Two sopranos shine in classic operas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Two important sopranos afford contrasting views of two of the great operas in the standard repertory.

Edita Gruberova's light and flexible voice is the kind that one traditionally associates with Verdi's "Traviata" and Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." But Cheryl Studer, though she began as a lyric soprano, is now known as one of the stalwarts of the dramatic Germanic repertory; Her powerful, steady voice and iron-clad technique have made her the best Sieglinde (in Wagner's "Die Walkuere") that we've had in years. These recordings of "Traviata" and "Lucia" (Gruberova on Teldec and Studer on Deutsche Grammophon), therefore, represent a case of sopranos dueling with considerably different weapons.

Battle of the divas

This battle of the divas is just about an even draw -- taking into consideration, of course, such hardly inconsequential matters as the conductors and the supporting casts.

Studer is threatening to become the Lilli Lehmann of our age. That turn-of-the-century soprano sang everything -- from coloratura roles to heroic ones. Whether it was Lucia or Norma or Isolde or Brunhild, she could do it all. Studer will probably never work her way up to an Isolde or Turandot, but I'm willing to bet we will eventually hear her Norma. She has been able to do heavy roles such as Sieglinde without -- as these two recordings make clear -- sacrificing the agility and lightness necessary for lyric roles.

Although it is beautifully sung, however, I do not rate her Violetta among the best. This role demands a lot in the way of dramatic variety -- the flirtatious Violetta of the first act is very different from the self-sacrificing Violetta of the second and third -- and Studer never takes us inside the character's personality. Moreover, as one did in the great Violettas of the past -- Callas pre-eminently -- one never hears the individual stamp of Studer's personality. There's a great Violetta inside Studer, but you won't hear it here.

The performance is led in a masterly manner by James Levine (conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra). But anyone looking for the kind of insight that Carlos Kleiber brought to his conducting (in a remarkable Deutsche Grammophon recording of 16 years ago that starred the heartbreaking Ileana Cotrubas in the lead role) will be disappointed. Other disappointments include the Alfredo of Luciano Pavarotti, who sings competently but without the bloom in his voice of even a few years ago, and the elder Germont of Juan Pons, who is just plain boring.

Buying Gruberova

Gruberova's "Traviata" is also one of those recordings that one buys in order to have this particular soprano on the shelf rather than to hear the opera in a great performance. The soprano is more carefree in the coloratura fluttering of Violetta's first act, but only a mite more inward than Studer in the tragic denouement. Neil Shicoff is not the tenor that Pavarotti still is, but he brings a little more commitment to the role. Giorgio Zancanaro is another relatively uninteresting elder Germont, and Carlo Rizzi conducts the London Symphony without the authority and mastery of Levine.

Important additions

Both "Lucias," however, are important additions to an already distinguished discography that includes two Sutherland recordings and three by Callas.

Studer's brilliant performance makes one look forward to the productions of "Norma" that surely will follow. One can quibble about how far inside the demented Lucia Studer brings us in the character's famous mad scene, but it is thrilling to hear so powerful a voice used with such artistry and elegance. Any aficionado will want to add this performance to his or her collection. Placido Domingo -- another recent Wagnerian on holiday with a role not associated with him -- makes an outstanding Edgardo. In fact, it is little less than astonishing that this singer -- the pre-eminent Otello of our time -- has maintained so much freshness in his voice. The character's virility and desperation have never had a more persuasive advocate on records.

The cast goes downhill from here. The unfortunate Juan Pons makes another unwelcome appearance as the bloodthirsty Enrico. Pons' lukewarm performance makes one ask, "Is this man really angry, and if he is, what is he so worked up about?" Samuel Ramey as Raimondo conveys as little emotion in a better projected performance. Ion Marin's conducting of the London Symphony Orchestra is too fast and compares as a plain Jane does to the wonderfully dressed-up conducting, so delicately and imaginatively ornamented, of Richard Bonynge on the Gruberova version.

Gruberova is as wonderful as -- though, of course, very different from -- Studer. She approaches her characterization in somewhat the same leggiero way that listeners may remember from the heydays of Roberta Peters or Anna Moffo. But Gruberova's technique is much stronger than either of those warbling songbirds, and she brings a smoldering intensity to her singing that no coloratura currently matches. In the mad scene, she brings us inside Lucia. Her singing is often -- compared to the clarion-voiced Studer -- at reduced dynamic levels, but it is heartbreakingly subtle and always commanding. The way she uses the "messa di voce" -- beginning a phrase softly, extending to a crescendo and then following with a diminuendo -- is never mannered and is a textbook illustration, as are her trills, roulades and slides, of what great bel canto singing is all about.

Her Edgardo -- Neil Shicoff -- is not in the same class with Domingo, but he is more than serviceable. And she has a great Enrico in Alexandru Agache, a young Romanian baritone who fills his role with beautifully sung and articulated fury.

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