The Courtesan

Sonya Yoncheva explores the fragility of powet through her new album, The Courtesan.


by Alex Suciu
March 20, 2023
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Soprano Sonya Yoncheva needs no presentation, as she is well-known throughout the opera world. She is constantly present on the world’s greatest stages, interpreting a large variety of roles, from the Baroque up to the Verismo repertoire, appearing in the world’s most renowned opera houses. She has made numerous recordings, from live operas to collaborations on other artists’ solo recordings, as well as her own stand-alone albums. She has collaborated with numerous production labels, among them Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, and Sony Classical. This time around, the Bulgarian soprano brings forth a creation of her own record label, SY11 Productions, an album called The Courtesan. It was recorded in 2022 in Genoa, with the Orchestra dell’Opera Carlo Felice, under the baton of the maestro Marco Armiliato, and accompanied by the tenor Charles Castronovo in the duets. The works comprised are all from the XIXth and XXth century and they span a number of twelve operatic parts and one song from a cantata, comprising works by Jules Massenet, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano, Petro Mascagni, Giacomo Puccini, Camille Saint-Saëns, Giuseppe Verdi, and Carl Orff. The album contains both roles that Yoncheva has sung many times, like Violetta from La Traviata, and roles that she has not sung yet, but which she will be debuting, like Cio Cio San from Madama Butterfly. Since the production company is owned by the soprano, she had the freedom to choose what she wanted to do with the record, and the result is rather spectacular. At a first glance, the album seems to be, as the title suggests, a generic one, like others entitled Verdi Arias or Soprano Arias – comprising a new rendition of a set of arias by a given artist – in this case arias and duets revolving around characters that are associated with the image of the courtesan in one way or another. However, at a closer look, the roots run deeper, and the album has the qualities of a concept album, the message behind it being quite powerful. Maybe the first thing that one can observe when looking at the name of the tracks is the fact that the arias and the duets sung tend to be on the heavier, sadder, or more melancholic side of feelings in their respective roles. It may seem to lack the more exuberant ones, like È strano… Ah, fors`è lui… Sempre libera… or Un di felice, eterea… from La Traviata, for example, but this seems to have been chosen in order to properly convey the essence of the idea behind the album. Historically, the courtesan’s image is linked to a frivolous woman lending her body for money. But in many cases, as it was for the cortegiana onesta in Italy, the courtesan represented an intellectual facet, a very appealing and intriguing personality, making men more susceptible to be seduced by them. Thus, the courtesan could rather easily become very potent in society. Although she would not possess direct power, she could insinuate herself amongst the high-ranking people and their affairs. The courtesans’ status allowed them to enter places other women couldn’t have had access to. This leaves them in a paradoxical situation, which all the characters in this album reflect; on the one hand, the courtesan could have this immense power over men, but at the same time, they are literally at the hand of the one who pays for her services. And this leads to another aspect. As Petya Ivanova points out in the CD leaflet, the courtesan is like a common good. All the characters that appear in this album, once they renounce their status for love dedicated to one person they die. This duality may be why these roles are so difficult to interpret, both from an actress’s point of view, as well as vocally. On the one hand there are parts of extreme joviality, with vocal ornaments and coloratura, and on the other hand, they all have heavy, dramatic parts which require a heaviness of the voice and of the character. They are roles that require both extreme power, and a sense of fragility.

In this, Sonya Yoncheva excels. In certain parts the voice is delicate, almost frail, revealing the fragile parts of the characters she is interpreting, but without losing the warm and velvety quality of her voice. This apparent fragility creates an even more spectacular effect when the vocal and instrumental tumult takes center-stage, with Yoncheva’s vocality appearing like a torrent. This showcases the characters’ powerful, yet fragile traits, the women who „could shape the destiny of the world’s greatest men”, yet the destiny of whom is to die the moment they renounce their expected status to pursue their own happiness, through love, just like Petya Ivanova writes in the leaflet. Yoncheva delivers a perfect rendition of this aspect. Of course, as one would expect, all the other vocal and interpretive elements are fulfilled perfectly by the soprano. The voice keeps its qualities equally throughout the registers, even with this large difference in vocal dynamics. The phrasing is perfect, and the colours are always in sync with the dramaturgical situations. Of course, in this sense, of great help were maestro Armiliato with his incredible dramaturgical sense poured into the music he was conducting, as well as the Orchestra dell’Opera Carlo Felice, that responded precisely, thus allowing Yoncheva’s artistry shine. The other voice heard on this CD is that of tenor Charles Castronovo, who sings with Yoncheva in the duet Parigi, o cara… from La Traviata, and C’est Thaïs from Thaïs. His presence on the record is a well-rounded counterpoint to Yoncheva.

This CD leaves the impression that it almost serves as a manifesto towards the situation of these women, and this is maybe the clearest through the seemingly odd pick of the only non-operatic part to appear on this record, In Trutina from Carmina Burana by Orff. It is the last tune on the CD, just like a conclusion. The title literally means “on the scales”, “on balance”, and it depicts the indecision that the girl singing has whether to indulge in love or to restrain from it. Short as it might be, it is filled with emotion and possibility, which Sonya Yoncheva fully explores. This song doesn’t have the complex vocal construction that the others have in this album, but it may well be its conceptual resolution.

“Love is not an option”, says Yoncheva on the first page of the CD leaflet, when speaking about these characters’ lives. Having in mind the whole concept of the courtesan as presented here, it seems to be so. Nonetheless, although the soprano leaves us with this last tune of undecidedness, I see it more as an open ending. It is the only tune on this album to be composed completely in a major key and it might just be that in the end, the overarching character of the Courtesan that Yoncheva paints throughout this album ends up choosing and relishing in love, as the subsequent song in Orff’s cantata, In Trutina’s obvious continuation is Tempus est iocundum, which shows exactly that, the girl has chosen love.


