified by their dramatic nature and enormous expression. During her soprano period, critics valued the singer for her clean and full voice, whereas after switching to the mezzo-soprano her voice was distinguished for its dark and expressive colours. Violeta Urmana is renowned for her culture of musical performance and discipline, along with tremendous professional self-diligence, manifesting in attention, precision and respect towards the musical heritage of the composer. Her journey in Verdi's Don Carlos - starting from mezzo-soprano role of Eboli (!) towards the part of Elisabeth (sung by sopranos) and eventual return to Eboli is a perfect example of the soloist's approach towards voice as an instrument, as well as her professional intuition. Closely listening to the changes and capabilities of her voice, Violeta Urmana always chooses the parts suitable for her voice: “My voice gives me hints which parts suit me well”, claims the soloist. Although such drifting between different voice types is fairly common and even trendy in today's opera world, it is rarely successful. However, no matter which parts Violeta Urmana performs, international critics always note the soloist's skill and mastery.

Violeta Urmana is a prima of large (largest - in true sense of the word) scenes, arenas and grand productions. Her iconic roles include Aida and Amneris (in Verdi's Aida) in large scale, classical productions running at New York's Metropolitan Opera and antique amphitheatre in Verona. Michael Sinclair (theoperacritic.com) wrote about Urmana's performance of Amneris in Aida produced in 2013 for the centenary of Verona's amphitheatre: “Violeta Urmana is a powerful Amneris. While she has placed an emphasis lately on singing soprano roles this mezzo part is much more suited to her voice which has a dark, lustrous hue to it. She is able to inject anger and passion into her interpretation which reaches its climax thrillingly in the final act confrontation with Radames.” Of special importance to the soloist's biography were the “heavies” of the opera, i.e. the roles in Richard Wagner's musical dramas and appearances in Beyreuth festival (Germany) that is dedicated to composer's works.  

Violeta Urmana often participates in classical, canonical large-scale opera productions; she herself seems to prefer the productions primarily focussed on music delivery: “Sets are very important to me. I have to see the set drawings, only then I start to tune into the production, to discover possibilities for my personal interpretation of the part”, said the soloist about the directing concepts in her recent interview. Urmana made frequent appearances in productions of Aida, Tosca and Cavalleria rusticana by the legendary Italian theatre director Franco Zeffirelli.

Currently residing in Germany and intensely working at the world's major theatres Violeta Urmana is a rare guest in Lithuania, usually returning here with concert programmes (Plácido Domingo, who gave a concert in Kaunas in 2019, has invited Violeta to share the stage as his partner), however, on special occasions she also appears in local opera productions. A decade ago Violeta Urmana appeared at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, singing the soprano part of Leonora in Verdi's La Forza Del Destino, dedicated to the 90th anniversary of the Lithuanian Opera. Speaking of the role, the soloist said in one of her interviews: “This part is dear to me because of its drama and emotional depth”. The appearance was admired by the critics, for instance, Beata Leščinska (7md.lt) wrote: “Above all, one could feel Urmana's powerful artistic suggestion, or even a will to immediately establish a certain connection with the audience.”

Presently, the dramatic parts of Italian operas dominate the soloist's mezzo repertoire: Amneris (Aida), Azucena (Il Trovatore), Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana), Eboli (Don Carlos), Ulrica (Un ballo in maschera). The soloist also performs the complex repertoire of Wagner, Berlioz and Richard Strauss. Along her roles in operas and concert programmes (mostly solo appearances, occasionally sharing the stage with her husband, lyric tenor Alfredo Nigro from Italy), Violeta Urmana organises master classes for young opera soloists; she has shared her inspiring experience and knowledge with students of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre as well. Urmana's voice can be heard on more than ten CDs (some of them released by largest classical music labels EMI and Deutsche Grammophon) and on a similar number of DVD recordings of performances.

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This article is part of the series “100 years of the Lithuanian Opera Culture”. It is partially financed by funds from individual scholarship granted by the Lithuanian Council of Culture.