My relationship with Donizetti’ s Lucrezia Borgia was love at first hearing when I first bought Jonel Perlea’ s RCA recording. I’d known Victor Hugo’ s play and thought the plot (but not the overwrought dialogues) compelling, but the truth is Felice Romani’ s inutilia truncat did a great service to the play and Donizetti’ s structural concision and theatrical understanding were at its best. Seeing the work without costumes and sets – in concert version – and not missing the slightest prop proved my impressions right. Provided you have the cast to make it work is something one might say when we’ re speaking of a bel canto opera – but then I would have to guess the consequence of bad casting in these circumstances, because the Gran Teatre del Liceu has taken the pains to find the best group of singers one could possibly imagine these days.
Before I write anything else, I will acknowledge from the start that Edita Gruberova’ s soprano is hardly the Méric-Lalande-type of voice and, if you’ re used to Montserrat Caballe’ s recording of this role, you’ ll certainly miss the extra weight, colour and richness in the low notes. That said, differently from what she did in her recording of Rossini’ s Semiramide, she didn’ t invariably resort to upward variations (unless in repeats, when she were more or less “entitled” to do so, so to speak). To do her justice, I should add that she was particularly adept in managing her naturally ungenerous low register. Although one wouldn’ t hear spacious sounds in that area of her voice, focus was always there.
As in her Norma or Elisabetta (in Roberto Devereux), the amazing girlishness of her voice makes it a bit difficult for her to be truly convincing in these maternal roles, but if you like bel canto in the grand style, her Lucrezia has unending supply of high pianissimi, dictionary-perfect messa di voce, perfectly articulated divisions etc. For example, hearing the sequence of trills in the end of Com’ è bello done to perfection live at the theatre was like witnessing a miracle. As expected, she chose the showpiece Era desso il figlio mio to close the opera – and it was fascinating to see her weighing with Swiss-clockmaker precision the expressive and technical demands of this difficult scene (here made following the composite ending with the tenor’ s death and then the soprano’ s big aria).
Although the title role in Lucrezia Borgia is fearsome, this is truly an ensemble opera and Gruberova had fellow singers who left nothing to be desired and could never be overshadowed even by such an admirable prima donna.
As Gennaro, Josep Bros sang with unending graciousness, seamless legato and apollonian ease with top notes. Apart from one or two forced acuti in T’ amo qual s’ ama un angelo (the aria written for Nikolai Ivanov), there is absolutely nothing less than exemplary in his stylish and sensitive performance. Although Ewa Podles’ s contralto has more than a splash of throatiness these days (what makes her sometimes inaudible in ensembles), her graphical account of Orsini’ s narration in the Prologue was truly hair-raising and the panache displayed in Il segreto per esser felice (ornamented with a Spanish flavour, maybe as a tribute to the audience) was simply irresistible. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s bass should be a bit more flamboyant in order to make his Don Alfonso more dangerous, but he sang with firm tone and knowledge of style throughout. The minor roles were all splendidly taken.
Conductor Stefan Anton Reck was truly a positive surprise – his sense of theatricality is praiseworthy, especially the way he produced his effective orchestral effects without ever drowning his singers. He was also able to drive his orchestra through an unusually polished performance even when the dramatic situations required swift tempi.