In a New York Times feature last year, Riccardo Muti gave Anita Rachvelishvili the kind of compliment that opera singers dream of. “She is without doubt the best Verdi mezzo-soprano today on the planet,” said the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, universally regarded as the leading contemporary interpreter of the great Italian composer’s works.
Given such heady praise, it is hardly surprising that Muti selected the Georgian mezzo-soprano for his cast of international vocal luminaries headlining a concert version June 21-25 of Aida, the final program of the CSO’s 2018-19 subscription series.
It will be just the second time that Muti and Rachvelishvili have worked together. The mezzo-soprano was a last-minute substitute as a soloist in Verdi’s Requiem Mass in November 2017 with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich. “It was always my dream to work with Maestro Muti, and it just came true like that,” she said. “It was very exciting. Our Requiem was really beautiful, and I will never forget that experience. It was really magical.”
Born in 1984, Rachvelishvili grew up in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, then part of the Soviet Union. She took piano lessons as a child, but she never gave any thought to opera. She listened to jazz, soul, rock and Georgian traditional music. She was always singing songs by groups such as Whitesnake, the British hard-rock band that reached the zenith of its popularity in the 1980s. “At some point, my father [a composer and bass guitarist] said that my voice was pretty big, so maybe I should try opera,” she said.
When she was 16, she began vocal lessons in preparation for an audition to the Tbilisi State Conservatoire, where she began studies under Manana Egadze. “I was really not sure that I wanted that or not, but at one point, I went to the opera house in Tbilisi and I watched Don Giovanni,” she said. “And I really liked it. I really liked everything about it. The music was so exciting. And I imagined myself being onstage and doing the same thing they were doing, and I decided in that moment that I wanted to be an opera singer.” She went on to make her debut as Maddalena in Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Georgian National Opera Theater while still a student, joining the company’s ensemble in 2006.
A year later, she enrolled at the Accademia, a two-year, pre-professional training program at La Scala in Milan, Italy. She auditioned there in 2008 before Daniel Barenboim, who at the time held the position of principal guest conductor and Maestro Scaligero (Maestro of La Scala). She thought she was trying out for Mercedes in the opera Carmen, but in the end he selected her for the title role. “It was very shocking for everybody, for me, but you cannot say no to Maestro Barenboim or La Scala, so I said yes,” she said.
In December 2009, Rachvelishvili became the youngest singer to open the season at La Scala, performing opposite famed tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Don José — in an internationally televised event that made her an instant sensation in the opera world. “That Carmen opened every single door for me in the future,” she said. “That Carmen was probably the most important event of my life.”
She has gone on to appear as Carmen with major companies around the world, including Lyric Opera of Chicago, where in 2017 she made her company debut in the role. “The sensuous allure of her singing matched her physical presence,” wrote music critic John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune. “The voice is technically secure all the way from a plush chest register to an upper range that really blooms when she shifts gears. One can appreciate the dramatic uses to which she puts the voice as much as the darkly blazing sound itself.”
Rachvelishvili also has gained considerable recognition in Aida for her portrayal of Amneris, the daughter of the King of Egypt who is a rival to the title character for the love of Radamès, an Egyptian military commander. She first appeared in the role in 2012-13 with Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. “It was a beautiful, traditional production — a great cast,” she said. “I felt more secure singing my debut in that really difficult role in some place like that where everybody helps and supports you. It was a really beautiful experience.” She later performed Amneris with such major companies as the Paris National Opera in 2016 and Metropolitan Opera in 2018.
The mezzo-soprano is looking forward to her upcoming concert performances of Aida with Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in part because of the high quality of singers that the conductor has gathered for the occasion. She worked with soprano Krassimira Stoyanova (Aida) and tenor Francesco Meli (Radamès) in performances of the Requiem Mass in Germany, and she has high praise for bass Ildar Abdrazakov (Ramfis). The other soloists are baritone Kiril Manolov (Amonasro), bass-baritone Eric Owens (The King), tenor Issachah Savage (Messenger), soprano Kimberly Gunderson (The Priestess) and soprano Tascha Koontz (The Priestess).
“And the main thing is to sing with the Chicago Symphony, which I have never done before, so I’m very excited to work with this legendary, beautiful orchestra,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot about them.”