It’s often said of talented two-year-old thoroughbred racehorses that they “could be anything”; and that’s exactly the phrase I’d use to sum up the potential of the Peruvian soprano Ximena Agurto, who made her London recital debut at Bolivar Hall on Wednesday evening. Agurto has an impressive list of prizes to her name, most recently and significantly as Winner of the 2011 Fundación Guerrero International Singing Competition last November in Madrid. Thanks to London Lyric Arts and the Embassy of Peru, we Londoners had a welcome chance to hear her in a brief, mixed recital of arias, romanzas and songs from opera, zarzuela and her native Peruvian repertoire.
If the operatic component provided a reserved opening, with Safety First the word for Puccini’s Lauretta and Offenbach’s Olympia, Agurto soon got into her stride with a dramatically telling traversal of the heroine’s brief “Viva mi Alsacia” from Guerrero’s La Alsaciana. She franked this with a model reading of Serrano’s “Marinela”, smoothly phrased and most beautifully controlled; and a technically thrilling “Me llaman la Primorosa”, all the better for communicating the fun as well as the fireworks – Giménez and Nieto’s flamboyant showpiece gently guys opera singing as much as it revels in the agile acrobatics of the soprano voice. Having thus warmed herself and her audience up, Agurto presented us with a real gift in a Peruvian group which showed she knows how to save the best wine till last. Wide-ranging, rhythmically as well as melodically distinctive, these songs left us with a sense of strength, both of the singer and of the musical earth which has nurtured her. The delicious cross-rhythm switchbacks of “Yo no voy al Prado”, by the Lima composer and singing teacher Rosa Mercedes Ayarza de Morales (1881-1969) will linger specially long in this memory at least.
Agurto’s regular pianist Elías Romero has one intriguing credit (amongst many), having worked on Guerrero’s Rosa del Azafrán in the Theater Academy of Shanghai – surely the first zarzuela to be performed in the People’s Republic. His solo interludes included Peruvian tangos alla Piazolla, a witty transcription of the Mazurka de las Sombrillas from Luisa Fernanda; and best of all a sensitively phrased reading of Turina’s Dedicatoria, a perfumed impressionist evocation in line with Debussyian conventions of how Spanish music ought to sound, but none the less effective for that. His support of his soprano partner was tactful almost to the point of self-effacement.
Coming last – certainly not least – to that soprano voice itself, although the best weapon in Ximena Agurto’s current armoury is her pure upper register, stunning both for dynamic control and stratospheric agility, this is no featherweight coloratura. If anything, her sheer amplitude was too much for the somewhat boxy confines of the Bolivar Hall, and it’s in the larger opera houses that she’ll come into her own. Indeed such a strong, voluminous lyric soprano suggests a Norma or Aida in the making – Amelia in Un ballo in maschera would make a good next step for her on the Italian ladder. There’s real individuality in the grainy mezzo mahogany of her middle voice (reminiscent at times of a young Ana-María Iriarte) but work to be done there too in establishing firmer support and focus. Altogether, judged on this promising London debut, the future looks bright for this emergent star from a country which – as London Lyric Arts founder Carlos Aransay reminded us in his introduction – has already given great singers of the calibre of Luigi Alva, Juan Diego Flórez and Yma Sumac to the world. Ximena Agurto's name might soon be added to that distinguished list.
© Christopher Webber 2012