Königin of Mozart

The third installment of my 50th anniversary tribute to Edita Gruberova was impossible to narrow down to one selection. She recorded more of Mozart than any other composer, and, it may perhaps be said, whose music was a near-perfect fit for her type of voice; especially in the opera seria realm, she excelled. 

She either sang or recorded Fortuna, Sifare, Giunia, Bastienne, Madame Herz, Sandrina, Elettra, Konstanze (twice on record, once on video), Fiordiligi, Donna Anna (on record and video), Queen of the Night (3 times on record, twice for video), plus 3 volumes of concert arias, several sacred pieces, and lieder. I consider her Mozart concert arias to be gramophone essentials.

Mozart and Strauss formed the bulk of Gruberova’s studies at the Bratislava conservatory of music, and the Queen of the Night was her first major role when she defected from communist Czechoslovakia to Vienna in 1970 (and which she went on to sing over 110 times, bidding farewell to it in 1983).

I have chosen four of my favorite selections, each, I think, which are representative of her finest work.

If Gruberova’s French and Italian Opera Arias was the first time I heard her voice, the Queen of the Night was the first time I saw a visual representation of her. Later in 1983, PBS broadcast Die Zauberflöte, recorded live from the 1982 Salzburg Festival. Staged at the Felsenreitschule by Jean Pierre-Ponnelle, the production was Gruberova’s personal favorite of the opera.

The clip shows why. The Queen of the Night is given a spectacular second act showcase for her celebrated vengeance aria, up on one of the tiers of the Felsenreitschule, and surrounded by glittering stars.

Ponnelle here has restored almost all of the role’s dialogue, and very important it is; it establishes her detailed history and why as an enemy of Sarastro, and what her motivations are, specifically to regain her power.

Gruberova here shows her skillful affinity for the dialogue, speaking in a low, harsh voice, dripping with imperious scorn and edgy anger.

Overall, on multiple levels, I believe this to be her most outstanding documented performance of Der Hölle Rache. The voice here is in its absolute prime, and she is agile, powerful, and commanding. The rapid-fire staccati, up to the high Fs, glint like spiky, poison-tipped daggers, and throughout, the crystal clarity of her tone never once sounds stressed or out of focus. Gruberova does here the tricky triplets, at 4:25, with absolute, comely precision and accuracy, and they aren’t blurred or gargled. The final “Hört, hört, hört! Rachegötter, hört, der Mutter Schwur!” shatters through the theater resoundingly.

Giunia in Lucio Silla became one of Gruberova’s most highly acclaimed roles, and, as she has publicly stated, was the most challenging; specifically, she cited the level of difficulty in the aria, “Ah, se il crudel periglio” as “excruciating.”

Written for Anna de Amicis, the aria itself is almost ludicrously florid, having almost no dramatic function except as being strictly designated as a virtuoso showpiece in extremis. Wolfgang Hildesheimer, author of an acclaimed study on Mozart, wrote of Giunia’s music: “Today we can hardly believe that people listened to these arias with pleasure or even patience.”

Still, Mozart is Mozart, and Gruberova makes the treacherous high-wire act tremendously exciting, actually making this trumpet-concerto-like number exhilarating, and, more importantly, musical sounding. If nothing else, at least do hear, at 7:45, the ferociously fast 16th note scales sung with dynamite rapidity and velocity, on the longest of breaths, absent of aspirations, and with supreme, bravura triumph.

(The aria opens this concert)

httpvh://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXwtAaJyni

In 1987 Gruberova participated as Donna Anna in the controversial Strehler/Muti production of Don Giovanni at La Scala.

Recorded for video, it was overall only fitfully successful, the singers sounding tired and driven hard, the big, dark production dwarfing the cast (and Gruberova hated her wig: she said it looked like she was “wearing a mass of scrambled eggs”).

However, it did capture what I feel is her finest “Non mi dir, bell’idol mio.”

The recording captures her tone most warmly, it sounding ductile, blooming, and full-bodied. The recitative is infused with pathos and feeling; the ‘abbastanza,’ with its leap up to a B flat, is heart-stoppingly precise and pure, illustrating Donna Anna’s emotional fervency.

The aria is a thing of beauty, long-lined, suavely eloquent, and well-bound. Most tellingly, each exhalation taken at the beginning of a phrase is of itself, the act of breathing emotion into the musico-dramatico curve of the line (particularly at “Calma, calma il tuo tormento”). The first section is done with an elegant, upward finish. The repeat of the main melody, onto the variant, is done with exquisite, bittersweet poignancy. The concluding, difficult coloratura section, which harkens back to opera seria mode, is done with Gruberova’s customary finesse, not troubling her in the slightest.

