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Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 - 1848)
Lucia di Lammermoor - highlights (1835) [71.49]
Lucia - Edita Gruberova (soprano)
Edgardo – Neil Shicoff (tenor)
Enrico – Alexandru Agache (baritone)
Arturo – Bernard Lombardo (tenor)
Raimondo – Alastair Miles (bass)
Alisa – Diana Montague (mezzo-soprano)
Normanno – Francesco Piccoli (tenor)
Ambrosian Singers
London Symphony Orchestra/Richard Bonynge
Recorded 1991, St. Augustine’s Church, London
WARNER Apex 2564 61506-2 [71.49]

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The shadow of another soprano hangs over this recording; how could it not, with Richard Bonynge conducting. But Edita Gruberova can hold her own in this repertoire as anyone can testify who listens to some of the stunning vocalism on this disc. That said, there is something about Gruberova’s phrasing which reminded me of Joan Sutherland, this might be Bonynge’s influence, or just a commonality of purpose.

But Gruberova’s voice is silver compared to Sutherland’s gold. Gruberova’s strengths are clarity, purity, strength of line and a fabulous ability to sing pianissimo in alt, spinning a wonderful line. But there is something of the coolness of a Northern wind blowing across the recording. Sutherland brought to Lucia a wonderful warmth, warmth of personality as well as voice. This makes us care for Lucia from the outset in a way that we don’t really on this recording. Both Sutherland and Callas, in their vastly different ways, made us understand that neuroticism that underlies Lucia’s personality, implicit in her opening solo and duet. Gruberova fails to mine this vein of neuroticism, replacing it with a fragility emphasised by her incredible way with the vocal line, at times singing in a haunting pianissimo. For me though, this Lucia sounds a little too rational.

When Edgardo enters, we cannot but admire the Italianate qualities in Neil Shicoff’s voice. His Edgardo is passionate, but Shicoff has the ability to spin a good vocal line. Unfortunately, stylistically, his performance is closer to Puccini than Donizetti; his singing has too much of that generalised Italian style which can be made suitable for much later 19th and early 20th century opera. Unfortunately, this shows up in Donizetti, particularly when Shicoff is partnered with a stylist like Gruberova. It is especially notable as on Gruberova’s previous recording of ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ (conducted by Nicola Resigno, dating from 1983), she was partnered by that incomparable stylist, Alfedo Kraus. This recording dates from 1991 and was originally issued on Teldec.

And Gruberova’s earlier recording of the opera is one of this recording’s main competitors. When reviewing, in the Gramophone, the re-release of the 1983 recording in 1993 Alan Blyth commented how much more immediate the earlier recording was, that Gruberova’s performance has a freshness and spontaneity which was missing in this recording. He comments that her performance seems a little contrived and the mad scene self-conscious.

I must confess that I too was a little disappointed with the mad scene. I felt that I was too conscious of the Gruberova’s stunning vocalism and less aware of the fate of Lucia.

But of course, I was listening to a disc of excerpts rather than the whole opera. This disc contains 70 minutes of so from a complete recording that lasts 143 minutes. The editors have compressed it by concentrating on the role of Lucia and removing virtually all of the dialogue. This leaves some of the arias sounding a little bereft and makes for some awkward joins. The minor roles are not heavily featured, but we do get to hear a reasonable amount of Alexandru Agache’s suave Enrico. The excerpts feature the overture and opening chorus, Lucia’s opening solo, her duet with Edgardo, her duet with Enrico, the sextet, mad-scene and Edgardo’s final aria (there is nothing from the big scene between Edgardo and Enrico).

This would never be my first choice for ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ but I shall return to the disc for Gruberova’s purity of tone and outstanding technical accomplishment. I am not entirely certain, though, who these excerpts are aimed at. Gruberova fans will probably already possess her recording in full, perhaps this disc is intended for people like me who would be unlikely to buy another full Lucia. For those coming to the opera new, I would add a note of caution. The notes that accompany the disc are rather rudimentary and, without a good prior knowledge of the opera, it is tricky to match up the recorded excerpts with the plot summary (there is no libretto).

Robert Hugill

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