Posts Tagged ‘Edita Gruberova’

I would be in Zürich for the Fliegende Holländer. So why not checking this new staging of Bellini’s rarely staged La Straniera? I’ve got the last ticket available and then Opera Rara’s recording to prepare myself. I had never listened to this work before, but had read ages ago a report on Diapason that made me feel curious: the black pearl among Bellini operas or something like that. I won’t lie – I couldn’t make it to the second CD. I almost brought it with me in case jet lag prevented me from sleeping at night.

Maybe (very) low expectations have done the trick, but live at the theatre I kept wondering why I had found the CDs so boring. I have some theories:

1) although it has been often performed in concert, this is an opera that has to be experienced staged. The fact that there are no big arias (the tenor doesn’t even have an aria to speak of) and that numbers are so unorthodoxly structured is explained by the fact that the composer really wanted his audience to concentrate in the drama;

2) although the Opera Rara CDs has superior orchestral playing and a conductor who is a specialist in this repertoire, the cast is problematic and “thrilling” is not the word that comes to my mind when I think of it.

Why has this evening made me change my mind on Bellini’s bleak-pearl opera? To start with, Fabio Luisi proved to have made the right decision when he decided not to make little of Bellini’s score (there are many niceties, including an aria accompanied by flute arpeggi). As the orchestra has received a “Beethovenian” treatment, singers were obliged to take the cue from the pit and that basically keep them together in an unified musical concept instead of the usual coincidence of individual ego trips. The house orchestra is far from ideal, but the fact that it was there in the center of the event made everything sound different – rare indulgent tenuti or puntature to start with. Considering that this score has many interesting harmonic twists, it is particularly good to be able to hear more than a soloist andsomeguysaccompanyinghimorher. Especially when the soloists are that good!

Edita Gruberová first sang the part of Alaide last year. I am glad that, at this point of her career, she is still willing to add a new role to her repertoire, but I am sorry that she has not done that before, for this is indeed a role that fits her voice and personality like a glove. First, the high tessitura and the long-sustained-phrase writing highlight the Slovakian soprano’s best vocal abilities. Second, the role has a dreamy, otherworldly quality that agree to her dramatic instincts. We first hear Alaide off-stage singing a sequence of ascending trills and we are supposed to be in awe – so it must be a voice with inbuilt magic, and that was we got this evening. Gruberová was in amazingly good shape – her soprano was at its luminous best, she trilled with complete abandon and was at her less fussy. I understand that, if you compare her performance with Renata Scotto’s for instance, there is going to be more than a splash of Zerbinetta in it (as she has often been accused of), but – seriously – this is a small price to pay for her technical excellence and textual clarity and theatrical imagination.

As much as in the Opera Rara CDs, the Isoletta here lacks a youthful, truly agreeable tone. At least, Veronica Simeoni, being Italian, brings an idiomatic quality that, aided by crystalline diction, made the role less a cipher than it can be. The tenor between these two ladies is the same from the CDs – Dario Schmunk, whose emphatic singing style fits his the exalted personality of his role. His voice is more pleasant heard live, when the squeezed high notes sound less edgy and the off-focus mezza voce is not devoid of charm.  A convincing performance. Franco Vassallo has developed a lot as a Bellini singer since last time I saw him – this evening, he sung with poise, elegance and sensitivity and still offered his hallmark big, firm top notes. The ensemble singers too were extremely well cast here – Benjamin Bernheim (Osburgo) sang with round tone, focused low notes and perfect Italian style and Reinhard Mayer’s rich, dark bass was shown to advantage in the role of the Prior.

Christof Loy’s staging could be called minimalistic – there is only one set, which is indeed a “stage set”, you can see the mechanisms and that this is nothing but a piece of scenery. Characters operate the ropes themselves. Costumes are stylized 19th century and everything turns around a very sharp symbology – stage ropes that double as hangman’s halters, a Romantic painting of a lake that represents Arturo’s fantasy of happiness with Alaide, black and white veils and costumes to show the parallels between the fantasized woman (Alaide, as perceived by Arturo) and the real one (Isoletta). It is not a staging that reveals any hidden angle, but that makes the story itself clear and immediate. Considering that this is a very convoluted plot, this is no small feat.


