Cher Public

Woman on the verge of a repertoire breakthrough

First, an admission. I do not love Elina Garanca’s voice. I admire it a great deal—the fluidity of tone across her registers, the effortless technique. But I only like the basic timbre; I cannot say I love it. What makes Garanca special to me is less the quality of her voice than the way she deploys her instrument.

In recent years, the voice has grown, transitioning from lyric to spinto. Revive is a manifesto of sorts, declaring her intentions for the new direction in her career. The aria choices are eclectic. Garanca covers both familiar ground and roads less travelled, even a couple of rarities. She offers tantalizing roles like Eboli, Dalila, and Charlotte, but not “O don fatale,” “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” or Charlotte’s Letter Aria.

In the accompanying essay, Strong Women in Moments of Weakness, she explains her inspiration for programming this new album. The selections are representative of her new repertoire—roles suited to her current voice — but also her age.

She is happy to consider Eboli or Amneris but not Azucena, because she feels that the singer portraying the old gypsy should literally be old enough to be Manrico’s mother. One can appreciate this thinking intellectually while being glad that most mezzos and casting directors have not followed it. I wouldn’t want to be without Fiorenza Cossotto’s Azucena recorded in her mid-30s. And I have no problem with Dolora Zajick (at a similar age) playing Luciano Pavarotti’s mother—though he was some two decades her senior—in her sensational Met debut.

The point here is that Garanca takes on roles that make sense to her in every way—vocally, dramatically, and her stage in life. Because she sees her choices in the Italian rep as limited to a handful of roles, she mines the French repertoire extensively, finding roles that suit her new voice while also taking advantage of her relative youth. In the essay, she points to her natural affinity for the French repertoire. And she is not incorrect in that assessment. She may not do anything special with the French language but she embraces the spirit of the Romantic French arias with inspiration.

The hallmarks of a great Garanca performance are musical alertness and a surrender to the dramatic moment. In her best roles, whether as Mozart’s Sesto or Donizetti’s Giovanni or Sara, Garanca puts all her considerable skill and talent at the service of the moment. The result is often performances of great urgency and high musical value. Throughout this album, Garanca’s musicality is never in doubt though, interpretively, she responds better to some arias than others. Still, there are a number of selections in which all the pieces come together.

Mascagni’s “Voi lo sapete” starts the album and was apparently the departure point for the entire album. Santuzza was Garanca’s first venture into dramatic repertoire and she brings the character’s pitiable desperation vividly to life.

After a strong start, she carries forth with one of the best tracks on the album, “Acerba volutta” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. In this aria and others, her voice displays a biting quality at the bottom of her range and a certain hardness of tone. But if her low notes lack the opulent tone of great Principessas of yesteryear, she certainly has plenty of opulence at the top of her high mezzo. She builds the final stanza of the aria to its climax with satisfying grandeur.

Later in the album, she switches roles, singing Adriana’s “Io son l’umile ancella.” This is the weakest selection, not reaching the high standard she achieves elsewhere. The soprano notes are not a concern. Rather, she can’t quite float the notes the way she would like so one hears the effort that goes into coaxing those gentle lines, especially when the notes sit in her passagio. The ending is forceful when I suspect she was going for merely passionate.

As noted, there are a large number of French Romantic arias, and they almost all tend towards sweeping, lush melodies. The exception is Didon’s “Ah! Ah! Je vais mourir… Adieu, fière cité” from Berlioz’s Les troyens. She portrays the Carthaginian queen’s grief with dignified pathos and, while there is a lot more to the role than that aria, one has every hope that the role could be a major triumph for her. Fortunately, she plans on taking it to the stage in the future.

At first I was a bit disappointed to be getting Eboli’s Veil Song instead of the high-drama “O don fatale” but she puts down one of the most musically accomplished accounts of the aria I’ve heard. Where the main melody alternates between two notes, she articulates them without sounding “clucky,” achieving instead a kind tremolo effect that suits the song’s character. She takes her time with the cadenzas, showing musical imagination. I especially like her way with the quiet roulades at the end of each cadenza.

While she could do more to portray Eboli’s fiery personality, she displays an appealing rhythmic incisiveness. This confidence also serves her well in Priezosilla’s “Rataplan” from La forza del destino. What can often be an ungrateful aria is a showpiece for Garanca and her rhythmic acuity. In both selections, she has an equal partner in conductor Roberto Abbado, who knows where to put the accents to keep the music buoyant. Throughout the album, he and the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana offer polished and sensitive playing.

Her choice of “Amour, viens aider ma faiblesse” from Samson et Dalila is a reminder that Saint-Saens gave his anti-heroine three great arias. Garanca sings the alluring melody with urgency and beautiful legato. This is another role which Garanca plans to take to the stage and, even if her voice sits a bit higher than the ideal of the part, one does not doubt her powers of seduction. She brings similar musical qualities and dramatic resolve to “Hérode! Ne me refuse pas!” from Massenet’s Herodiade, building the aria to a passionate climax. This is one of the album’s high points.

