Marina Poplavskaya: 'I am a person of extraordinary ability'

In 2005, after winning the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens, the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya was presented to one of the judges, the late Joan Sutherland, once the most stratospheric of virtuosi. 'Ah,' Poplavskaya said to me last week, 'I thought I would have a nerve break! My knees were shaking as if I saw an angel, a miracle. She praised my tone, she talked about how to make coloratura twinkle. And she said she loved my jaw!'

A great voice is a combination of heart and mind, bone and cartilage. Sutherland was famously prognathous, but Poplavskaya's jaw – angular, horizontally extended to give her square face the look of a cubist carving – is even more extraordinary. She uses it to outface the world; more importantly, it stores the breath she releases when sculpting the air as she sings. "This," said Sutherland, admiringly, "is where the sound comes from!"

That sound is cool and silken, stoically controlling the passions it expresses; the characters that suit Poplavskaya best – the guiltily infatuated Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, the long-suffering Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo or the unjustly persecuted Desdemona in his Otello – suffer agonies that we seem to overhear. She does not vivaciously seduce us like her colleague Anna Netrebko, and her air of withdrawn mystery is increased by the waist-length cascade of hair that she wears like a veil. She is the Mona Lisa with a bevelled jaw; it's up to us to intuit what goes behind that alabaster mask.

A Royal Opera poster once called Poplavskaya "turbo-charged", adding "va va voom!" as a crass description of the way she warmed up her voice. The metaphors don't suit a reserved, pensive woman who is fond of Pushkin's pronouncement that "the muse's art prefers quietness and inner peace". But despite her placidity, Poplavskaya has leapfrogged to prominence in recent years, profiting from the malaises or caprices of others. At Covent Garden, when Netrebko arrived late for Don Giovanni, Poplavskaya took over, and when Angela Gheorghiu backed out of Don Carlo, that role, too, went to Poplavskaya. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York last winter, she replaced Netrebko in La traviata; after Gheorghiu tried the company's patience one last time by claiming that some skulking foe had poisoned her, Poplavskaya was handed her role in Gounod's Faust. She is so much talked about that fans have fondly abbreviated her: her nickname in the chatrooms is "Pops", just as Netrebko has been handily familiarised as "Trebs". ...
The Observer

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