Tonight I went to the Deutsche Oper to see, or rather to hear, Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, performed in concert. The bulging, excited audience, however, had – it seemed clear -- mostly come for something slightly different: to hear and ravenously applaud prima donna Edita Gruberova – billed, figuratively, huge above the title as the lady with the poisoned chalice.
Madame Gruberova is exactly my age. Sixty-seven.
Now, I have no truck with ageing artists and ex-stars who keep on performing when they can no longer cut the mustard. But Edita Gruberova is not one of these. Admittedly, her vocals were occasionally just a little imperfect (whose aren’t?), especially at the start, but she warmed up into an absolutely unforgettable prima donna – managing, husbanding and sharing her voice with admirable skill -- and her final dramatic scene with Gennaro was breathtaking.
It is not the performance of a 30 year old – rash, raw and risky. Every aspect of Gruberova’s Lucrezia was minutely studied and played with utmost care. The music, of course, but also every move, every expression, every bit of delicious mezza voce, right down to details such as the perfect burgundy gown and Carol Channing hair. For she acted the role, concert or no, as convincingly as she sang it. Who would believe that one’s heart could go out to the deadly Borgia in her final bravura. But mine did.
This morning, I was asked to define the term ‘diva’ in an interview. This lady is a diva, in the best sense of the word. An utterly professional, opera-sized vocalist and actress who can bring an audience to its feet, cheering, with her charisma and talent.
The evening, however, was not all about the star. Far from it. Lucrezia Borgia has three other large roles which have to be equally well filled: and tonight, they were.
I have complained these recent weeks about Berlin’s feeble tenors. Tonight, I was liberated. Gennaro is a long and rather wimpy part, with his best opportunities in duet, but Pavol Breslik made him into a virile fellow with a ringing, clear tenor voice, a perfect foil for his ‘mother’, and the audience -- and I – just loved him.
Equally – maybe even more – I loved the bass playing Alfonso. In the cruel way of composers, he comes on and goes straight into his showy Vendetta aria. He was not deterred. It was a triumph: a grand, smooth, seamless voice with the bottom notes pinging through and the top ones pinging out, effortlessly, in a grand aria. The audience exploded. Mr Alex Esposito goes on to my ‘must see again’ list. And, I imagine, everyone else’s.
Maffeo Orsini was Jana Kurucova (who I noticed as Ines in last year’s Trovatore). She, too, has to start with a big sing and got rather swallowed up therein by the lush orchestra, which just occasionally forgot it wasn’t in the pit and gave the low voices, in particular, a hard time. Kurucova gave us all the Alboni frills, in a lively, accurate and likeable singing and acting performance, but I did miss the ‘Alboni’ plumbing low notes, especially in ‘Il Segreto’.
Every single one of the indistinguishable supporting men was more than adequate, as was the male chorus, up in the choir stalls and not wriggling about too much. The ladies’ chorus could have stayed home: they have nothing to do.
Andriy Yurkevych at the baton seemed to have a good relationship with his singers – a kind of important thing in opera – and my only complaint about the orchestra was, as I have said, the occasional over-generosity with volume behind the singers.
Last year, I opined that Il Trovatore lost much of its drama, transferred to the concert stage. Lucrezia Borgia, essentially an intimate tale, lost absolutely none. In fact, it probably gained from the focus achieved. But I will repeat my last year’s wail of horror on one point: get rid of the wretched music stands and pretend scores for the small part players. They don’t need them, and the page turning and going on and off resembles nothing better than a provincial oratorio. Then, a concert version of this – and many other -- operas, I am sure, will be on the way to being preferable to a fully staged version, full of distracting ‘concept’ and banalities.
But for tonight: all I can say is ‘thank you’. You -- all of you -- made my first ever Lucrezia Borgia a real treat.