Edita Gruberova in recent years has pretty much cut her repertoire down to a handful of bel canto roles; Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux and the title roles in Anna Bolena, La Straniera, Norma and Lucrezia Borgia. The last of these was recorded in Munich in 2009 in a production by Christof Loy for the Bayerisches Staatsoper. It shows that Gruberova still very much at the height of her powers but the production is less satisfactory.
A chance to see the young Edita Gruberova’s near legendary portrayal of Zerbinetta would be reason enough to watch the 1978 Vienna recording of Ariadne auf Naxos but, as it happens, there’s much more. For a start the cast includes Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, René Kollo and Trudeliese Schmidt plus Karl Böhm, a man who worked closely with Strauss, is conducting.
There are over 40 video recordings of Don Giovanni in the catalogue, dating back to 1954, and Thomas Allen sings the title role in quite a few of them. This one was recorded at La Scala in 1987 and features a very strong cast in a careful, traditional staging. It’s also pretty decent technical quality for the era. The director was Giorgio Strehler in a comparatively rare opera outing. His sets and costumes are of some vague aristocratic past with liveried footmen, big hats and twirling capes. It’s quite handsome but not in any way revelatory. Nor is any aspect of the production really. We are clearly in an aristocratic milieu. Tom Allen’s Don Giovanni is arrogant and proud with plenty of swagger. There’s no hint of ambiguity about Edita Gruberova’s Donna Anna or Ann Murray’s Donna Elvira and Francisco Araiza is a properly dutiful chump of a Don Ottavio. It’s all quite serious with comic relief only in the most obvious places. Having said that, there are some very effective scenes; especially the ending which has a an interesting lighting plot and manages not to be anti-climactic.
I suppose in some ways Bellini’s I Puritani is the perfect bel canto opera. It has lots of great tunes, a wicked coloratura soprano part and an utterly ridiculous plot (my comments on the plot can be found in my review of the Met/Netrebko recording) and, of course, a mad scene. In this recording from Barcelona’s Liceu the soprano role of Elvira is taken by Edita Gruberova, surely one of the greatest ever in this genre. At 54 she doesn’t look ideal for the young bride to be but she can act and she gives a master class in bel canto style. What she has to yield to Netrebko in terms of looks and physical commitment she makes up for in sheer technical prowess.
In 1988 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle made the last of his lip synched opera films; Mozart’s Così fan tutte. It carries Ponnelle’s trademark “artificiality” even further than in other of his films that I have seen.The sets, the costumes, the acting and the camera work never let us forget that this is a work of the, in the director’s words, “greatest artificiality”. It also becomes increasingly clear as the piece progresses that Ponnelle has a very clear idea of what “the opera is about”. Continue reading →
Bellini’s Norma is a tale of illicit love between two Gaulish priestesses (can women be called druids?) and a Roman tribune. In this 2006 production for the Bayerische Staatsoper director Jürgen Rose has set the piece in the present day in a vaguely Middle Eastern setting. Within that framework the story is told quite straightforwardly and there’s no attempt to project some kind of agenda. The designs are very striking. Blue figures a lot. Norma’s home is an underground bunker. When the Gauls arm for war they put on ski masks and supplement their spears with assault rifles. It all looks really good. The acting is also excellent and we get some real intensity in the Norma/Pollione/Adalgisa love triangle and in the tension between Norma and her father Oroveso. It works as drama.
Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux is based (even more loosely than most Donizetti historical operas) on the relationship between Elizabeth the First and the Earl of Essex. Unfortunately for Liz, Essex is in love with the wife of the queen’s bestie; the entirely fictional Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, whose ducal husband is also Essex’ bestie. Got that? As the opera opens, Essex has been recalled from Ireland to face treason charges but is vigorously defended by Nottingham. Eventually the queen rumbles Essex and agrees to sign his death warrant. By now Nottingham has also figured out what is going on and ties up his wife to stop her delivering the token ring to Elizabeth that will force her to pardon Essex. Essex is executed and the queen goes mad, abdicating in favour of James VI and I (who has been hanging around all along) and then dropping dead from grief. Pretty much par for the Donizetti course really.