Times Music Critic

Hyperbole is a way of life in the wondrous and irrational world of opera, especially when it comes to dealing with divas.

The big name in the news these days belongs to a late-blooming Bulgarian soprano named Ghena Dimitrova. Appearances in Europe and a few recordings have inspired some lofty invocations.

She is, we have been assured, the greatest discovery since the wheel, a force of nature comparable to Niagara Falls, not just a rare, bona-fide dramatic soprano but a vocal heavyweight with the power of a Nilsson, the sensuality of a Milanov and the flexibility of a Sills.

The advance notices seemed too good to be true. At Dimitrova's West Coast debut Sunday night in Ambassador Auditorium, they turned out to be just that.

Dimitrova, who gave no signs of being a past mistress of the intimate recital challenge, chose an odd, all-Italian program that juxtaposed simple songs of Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi and Puccini with not-so-simple arias by the same composers.

She used the same grandiose scale, however, and the same generalized definition of word and mood in the little songs and in the big arias.

She apparently had not found it necessary to go to the trouble of memorizing her program. She spent much of the evening wandering--often in mid-phrase--from her haven in the crook of the piano, where she struck standard prima-donna poses, to a convenient music stand a few feet away, where she sight-read the scores and flipped pages.

She brought along an accident-prone Bulgarian pianist, Christo Stanischeff, whose accompaniments tended, at their frequent worst, to lumber.

The first phrases of Rossini's "La promessa" told a lot. The Dimitrova soprano is indeed big, dark, thick, imposing. But it was applied to the bel-canto lines unsmilingly, without finesse, without nuance and certainly without charm. Moreover, there were serious pitch problems and alarming gasps for breath in awkward places.

As the agenda progressed, one heard a lot of frighteningly powerful, genuinely explosive top notes. One heard a few wispy pianississimos. One heard very little to connect the dynamic extremes. The basic timbre sometimes emerged opulent, sometimes husky, sometimes shrill.

Dimitrova drove a Mack truck through "Selva opaca" from "Guglielmo Tell." She screamed the pathos of Queen Elisabetta in a tragic scena from "Roberto Devereux" and smudged the coloratura. She reduced Norma's ethereal "Casta diva" to a scratchy vocalise.

Obviously all was not well. The soprano occasionally telegraphed that message to the capacity audience by clutching her neck, clearing her throat, coughing and sipping water from a convenient styrofoam cup stored atop the piano.

The friendly throng, which adores a well-publicized diva in any condition, roared constant, undifferentiated approval.

Then, after intermission, an Ambassador spokesperson made an announcement. Dimitrova was suffering from the remnants of a viral infection. She would continue, but she begged indulgence.

From that point on, the singing improved. Somewhat.

One heard hints of genuine bravura flair in "Arrigo, ha parli ancora" from Verdi's "Vespri Siciliani," suggestions of legato pathos in "Morro, ma prima in grazia" from "Un Ballo in Maschera." Puccini's "Storiella d'amore" reflected a certain sensitivity, and the final aria, Manon Lescaut's "Sola, perduta, abbandonata," demonstrated unexpected qualities of dramatic projection.

Despite her avowed indisposition, she ventured two encores: "Vieni t'affretta" from Verdi's "Macbeth," complete with a garbled recitation of the fateful letter, and "Voi lo sapete" from "Cavalleria Rusticana." The vehement flamboyance of Lady Macbeth threatened to get out of control, but, apart from shortness of breath, Dimitrova conveyed the low-tessitura pains of Santuzza effectively.

Although this obviously was not the ideal occasion to judge Dimitrova's talent, certain conclusions are unavoidable. The lady is blessed--well, at least equipped--with an extraordinary natural instrument. She commands a wide range and, at the top, a huge sound.

Whether her taste and her technique match her natural resources remains unclear. We will know more after she sings Leonora in "Il Trovatore" with the San Francisco Opera this spring.

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