Sir Colin Davis
Colin Rex Davis was born on September 25th, 1927, in Weybridge, Surrey, England, and was known for his exceptional interpretations of a wide range of classical and contemporary repertoire. His early exposure to music was through the clarinet, which he started playing at a young age. His interest in conducting developed during his time at...
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Alice Lechner
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We continue our Theaters around the World column, and in this issue, we arrive in Sicily, more precisely in Palermo. It is known that Teatro Massimo di Palermo was, for a long time, the third largest opera house in Europe, after Palais Garnier and Wiener Staatsoper. The construction of the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Sicily,...
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Alice Lechner

Alice Lechner

Alice Lechner comes from a music-loving family. Her first encounter with the opera universe was at the tender age of six. The grandeur of the stage productions and costumes, the backstage chatter, and last, but definitely not least, the music left her in awe, beginning with Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The overall feeling that opera awakens in anyone who gets a glimpse into this part of artistic eternity, that each and every day passes the test of time, was what drew her to stay and be a part of this world. The Opera House of Brașov became her second home, and the people who worked there were her second family.

Since then, Alice has devoted her spare time to maximising her musical knowledge through instrumental studies, studying both piano and violin for a short time. In the following years, her number one passion stepped out of the limelight and graciously gave way to Law Studies.
Since 2018 she has been studying Law at “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iași.

Her passion for opera, even if it is no longer her top professional priority in terms of career, it has most definitely become her priority during her free time. Wanting to experience the best of both worlds and extend her musical horizons, she regularly attends opera performances throughout Romania and abroad.
With OPERA Charm Magazine, Alice aims to nurture her creative side to help it flourish and bloom and to discover, alongside the magazine’s readers, the fascinatingly complex world of opera.

Currently, she is an LL.M. in Business Law at “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iași.

Oana Zamfir

Oana Zamfir is a second year MA student at the “George Enescu” National University of Arts, at the Department of Musicology.

She studied violin for 12 years at the “Stefan Luchian” High School of Art in Botosani, later focusing on the theoretical aspects of music. In 2019 she completed her bachelor studies in Musicology as a student of the National Academy of Music “Gheorghe Dima” in Cluj-Napoca. Her research during 2018-2019 brought to the forefront elements of the archaic ritual within works of composers who activated during the communist period, giving her the opportunity to start a research internship at the “Carl von Ossietzky” University in Germany. In this context, she recorded conversations with members of the Sophie Drinker Institute in Bremen, and had access to documents directly from the Myriam Marbé archive.

Since 2019 she has been a teacher of Music Education and Theoretical Music Studies, making full use of interactive methods in the musical training of students and working, at the same time, with the children’s choir founded in the first year of her activity.

Her interests include pursuing a degree in interior design in 2020.

Alexandru Suciu

Alexandru Suciu inherited his passion for art growing up in a family of several generations of musicians. He began his musical studies at the “Augustin Bena” School of Music in Cluj, where he studied piano and guitar. Even though his main study direction was philological, his passion for music prevailed. He began his academical journey at the Faculty of Letters of the “Babeș-Bolyai” University, studying Comparative literature and English. He continued by studying Opera Singing at the “Gheorghe Dima” National Music Academy. He also graduated the Musical Education section, followed by Artistic Directing at the Musical Performing Arts department.

His multidisciplinary education opened the doors towards research, which is seen both through his participation in national and international conferences and symposia, such as the Salzburg Easter School PhD-forum, organized by the Salzburg Universität or the Silesian Meeting of Young Scholars, organized by the Institute of English at the University of Silesia, as well as the collaboration with Opera Charm Magazine.

During his student years, he won several prizes, including the Grand Prize at the “Paul Constantinescu” National Musical Interpretation Competition, the Romanian Composers and Musicologists’ Union Prize at the same competition, the First Prize and the Schubert Prize at the “Ada Ulubeanu” Competition.

He further developed his artistic skills by specializing in courses and masterclasses held by personalities such as Vittorio Terranova, Giuseppe Sabbatini, Marian Pop, Ines Salazar, Riccardo Zanellato, Paolo Bosisio, Valentina Farcaș and Manuel Lange in contexts such as the Internationale Sommerakademie für Operngesang Deutschlandsberg, Corso Internazionale di Canto Lirico I.M.C. Licata or the Europäische Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst Montepulciano. Besides his activity on-stage, he currently teaches Opera Singing Didactics, and Pedagogical Practice within the Department for Teacher Education and Training at the “Gheorghe Dima” National Music Academy.

Cristina Fieraru

Cristina is a 24 year-old Romanian soprano & a student at the National University of Music Bucharest, where she pursues the MA program in Vocal Performance.

She made her debut in Pamina from “Die Zauberflöte” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at only 19 years old at the Bucharest National Opera House, as a member of the Ludovic Spiess Experimental Opera Studio. Over the years she made her debut in roles such as Contessa d’Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Mimì & Musetta (La Bohème), Alice Ford (Falstaff), Erste Dame (Die Zauberflöte) in her university’s opera productions.
Her passion and experience extends in the field of choral music, too.

She has been part of our dream team since the fall of 2021. For a good period of time she took care of OPERA Charm’s social media and took you on the monthly journey through the history of opera through our Legends rubric – and a few times through the Theaters around the World rubric.

Her little soul rubric – from 2021 to present – is definitely the Conductors of the Future, where, every month, she gives you the chance to meet a young star of the world of conducting and, of course, to find out what’s the most charming feature of opera in these artists’ views.


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