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Lebendige Vergangenheit: Xenia Blemas II
Giuseppe Verdi, Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet
Lebendige Vergangenheit: Xenia Blemas II
Genres: Pop, Classical
  •  Track Listings (19) - Disc #1


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A Fine Ukranian Soprano Turned Refugee Artist
Doug - Haydn Fan | California | 11/12/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Xenia Belmas suffered a hard luck career, her life and art at the mercy of forces far beyond her power - or anyone elses - to control. Born in the Ukraine in 1890 she developed into a fine soprano, aided along the way by marriage to a rich landowner. She was just beginning to make a name for herself in Moscow musical circles when the war broke out. During the 1st World War her husband was seriously wounded and she moved to St. Petersburg to nurse him. Unfortunately for Belmas the Russian Revolution meant the loss of her home, and a year later her husband died in combat.
Penniless and with no career prospects in Russia she left the country and began a long decade and a half hegira, wandering throughout the European music centers, attempting to survive as a refugee. During this period Belmas became a considerable artist, singing with several major conductors and recieving very laudatory press coverage. However, by 1934, her status in Europe became more and more impossible, and she was forced to try her luck in South Africa. There, when her earnings diminished, her second husband deserted her for another woman - though not until he gambled away all Belmas' hard won savings. Perhaps unwilling or unable to face more adversity Belmas settled for a life of obscurity in South Africa, teaching singing. It was only at the very end of her life that Belmas once again received some long overdue recognition for her achievement.

During the late twenties Belmas made about eighty recordings, though only about half were issued. These apparently received little notice in the press and were not widely disseminated. Hermann Klein, who reviewed an enormous number of German operatic recordings from this period for the fledging Gramophone magazine, never mentions a single Belmas record!

On record Belmas sings best in native - or since she was from the Ukraine - Russian opera. No surprise this. All the selections on this CD from Russian works are very well sung, and several, such as the arias from Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden or Cristmas Eve, can be flat out fabulous. Critical reception today is rather sparse. Charles Osborne found her quite good in both Cav and Pag, and I agree. Her duets with Domgraf-Fassbaender (father of the better known today Brigitte) are special. The only other critic giving her a more than passing reference is John Steane, who praises Belmas very highly for her singing from The Queen of Spades, offering contradiction to another critic who faulted Belmas' note values. If you've only one champion among critics, then Belmas is fortunate her advocate is Steane.

Having listened to Belmas on record since the seventies, and owning a few of her orignal shellacs, I find her voice itself, more than her style of singing, the most intriquing aspect of this forgotten artist. On 78 you notice a misteriso quality sometimes not captured on the CD transfers. The voice range is a pure and full lyric-dramatic, with a wonderful color and memorable high notes in what might be called the Puccini mother lode. In certain Puccini scenes, such as the first of her two arias from Tosca, Belmas can be quite captivating, at ease in lighter moments, and singing with real style. In Verdi, which for Belmas meant Aida, her voice sounds especially suitable; she has enough power to carry over an orchestra without ever suggesting the vocal Amazon. Although Belmas was often a concert performer her histrionics in Aida (as well as Cav and Pag) are most effective as theater: she clearly thrives on the dramatics. Belmas is more well-rounded than some of the larger-voiced Aidas - she is also capable of charming lighter touches and stylish nuances, as shown by the arias from Manon. She clearly loves the role and sounds most affecting as the French heroine. Almost all her Russian opera performances reveal years of experience with the roles.

I'm delighted Preiser allows us this chance to hear her on a second CD. Together on two CDs Preiser has now issued all but a half dozen of her issued recordings. Putting together such a collection from the originals would be quite a time-consuming challenge, not to mention very expensive!
I would urge trying Volume One first - I think it shows Belmas at a higher and more consistent overall level of artistry. If you love Russian opera than this one also deserves serious consideration."