Out of all of the some 25 concert arias Gruberova recorded, I would say, unhesitatingly, that her most outstanding achievement is in the magnificent “Popoli di Tessaglia…Io non chiedo eterni Dei.”

Composed for Mozart’s sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, the scena, which runs around 11 minutes, has its text by Ranieri di Calzabigi, which was borrowed from Gluck’s own opera, Alceste. It concerns Alceste, addressing the people of Thessaly, of her husband King Admeto’s imminent demise. Through her profound grief, she begs the populace and the gods for consolation and pity.

The recitative alone, in a brooding C-minor, marked andante sostenuto e languido, is one of Mozart’s most arresting and electrifying. Its ambiance is immediately characterized by a darkly funereal, somber bassoon which signifies the stateliness of the occasion; it is interwoven by a melancholic, purling oboe, which depicts the queen’s mournful state. The striking amalgamation of these contrasting instruments coalesce and blend with each other throughout the piece most effectively and skillfully, fittingly abetting the dramatic impetus.

The aria itself, in C-major, marked andantino sostenuto e cantabile, is a florid, majestic lament of considerable nobility and grandiosity. It takes the soprano up to the highest regions of her range, the penultimate phrase of this movement going up to a high E natural. The third, and concluding section, marked allegro assai, has the queen growing increasingly more anguished, her cries of grief more intense; this culminates into the soprano scaling up to a high G, twice. The aria has the distinction of being noted in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “highest musical note ever scored for the human voice.”

Prior to reviewing Gruberova’s recording, I spent two nights going back and listening to practically every recording of this piece available, by sopranos going back several decades (I’ve now got a horrific ear worm going).

There are variable problems encumbering nearly every soprano who recorded this. Most crucially, the majority of them are too light, too flutey or wispy in tone. Many of them are so concerned with staying on top of the infernal, demanding music that the dramatic intent gets lost; or at least, they have no clue of the musico-dramatico internal structure. There is often a general clumsiness or desperation to not lose vocal focus and control. Others have notoriously bad Italian. Real trills are often missing. The high Gs in several sopranos merely squeak or are out of tune. One renowned coloratura omits the Gs. A rather famous rendition is sung loudly, unsubtly and the Gs sound like dog-calling whistles.

Gruberova’s rendition, though is the outright champ (so far).

Vocally, the tone – firm, resonant, and full – sounds impeccably right. It has thrust, color, drama, and fullness in every part of the range. Trills are clearly articulated. The Italian is ideal: all the vowels have their full color and value; moreover the import of the text is made strongly manifest. The recitative is sung grandly, with the requisite larga la frase, with intense expressiveness and splendid, tragic grandiosity.

The way Gruberova intones lines like the mournful, “Innocenti fanciulli Admeto é padre,” the grief-stricken “La nostra sola speranza, il nostro amor c’invola, questo fato crudel,” the stunning vocal and emotional power of “Forse con questo spettacolo funesto,” the desperately resigned “Placati alfin sara del ciel lo sdegno,” just to cite the most notable examples, lingers hauntingly in the memory.

The aria itself is a near-ideal realization of Mozartian singing. Gruberova has a way of coloring the tone to indicate deep pathos, and imparting a “tear” with both exquisite shading and portamenti. The vibrato is absolutely firm, even, the legato flawless; she can bind the line at any dynamic level. Most crucially, she uses the long bars of coloratura as figures of expression; for example at 6:15, the “pieta” is drawn out to several bars, and on the page it may look like an opportunity for display, but as Gruberova does it, it sounds like expressive weeping, yet without the use of extraneous sobs.

At 8:10 the weeping gets even more intense, higher and pronounced; she touches upon a high E of pinpoint accuracy, retaining astonishing poise and control. Crucially, she never takes extra breaths to “prepare” for the most difficult phrases. No matter how high or ferocious the line becomes, you never get the sense that the music is getting the better of Gruberova. This is, by turns, highly accomplished, magisterial, confident, authoritative singing; the strength of her technique allows to draw upon her foundational resources at her full command.

The ascent to, and the two bravura high G’s are simply splendid: firm, full, and absolutely on pitch; moreover, they are a pleasure to behold as both vocal and histrionic climaxes.

I rate this recording as one of the glories of her documented performances. But that’s just me.