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The third and last installment of the Vienna State Opera’s Japanese tour is Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, as seen on video with Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca. Eric Génovèse’s is the most recent and most complex production from Vienna in the series brought to the Japanese audience – and considering the improved quality of the choral singing – probably the “premium” item (it looks also better live than on DVD). The reason is the long and faithful appreciation for Edita Gruberová’s artistry in Japan. Although this has been announced as the Slovakian diva’s farewell operatic performance in Japan, the truth is that her later appearances in Tokyo have all of them been marketed as such. I have to confess that the last time I saw her (as Norma, in Berlin) left me a bitter aftertaste – that evening showed her below her usual standards and I wondered if she should not consider preserving her reputation by leaving the stage while still remembered by her qualities, not her flaws. In that sense, this afternoon proved that either she was in a very bad day that day or that she was in an exceptionally good day today.

Before the nay-sayers say anything, I will acknowledge that Anna Bolena requires a voice different from Gruberová’s – and her approach arguably is not what a bel canto specialist would consider “authentic”. But, even in her present vocal condition (i.e., although the tonal quality is still crystal-clear and young-sounding, legato is now imperfect, some runs are imprecise and intonation has its dodgy moments), she has practically no rivals these days in some very tricky passages, especially those involving trills and high mezza voce. What many critics overlook too is the fact that hers are fully-engaged performances, dramatically committed and intelligent: if her approach to interpretation is often more Straussian than Donizettian, at least she is truly investing the text with a wide tonal palette (and very clear diction), what is a sine qua non condition for true bel canto phrasing. I only wished that she did not try to prove herself with some showy embellishment and laborious in alts (why?) – when the matter is technique and insight, hers is still a convincing performance – at some moments, (such as Cielo, a’miei lunghi spasimi) even haunting.

Sonia Ganassi (Giovanna Seymour) was not at her most focused and took some time to warm. I am not sure if this is a good role for her, but that did not prevent her to offer her customary intensity of expression, attention to the text and sense of style. In any case, her contribution in her big duet with Anna was sensitively handled and she coped with the fast tempo in Ah, pensate che rivolti with aplomb. Although Elisabeth Kulman was in more incisive voice in the video, she still sang with irresistible charm – hers is a truly lovely voice. I would really like to hear her in Der Rosenkavalier (unfortunately not in her repertoire). As Percy, Shalva Mukeria proved to be something like the poorman’s Josep Bros – and that’s being really, really poor. I have to believe that he was indisposed or something like that. As much as with  Sonia Ganassi, I do not believe that Enrico is really Luca Pisaroni’s role and yet he sang very well. The necessary weight and menace were not really there, but what he offered was elegant, technically accomplished and connected to the drama.

Evelino Pidò is an ideal Donizettian conductor – the Vienna State Opera Orchestra offered him its most Italian sound and the extra polish of an orchestra used to Mozart and R. Strauss. He produced the ideal balance between orchestra and singers, never let rhythms sag, found excitement in buoyancy rather than in weight (as this repertoire demands) and made his musicians sing with the singers, not only in solo passages. This alone would have made this performance worth the while.

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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.

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In an age when opera stagings are permanently updated and discarded, the fact that Filippo Sanjust’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is still in use after 33 years is something of an archeological experience. For many a Straussian, it may feel like some sort of operatic eucharist- the recurrent resurrection of the mythic production on video featuring Karl Böhm’s conducting with Gundula Janowiz and René Kollo.

Those 30 years have been kind on the production, the unpretentious classical aesthetics of which are more or less immune to the change of fashion. The three decades have also been rather kind on its Zerbinetta too. But they are very much part of her performance now. Edita Gruberová’s stardom has begun in this very production in the Wiener Staatsoper back in 1976, when Böhm declared her the absolute Zerbinetta. She dazzled audiences for years in this role with the instrumental accuracy of her fioriture and her intelligent and sensitive interpretation. Now at 63, Gruberová cannot compete with her former self. First, the standard is too high. Then there are moments of incertain intonation, some excursions above high c are uncomfortable, her low register has become even less reliable. But Gruberová does not seem ashamed of her seniority. Although the tonal quality remains crystal-clear and her roulades, scales and staccato are still impressive, her Zerbinetta is clearly not a young woman, but rather a veteran seductress who can now and then still charm the occasional suitor. It is an evidence of the Slovak soprano’s rare artistry the way she transforms what could be a handicap in the special feature of her performance. The day when she says her farewell to Zerbinetta, we will have to wait long before we hear the role sung again with such spirit and Echtheit.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s big creamy lyric soprano is tailor-made for the role of Ariadne; she is certainly the best I have heard in a long while. That said, I cannot really class her among the great exponents of this part. Along  moments of surpassingly beautiful singing, there were too many examples of clumsy management of breath support. As a result, she forced many high notes, had her shallow-toned episodes, opted for odd Luftpausen and misfired a couple of pianissimi.

