Sunday, January 22, 2012

A STAR IS BORN

NORMA (in Concert)
Cologne Opera
18 January 2012

© Sam H. Shirakawa

Edita Gruberova


It was one of those spangled nights. A star was born.

The audience attending the first of two sold-out concert performances of Norma this season at the Cologne Opera were in a win-win situation. Edita Gruberova, arguably the last genuine primadonna of our time, was, at the age of 65, singing the title role. If she finished the evening still standing, the audience would have received what it paid for. If not, a golden opportunity for sneering with civil leer.

By the end of the performance, though, the audience had gotten far more than its money’s worth. Not only was Gruberova in sublime form, but mezzo-soprano Regina Richter, singing Adalgisa, had burst forth as a singer to reckon with.

Regina Richter

How can I be so sure? I can’t. No one can. But I’ll say this much: I’ve seen it happen like this before: Anybody remember that fabled Met performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, when Eva Marton was heard singing even louder than Birgit Nilsson? (I’ll come back to this in a moment.)

Richter is currently a contract player at the Cologne Opera.  She has always distinguished herself at the many performances I have seen her give -- most recently as the Composer; also as Princess Bolonskaya (War and Peace), as well as doing bit parts that contract singers are obliged to fulfill. Legions of singers at German opera houses get that far and are content to settle for what ever assignments come their way.  Some are fabulous artists, but they don't draw the limelight for any number of reasons, both professional and personal.

What put Richter on the map on 18 January was going toe-to-toe with Gruberova in the big duets, especially in “Mira, O Norma.” During these moments, the agility, size, beauty and energy of her instrument set themselves in bold relief against the amplitude of Gruberova’s thrilling sound.

These passages brought to mind that legendary evening at the Met in 1981, when Eva Marton squared off with Birgit Nilsson in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Most informed opera-goers knew that Marton had a big voice, but few until that night were aware of just how big. When they appeared together for a curtain call, Nilsson whispered in Marton's ear and yielded the stage. Later, in separate interviews I conducted with them both, they corroborated what Nilsson had said: “This is your future.”

Richter’s future looks a lot more upwardly mobile now than it did just a few days ago, meaning she can probably drop Waltraute in Walküre and pick up Waltraute in Götterdämmerung. She is classed as a mezzo, but the hue of her voice conjures warm bister rather than hot amber; it channels Stignani rather than Horne, Troyanos rather than Obraztsova. Her line, in common with the above-mentioned ladies, is firmly butressed from register to register, and she projects Adalgisa’s anguish through purely vocal means without resorting to bristling textual accents. She had, however, some pallid moments in the second act, which could use some juicing. My hope for Richter is that she heeds Leontyne Price’s maxim and sings on the interest her voice has begun to generate in triple digits, not on the principal. Now that she’s been outed in the opera world, she needs to continue coming out.

While one reviewer off-handedly wrote that this Norma would probably be among Gruberova’s last, I doubt whether she will be retiring either the role or herself in the near future. Her vocal estate, on her good nights, is still very much in ship-shape condition. Like any singer in any age bracket, she has spates of could-sound-better. (Her Norma in Brussels two seasons ago, for instance.) But she remains a force of nature, and has become de facto a geriatric phenomenon. She is also among that rare group of opera singers who has improved with age. Her fioritura is now more incisive and telling than ever before. Her acrobatics with dynamics may strike some as showy, but the way she flaunts her technique is a compelling performance unto itself, impossible to dismiss as mere display. Her intake of breath is oddly more audible these days, but her sovereignty in making those endless stretches of legato appear seamless quite simply beggars belief.

What is even more astonishing is that the character of her instrument has not changed significantly since I first heard her as Zerbinetta in 1979. She maintains her signature brilliance-cum-warmth at the top and projects a rotund middle. Her lower register was always shallow, and so it remains, though it has become a bit louder.

If there is any sign of erosion, it is detectable in occasional lapses of pitch. But Gruberova is in august company: Nilsson, Sutherland, te Kanawa, Elias, Rysanek, Olivero -- just a few of the better known veterans whose instincts for slam-dunking every note (has) faltered with advancing age, while their voices remained essentially reliable. Unlike most of them, however, Gruberova has neither downsized nor cross-graded her repertoire as the years have gone by. Edie, babe, you rock!

Almost lost in the hullabaloo, the estimable contributions of Zoran Todorovich and Andriy Yurkevych.

Zoran Todorovich
Todorovich is one of the most versatile and appealing sock-it-to-me tenors making the rounds these days, but for some reason, he has yet to be “discovered.” Portraying a prick like Pollione isn’t helping his cause, even if he sang with surprising musical imagination and dramatic flair -- more than standing up to the challenges thrown down by his distaff colleagues.

Yurkevich may be a Ukrainian, but he is to the Italian manner born. Rarely have I heard such measured tempi at a live Norma, but Yurkevich drew out lines close to the snapping point without making the pace appear lugubrious. He also revealed some wonderful ideas in Bellini’s score that I’ve never heard before. The house chorus and the Gürzenich Orchester were up for the occasion.

Andriy Yurkevych

Rounding out the no-fault cast, Nikolai Didenko as Orvoreso, Machiko Obata as Clothilde and Jeonki Cho as Flavio.

The second and last performance of this Norma takes place 23 January. If there’s any way you can make it to the cancellation queue, go. You might get lucky.

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