Among today’s arguably few star singers, fewer if any enjoy the kind of frenzied devotion of which Edita Gruberova remains the object, time and again. The Slovakian soprano, now midway through her seventh (!) decade, is still shining high up in the operatic firmament – which in her case encompasses (and is limited to, as far as her stage apperances are concerned) the classic triangle of the Wiener Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Opernhaus Zürich, the occasional stint at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu notwithstanding. Even if her performances systematically sell out everywhere she appears, the hords of aficionados down in the Catalan capital have a rightful claim to the title of most-obsessed-Gruberophiles. There I have witnessed hour-long ovations, complete with seemingly endless flows of confetti, cries of adoration verging on mantric transe, and flags bearing the name and picture of the diva not only waved, but in one case fully deployed over one of the upper balconies – quite an unusual setting for any operatic performance, anywhere on the planet, one must admit.

Generation face-down: Garanča and Gruberova rehearsing Anna Bolena in Barcelona

A couple of seasons back, my initial encounter with the veteran nightingale, an all-Mozart program ranging from Susanna’s delicate fourth-act aria in Le Nozze di Figaro to Elettra’s outbursts of fury in Idomeneo, left me totally baffled. I could hardly make sense of the audience’s reaction to what, to my virtuous ears, sounded like little more than a very, very long warm-up, many attempted but discreetly failed effects (some less discreetly so), and an overall ill-conceived succession of pieces pertaining to nearly as many different Fachen. I knew Gruberova through her numerous studio and live recordings, and unlike a handful of observers, always had a sweet spot for her somewhat steely, often demented, over-the-top vocalism, in Strauss (Johann II and Richard), Verdi, some Bellini (her Giulietta at Covent Garden under Muti), some Donizetti, and Mozart – of course. On that particular occasion, though, the Salzburg Wunderkind wasn’t going easy on her. Ultimately, it turned out to be one of those evenings on which one leaves the theater slightly depressed, in doubt for not sharing in the fun and puzzled after experiencing a vocal phenomenon that defies classification and punditry.

A second encounter would come, though, in the form of a concert performance of Norma, the paragon of bel canto operas, this past Summer in Salzburg. The controversy surrounding Gruberova’s ventures into firmly dramatic bel canto territory (the Tudor Queens, Norma, Lucrezia Borgia), understandably present upon her role debuts, unavoidably grew over time. Consequently, this was either going to be a revelatory or a profoundly disappointing experience. Nothing in-between. Anticipation rose steadily in the days and hours leading to the performance, with the rumour heard all around town that Kanzlerin Merkel would attend, incognita among prestigious guests. And then, the revelation: our leading lady was in superlative form. Truth be told, the role lies considerably low for her, so low, in fact, that she could not get through it without resorting to a mostly gratuitous and far-from-subtle parlando in the lowest passages, more obviously so in the second act. Yet, with a properly otherworldly rendition of Casta Diva and a climactic finale to the first act, she provided the endazzled crowd with the genuine excitement that fails too many routine, safe, otherwise predictable or asepticized performances.

And there lies, most possibly, the key to the die-hard adoration: the public’s appetite for risky, thrilling, self-unconscious singing is immense. This idea could also be applied, partly, to opera’s elder statesman of later years, Plácido Domingo. Both Domingo and Gruberova, each within their own parameters, offer not only decades of métier but, through their respective persona and idiosyncrasies, reposition the very act of singing as an athletic deed performed by artists who can be at times both human and divine. The resulting goosebumps are the stuff of modern-day legends. Audiences, being blown hot and cold, sit on the cusp of their seats, holding their breath in expectation: “what will happen…?“. A brilliantly-executed cadenza, unusual stamina in a tricky passage, the mere combination of beautiful phrasing and tone – triumph ensues.

The Liceu audience so held its breath before exploding in thunderous and prolonged applause as Gruberova walked the incredibly fine thread of Al dolce guidami, the second-act showstopper in Anna Bolena, a couple of weeks ago. There you had all the elements of the Gruberova paradox: a long, frustrating warm-up, an occasionally histrionic delivery – in this case hard to conceal next to Elīna Garanča‘s healthy conduct of her ever-lush mezzo and Carlo Colombara‘s elegant italianità – yet a rendition of the final aria and cabaletta so utterly musical and technically precise that the question of “age” became, for a moment, almost irrelevant. These are said to be Gruberova’s final stage performances in Barcelona. Indeed, a look at her calendar prompts open speculation on the date of her retirement.

Critics and pundits like to categorize a female singer based on whether they think she wows her audience through beauty of voice and superlative technique (a.k.a. the Stimm-diva), or through the expressive power and intelligence of her interpretation (a.k.a. the Kunst-diva). I’m including a couple of snippets of the Barcelona Bolena – you can judge for yourself here, here and here. The runs concludes on March 5, and every remaining performance is sold out. For one-time die-hards, here is another look at the paradoxical nature of the phenomenon – one that reads “selfless abandon”. Gruberova is also featured in a 2008 documentary (a bit pompously) titled “The Art of Bel Canto“, in which she comes off as delightfully candid and witty as “diva” can be.

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Assessing the New

April 1, 2010

Alex Ross has an excellent piece in this week’s edition of The New Yorker, in which he assesses the ups and downs of the Peter Gelb administration at the Metropolitan Opera, expressing concern that the theatrical revolution announced when Gelb took office four years ago is in fact not materializing according to expectations. His take on the situation is perceptive and fiercely accurate. Yet, besides questions of artistic policy – and there has been numerous notable improvements at the Met over the past few years – the underlying issue here is of having to deal not only with ideas but also (and perhaps primarily) with structures. In that respect, it is a concern not only for the mighty Metropolitan but, in one form or another, for most of the big repertory houses.

Opera companies are extremely complex organizations. The Met is the paragon of rotating repertory houses, with over 250 performances of ca. 25 different productions a season (between 6 to 8 of them new). More often than not, up to four different titles are presented over the course of any given 7-day period. This is only possible because the company employs one of the most massive (and virtuosic) technical / production task forces in the business, one that copes with the heaviest opera schedule in the world. In the critical eye, the company’s identity is progressively defined over time by what is printed in the season brochures and what ultimately goes on stage, but in the day-to-day life of the theater, it is shaped by the work of each and all company members. Institutional cultures don’t turn around on a dime, and in the case at hand, the Met has a production culture that is still – not suprisingly – rooted in its zeffirelliesque past, when dramaturgical values did not get much past the circus act. With such a heavy schedule, stage rehearsal time is the scarcest, most precious, non-renewable resource, the pressures met by artists and their collaborators not always easy to reconcile with their creative agenda.

Where to go from there? There is no obvious or simple answer to that question, which in the end is that of the respective merits of repertory houses vs. “stagione” theaters (where only one production is being rehearsed and performed by the entire company at a time) or festivals. Opera companies operate on shifting grounds these days, facing many daunting challenges of various natures, not the least financial. In the end, the question should always be: how do we make sure that artistic values prevail?

Vanity Fair runs a Met profile of its own in its May issue.