I can only understand that Michelle Breedt was not in a god day. Her voice did not really carry in the auditorium, the low register was not funcional and the ascents to high notes extremely strenuous. Her indisposition seemed to increase during the performance – and she only ended it out of sheer willpower. Although I dislike the overephatic non-legato-ish approach, one must acknowledge that she is a very convincing stage actress with illuminating word-pointing and imagination. I hope to see her Composer under better circumstances.

I have read a great deal about Lance Ryan and was extremely curious to hear him. I cannot deny, though, that the first impression was not really positive. His voice has an open raw nasal tonal quality that is the opposite of pleasing and the volume is not as generous as the Heldentenor repertoire might require. On the other hand, his vocal health and expert breath support are impressive. I have never, live or in recordings, heard a Bacchus who could sing those dangerously high-lying phrases with such ease. His ability to sing long stretches on the breath is truly amazing.

Ulf Schirmer is an experienced Straussian who knows how to balance vertical clarity with rich sonorities. The house band ‘s long history with this music is evident in the crystalline, ductile orchestral sound and the way the “theatrical” effects in the score were perfectly handled. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the performance was under-rehearsed. Ensemble was not truly polished and, with the exception of the leading tenor, the other main roles (including the Hausmeister) suffered from lapses of memory.

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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.

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Thanks to the advocacy of Edita Gruberová, the Bayerische Staatsoper has reserved a special place for bel canto operas in its seasons – and judging from what I witnessed this evening, admirers of Donizetti operas have something to be thankful for. Never before had I experienced the charm of Donizetti’s writing for the orchestra as intensely as this evening in Munich. Conducted by Friedrich Haider, who happens to be someone who does not trifle with this repertoire, the hall was filled with rich, refulgent string sounds, unbelievably precise in passagework and perfectly blended with woodwind. Some may find that such an approach would be a disadvantage to singers – that was not the case. Allowed to dialogue with solo instruments in concertante manner, inscribed in the framework of beautiful orchestral sound, the cast could find a deepened level of expression.

Cristof Loy’s production is, of course, the same featured on DVD with more or less the same cast. As on video, Loy found updating as an enlightening way of focusing the political aspects of the plot. One is entitled to feel suspicious, but the efficient direction of actors makes it rather believable. It is, of course, Gruberová’s show, but she surrenders entirely to the concept. Having a lifelong experience with the traditional approach – red wig and tons of pearls – scaling down the clichéd “Elizabeth I”-act to the psychological days in which we’re living was not a stretch for her.

When it comes to the vocal aspects of her performance, one is tempted to speak of what an achievement this is for a 60-year-old singer, but Gruberová does not need that. Although her voice had seen more supernaturally impressive days, she can still boast to have resources almost no one possesses. Unfortunately, a strong low register has never been among her natural gifts. And Donizetti may be very demanding in this aspect. In her entrance aria, the search for low notes, for example, seemed to have unbalanced the production of her voice – all the mannerisms her detractors like to point out were there – scooping, fussying with tempo and slight behind-the-beat coloratura. During the evening, she would found her optimal level, though, managing to focus most of her plunges to chest register. The other low notes were dealt with with “acting with the voice”. She seemed to be willing to compensate this with an unending supply of her hallmark qualities, such as immaterial high pianissimo, effortless divisions and forceful in alts. The closing scene is a Gruberová classic – no one has ever gone so deep into the character’s mind and heart as she does. It has been – and it still is -one of her supreme achievements.

The replacement of the leading tenor and baritone on the video for two Italians has also proved most positive. Massimiliano Pisapia has a most beautiful and natural tenor and phrases in the most gracious and stylish manner. It is a pity that he feels tempted to produce his high notes excessively covered. This is the only problem standing between him and complete success. Paolo Gavanelli is always an intense stage presence. His first aria was sung with outstanding purity of style and control of line. Later his tendency to produce woolly top notes would rob a bit from the nobility of his phrasing. Jeanne Piland’s mezzo is pleasant to the ears and she is an engaged actress, but her voice soon started to develop a flutter and ended on sounding tired. The minor roles – even the very small ones – were cast from strength. I wonder if Donizetti himself listened to his Roberto Devereux as scrumptiously performed as we did tonight in Munich.

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