It takes an extraordinary singer to bridge the divide between popular singing and opera. The round-faced blond tenor of the Bolshoi, 24-year-old Nikolai Baskov, is just such a singer.
Russians lined up for tickets last fall to see Baskov perform at the Bolshoi as Vladimir Lensky in a restaging of the 1944 production of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin. The crowd loved him, but some critics were acrimonious. Argumenty i Fakty noted that the “performer of the Lensky role, Nikolai Baskov, this newly-born pet of the nation, was greeted by heart-rending applause and howls of ‘bravo.’ But the heart-breaking pop songs of the languorous boy are one thing; Tchaikovsky and the specifics of opera a different story altogether.” While reproaching Baskov for a frivolous interpretation of Lensky, for a singing style too “vulgar” for the opera, the paper was forced to admit that the “guy is vocally gifted.”
Baskov answers his critics by saying that just loving opera and ignoring show or theatrical singing is not interesting. He also argues that he never mixes up his repertoire in his performances. Typically, his concerts begin with classical works and end with more popular tunes.
As the Russian proverb has it: Chevo khvalit ne umeesh, tovo ne khuli (Don’t criticize what you don’t know how to praise). All too often our “refined” critics are quick to criticize that which is popular or truly Russian. But Russians, like fans of art anywhere, know what they like. And millions love Nikolai Baskov.
Baskov consistently fills concert halls and his albums sell in the millions. With boyish good looks that remind of the beloved poet Sergei Yesenin, Baskov is the very definition of a Russian “narodny” singer. And the gliterati are taking notice. Pop diva Alla Pugacheva was in the front row for one of his first [sold out] concerts at the huge Rossiya concert hall. And when the great opera singer Monserrat Cavalier came to St. Petersburg early in 2000, she chose to partner with Baskov. Even the Kremlin’s huge Concert Hall could barely contain all those who wanted to hear Baskov’s final performance in a series called Musical Masterpieces of the Waning Century. Front row tickets went for the equivalent of an average Russian’s monthly salary.
Free of the complexes of the generations of Soviet singers, Baskov has the air of an average guy, but the bearing of a star. At the Kremlin concert, he spoke quietly with each person who brought him flowers, yet his golden voice achieved the amazing feat of stopping the crowd from joining in the chorus of a heart-breaking version of “Moscow Nights.” The repertoire was varied and masterful, from “Those Were the Days,” and “Yesterday,” to “Kalinka” and “Besa me Mucho.” A duet with Bolshoi singer Larisa Rudakova of a Freddy Mercury song brought a thunderous standing ovation and demands for three encores.
Born in Balashikha, Moscow region, into the family of a military officer, Baskov began performing in his teens, guided by his teacher, Liliana Shekhova (for whose tutelage he once turned down an offer to study at the prestigious Julliard School in New York). In fact, Baskov is still a pre-graduate student at the Gnesin Musical Academy, and is technically an “intern” at the Bolshoy. His meteoric rise began soon after he was discovered by the composer Alexander Morozov, who wanted a singer with an operatic voice to perform his works. A producer and a CD soon followed, but Baskov did not appear on the “big stage” until September 1999. And yet, his fans already number in the millions.
In a recent interview with TV Park weekly, Baskov said he is very patriotic, then asked rhetorically what Russia would be without such patriotism: “one of the great nations which has everything in the past?!” With artists like Baskov, Russian music clearly has a bright future.
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