It is amazing that Edita Gruberová, at 65, is able to pull out a recital in which the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is only the last item before the pause. Some young sopranos would think twice before doing that, but Gruberová is probably the most fearless person I have ever seen. Not only did she program some very difficult arias in a row, but also made a point of taking all the optional embellishment and high notes, not to mention those she invented herself. In a world where bel canto specialists cannot really trill, produce a legitimate messa di voce, tackle mezza voce in very high notes and still be heard over a big orchestra, Gruberová is a wonder of nature, but – and I say this as a great fan of hers – I begin to wonder if she is doing herself a favor by being so obstinate about not moving on. I mean, the comparison to most singers in this repertoire might still be favorable for the legendary Slovakian soprano, but is it really favorable to her former self? As Christa Ludwig said about her retirement, it is better to be remembered for your very best. For example, in alts. Nobody expects a veteran – even one whose tone is so absolutely youthful as hers – to sing all those high e and e flat in alt in a concert. Twenty years ago, she would have done it without any effort. Now, they sound exactly what they cost to be produced – shrill, piercing and not really truly in pitch. Music is no circus and I am sure Gruberova’s many fans do not go to the theatre to see if the old girl can still do it, but to savor her consummate artistry, her perfect technique and her expressive powers. And she has still got all that – and all that could be put to better service in repertoire appropriate to her present voice.
For instance, Com’è bello from Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia has always sat too low for her voice. The necessary warmth and immaculate legato to make this aria come to life were not there – and will never be. So why singing it? Amina’s closing aria from Bellini’s La Sonnambula showed an entirely different singer. In any case, a role written for Giuditta Pasta will always require adjustment for a voice as high as Gruberová. She sang it sensitively – more than in her official recordings a couple of years ago, but again she does not sound really spontaneous in the lower end of her voice – and the fioriture in the cabaletta were quite savonné. Lucia’s Mad Scene – barred the unwritten final in alts – remains well-fit to her voice and allowed her to use her crystalline soprano with breathtakingly pure pianissimi to portray Lucia’s predicaments. There were moments when things got a bit astray, but she never lost sight of the drama. After the intermission, Elvira’s Mad Scene from Bellini’s I Puritani showed the singer a bit short of legato and more comfortable in a touchingly performed recitative before a cautious cabaletta. All my reserves were dispelled by the closing scene from Roberto Devereux (when she was ably partnered by Rachel Frenkel, Abdellah Lasri and James Homann), a scene she has made her own in her musical-dramatic understanding and complete abandon. There even the unsettled low notes are used for theatrical purposes – and she could ably hold, as she has always done, her final optional note for ever. The encore items were a charming O luce di quest’anima (from Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix) and a hilarious Spiel ich die Unschuld vom Lande from J. Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.
Conductor Andriy Yurkevych was probably hired because he comes in the combo with his soloist, but proved to know the ins and outs of bel canto repertoire – he relished the proto-Johann Straussian elements in Ponchielli’s Danza delle ore from La Gioconda and made brilliant effects in the Pas de six from Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell, but couldn’t find the right degree of tension in the overture of Bellini’s Norma. In any case, listening to the Staatskapelle Berlin in this repertoire is a gift from Heaven.