Lucrezia Borgia: The diva quantified

Last night’s Staatsoper Edita Gruberova Show, otherwise known as Lucrezia Borgia, featured the unusual sight of the orchestra onstage as well as many confused tourists who hadn’t grasped the meaning of “Konzertant” on the schedule.  But Gruberova has a cult in these parts, and the crowd was more local than usual.  Parterre’s Quantification of the Diva recently named her the greatest “contemporary diva,” a decision greeted with confusion by many Americans.  But I think that if you’re Euro, or at least if you’re Viennese, there’s little question that this judgment is correct.

Donizetti, Lucrezia Borgia.  Wiener Staatsoper in concert, 6/10/10.  Conducted by Friedrich Haider with Edita Gruberova (Lucrezia Borgia), José Bros (Gennaro), Michele Pertusi (Don Alfonso I), Laura Polverelli (Maffio Orisini)

Edita Gruberova is a miracle of vocal longevity.  She made her Staatsoper debut in 1970 but still has impeccable control over every aspect of her voice, as well as her regal stage manner, which makes her a complete and very charismatic performer.  From her first entrance, in a shiny dress and sporting fluffy hair, she radiated great confidence in her own perfection.  She’s got some great vocal tricks, her favorite being quietly hovering around a high G for an unfathomable period of time and slowly crescendoing.  Her phrasing, carefully planned and exact in every move, can be mannered, but it has a certain inner coherence and expressive commitment that made it not bother me.  And the high dramatics of poisoner/tormented mother Lucrezia Borgia fit her intense but imperious style very well.  The enormous challenges of the role didn’t seem to bother her until the marathon of the final scene–where, considering Lucrezia is dying, some vocal weaknesses can pass as dramatic effect.

It’s enough to make you barely notice that the sound itself can be dodgy in the usual ways of an aging singer.  Her tone, which in her prime was never a model of warmth, is thin in the middle, shrill on the top, and hooty in the chest voice.  Once I began to hear these well-disguised problems they began to stick out more and more.  I have to admire her–a lot–but I didn’t feel the love.

Judging from the wild cheering, It seemed like most of the audience did.  A fellow standing-room member told me about how long he and Gruberova (and the standing room section) go back, which I think was just as important an element to his bravas as anything that actually happened onstage that night, well-preserved as it was.  Maybe, at this point, you need that history.

The lack of staging of course didn’t help anything either (there were no props with the exception of a chair for Gennaro to sit on to indicate his death).  Gruberova, along with José Bros as Gennaro and Michele Pertusi as Don Alfonso, did not use music, and the trio’s interactions had some basic acting, but never enough to develop into anything.  It also didn’t help that I was unlucky in my standing room spot and they left my field of vision a few times.  (There is a DVD of Gruberova singing this role staged in Munich, with Pavol Breslik and Alice Coote as a first-class Gennaro and Orsini, and the Christof Loy production isn’t too bad once you get over the fact that it probably cost about 5 Euros. )

The non-Gruberova singers were variable.  Bros gave a solid, respectable but rather unmemorable Gennaro.  Nothing wrong with it or his bright lyric tenor voice except they weren’t exciting (and a few strained high notes in the first half).  Laura Polverelli was a dramatic and forceful Orsini, I think she would have done well with a staging.  Her tone is heavy on the vibrato, though.  The all-around best singing of the night came from classy bass Pertusi, with elegant phrasing and dark but flexible sound.

The Staatsoper orchestra, an organization to which universal opinions are often ascribed, is said to not like playing bel canto.  I thought Friedrich Haider’s tempos were perfectly reasonable, but the orchestra indeed sounded wrong, too soft-grained and misty.  A sharper attack, crisper rhythms and more forward energy would have helped.

But the orchestra wasn’t why anyone was there, they came for the Gruberova (and stayed for the Pertusi).  And I am glad that I got to see both her skill and her rapport with what truly can be called “her” public, even if I’m not a member of it.

Next: I’m going to Switzerland for Calixto Bieito’s Aida in Basel and Waltraud Meier’s Isolde in Zurich… oh, shit. Dammit.  First Nina Stemme, now Waltraud Meier cancels on me.  The Bieito and the chocolate better be good and the nine hours on the train better be comfortable.  Positing on these not until next week sometime.

Photo: Der Standard

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  1. A very young Edita singing Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen

    Queen of coloratura

    I think Freni is another great example of vocal longevity.

  2. Staatsoper orchestra is basically Vienna philharmonic orchestra, so actually it doesn't get much better. The question of course is always who is conducting and how much they rehearse. As this was a new show, i would assume that the problem was with conductor.