- Associated Press - Sunday, February 20, 2011

BARCELONA, SPAIN (AP) - The performance of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” was chugging along fitfully, the leading lady definitely showing her age. Then the opera’s final scene began, and Edita Gruberova worked her magic.

As Anna prepared to meet the executioner’s ax at the Gran Teatre del Liceu on Friday night, the 64-year-old Slovakian soprano transformed herself from the slightly frumpy grandmother who had sung with sometimes faltering tone into an ageless diva still capable of a remarkable vocal display.

“Ah dolce guidami castel natio” (“Ah, lead me to the dear castle where I was born”), she sang to a mournful, gently descending melody, her mind wandering as she imagined happier days. It’s the beginning of one of Donizetti’s greatest creations _ a 20-minute, three-part aria that captures the shifting moods of his doomed heroine.

Full of trills and delicately filigreed runs, this first section demands pinpoint accuracy, purity of sound and an ability to sustain long lines on a single breath. Gruberova, seated near the bottom of a huge staircase, was astonishing. At one point, as if sinking into despair, she slowly lowered her upper body until her head rested on a higher stair, singing all the while in hushed tones of ethereal beauty.

The second section, a variation on the melody of “Home, Sweet Home,” was nearly as fine. And if she struggled with the more frenzied dramatic leaps and high notes of the finale, “Coppia iniqua” (“Wicked couple”), it scarcely mattered to her adoring fans, who erupted in cheers as the curtain fell.

Edita, La Regina,” read the banner unfurled from the balcony.

Gruberova, a favorite at the Barcelona Opera since her debut here in the late 1970s, was brought back repeatedly for curtain calls lasting more than 20 minutes. This was her final performance in the current run.

The rest of the cast was variable. Mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca sang the role of Giovanna Seymour, Anna’s supposed confidant but really her rival for Henry VIII’s affection. Garanca’s voice commands admiration for its power, evenness and flexibility, but she made little dramatic impact _ even in the great Act 2 duet where she confesses to Anna and wins her forgiveness

As Henry, bass Simon Orfila sang with well-focused menace and cut a dashing figure. Mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina coped well with the music of the hapless page, Smeton. Josep Bros as Anna’s former lover, Percy, was the weak link, coming to grief on several high notes and drawing a few vociferous boos from the balcony.

Conductor Andriy Yurkevych chose ponderous tempos that made the opera, presented virtually uncut, seem longer than it is.

Gruberova may miss her fans here, but it’s unlikely she’ll miss the pretentious yet dreary production by Rafel Duran. The sets, by Rafel Llado, featured sliding panels on either side of the staircase that opened to reveal video monitors _ suggesting Henry was far ahead of his time in surveillance techniques. For unknown reasons, costumer designer Lluc Castells had several guards wearing birds’ beaks over their faces, with which they seemed to peck time to the music.

To put Gruberova’s longevity in perspective, she is already a year older than the late Joan Sutherland was when she retired. True, she’s a youngster compared to Placido Domingo, still going strong at age 70. But he has put aside his more strenuous, high-lying tenor roles and even taken on some baritone parts.

Gruberova, in contrast, is sticking with demanding repertory like “Anna” and Bellini’s “Norma.” And she apparently has no immediate thoughts of retirement: Her unofficial fan page lists engagements into 2013.

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