Nicola Lischi, Opera Britannia

[…] But everything and everyone paled next to the performance of Maria Agresta, a young Italian soprano who in just two years has risen to international prominence thanks to formidably arduous roles such as Elena in I vespri siciliani, Odabella in Attila and the title role of Gemma di Vergy, a performance that swept me away and left me in awe last autumn in Bergamo. Although Mimì does not remotely present the vocal difficulties of such “soprano assoluta” roles, it nevertheless puts forward other kinds of challenges, principally of expressive order. First of all, score in hand, Ms. Agresta observed virtually each single Puccini marking. Let us analyze her “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì”, a relatively simple aria that is often a favourite object of abuse in innumerable auditions and voice competitions. She began her first high A natural (“di primavera”) pianissimo and then reinforced it with amazing ease, to return to piano on the descent to the middle E natural; her soft, floating, dreamy attack of the phrase “ma quando vien lo sgelo” truly suggested the state of mind of a young woman lost in reverie, and perfectly executed the crescendo to her second, long-held A natural of “primo bacio”, which she sang mezzo forte, only to gradually increase the volume on the third high A of “è mia”, fully reflecting the intentions of the composer, who at this point disseminates the scores with indications like “con molta anima”, “con grande espansione” etc.. And how can one forget the marvellous pianissimo of the last high A on the phrase “Così gentil il profumo d’un fiore”: in this case Puccini does not expressively ask the soprano to sing it piano, but the word “gentile” leaves no doubt as to what the singer should be really doing. It was like listening to this enormously popular aria almost for the first time, such was the care and attention Ms. Agresta lavished on it. The love duet concluding Act I was fortunately performed as written, so that the soprano could comfortably respect the composer’s wishes, singing the high C pp and “perdendosi”, without having to worry about being drowned by the tenor. More often than not, when Rodolfos insist on joining their Mimìs on that high note, the result is a shouting match, as very few tenors are able to sing so high in pianissimo, and sopranos have no choice but sing similarly loud in order not to be muffled.
The rest of Ms. Agresta’s performance was equally first-class, desperate without being over the top, fragile without being mawkish, moving without being overtly sentimental. Gifted with a naturally dark-hued timbre (it is worth mentioning that she started her career as a mezzo-soprano), a sizable robust instrument, an impressive palette of emotions fully realized by a flawless technique, and scrupulous respect for the composer’s intentions, Maria Agresta was nothing less than a complete Mimì. […]