Listening to the brief aria Ponchielli gives Laura made me fantasize about a Gioconda with Anna Netrebko. What a confrontation the two would have! Because of the spinto requirements of the role, Laura often comes off sounding too matronly for my taste. Here, Garanca strikes the right balance of fulfilling the musical requirements while still bringing youthful vitality to the part. She finishes off the aria with a gorgeous piano portamento. In the booklet, she says that she’s very keen on singing the part but wonders if any company will want to spend the resources on mounting the opera. I think a joint call to Mr. Gelb with friend Anna could possibly do the trick!

Eschewing the Letter Aria from Massenet’s Werther, Garanca opts for Charlotte’s less obvious “Va! laisse couler mes larmes” and delivers it with tender melancholy. In the booklet , she admits that Mignon’s “Connais-tu le pays” is a bit out of place in her album concept but she loves it. It is the most touchingly sung selection. Marina’s aria from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is the only aria not in French or Italian. It is well-sung but fails to take off.

On the other hand, Musetta’s aria, “Marcello mio,” from Leoncavallo’s La bohème is an album highlight. Leoncavallo gives his Musetta music of greater depth than Puccini does his and Garanca takes full advantage of the material, delivering the aria with fervent sweep. I wish she had chosen to close the album with this aria, instead of the less substantial “Reine! Je serai reine” from Saint-Saens’s Henry VIII. She sings that aria well, and one can see the appeal of closing an album with cries of “I will be Queen” (a declaration most every parterrian has surely made at some point) but it is not as strong a statement as many other selections.

Throughout, she does a good job of enunciating the words without necessarily doing much to highlight them. There is no text-pointing here, no sense of a particular textual phrase driving the musical interpretation.

While she has room for dramatic growth in some selections, she is sensitive and probing. Her voice has grown, yes, but so has her temperament. In the past, I have found some of Garanca’s early work beautifully sung but dramatically pallid. The best selections on Revive demonstrate that her singing has increased in breadth, not just in vocal amplitude but also in interpretive grandeur. If this album is a credo for a new chapter in Elina Garanca’s career, I say bring it on!

  • Porgy Amor

    This is a terrific piece, Ali. I do not listen to many solo-recital discs these days, but now I want to hear this one.

    I like her even more than you do, I suspect, but as I usually have experienced her in complete performances when I could see what she was doing on stage, I have never really put her voice to the “ears only” test (of course, with Garanca, I would never want to close my eyes). I do think it’s a beautiful voice just on its own merits, so she has the whole package, in my estimation.

    • Armerjacquino

      The thing I wasn’t expecting when I saw Garanca live, before the switch in rep, (BOLENA in 2011) was how massive the voice already was as a lyric mezzo; it remains one of the biggest voices I’ve heard.

      • Interesting. I’ve never heard her live but I had a similar reaction to when I heard Calleja in recital. The voice was much bigger than I expected (though quite soft-grained).

  • ines

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts. For some reason , I love this voice, as much as Borodina struck me over 20 years ago.
    And it doesn’t harm , that she has this brilliant top and the beauty.
    Just wanted to say, that Charlotte’s letter she recorded already 10 years ago on her first solo disc for DG , likewise ‘ mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix’ is featured on a gala concert CD ( w Netrebko, Tezier and Vargas). Her Don Fatale can be seen on Youtube from a concert from last summer… very promising for the Paris Don Carlos

    • Thanks for that info. I almost never buy solo recital albums so I wasn’t aware of the two arias she has already recorded. That makes sense that she wouldn’t repeat any. For me, the voice lacks a certain lustre, beautiful and attractive as it is. But it’s a purely a subjective thing.

  • When she sang Santuzza in November last year, it was a full ten years since I’d last seen her in Clemenza. What a transformation.

  • actfive

    Excellent review. I reviewed this album for an upcoming ON issue. I agree with virtually all your points except I found the Santuzza rather dull. Garanca seems to indicate emotion here, but nowhere on this album (except Herodiade) does she rise to the level of deeply felt passion. But, as you say, her musicianship is excellent.

    • Thanks. I look forward to reading yours in ON. It’s interesting that her strongest work comes in two arias from operas that have been more famously set by other composers (BOHEME and HERODIADE). In both cases, I her recording made me want to hear the full opera.

  • actfive

    I also LOVED the “Marcello mio” of Leoncavallo.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Could somebody tell me the job title of the lady in glasses sitting with EG and clearly discussing the score? Is she a vocal coach or an assistant conductor, or what?

  • fletcher

    Great review -- I enjoyed listening to the album today but it’s sort of a bummer she chose to sing the Veil Song in Italian. The Ponchielli aria is really outstanding.