Though no mention is made of an anniversary tribute, it can be no coincidence the concert almost exactly takes place 70 years after the composer’s death in Elsene (one of the separate municipalities which make up the Brussels metropolis).
The trouble with this kind of collection is the harsh reality that most opera lovers nowadays admire and recognize Puccini’s genius while at the same time feeling slightly bored by the umpteenth recorded version of “Vissi d’arte”. After having listened 130 times to “Nessun dorma” for an article on the aria, I experienced a myriad of responses, as I had forgotten this one or that one, and together with new acquisitions there must be more than 160 tenors who have recorded the aria. I’ve never wanted to repeat that experience but most collectors will inevitably compare Gruberova and company with all the legendary recordings to be found in most opera lovers’ collections. I readily believe a live audience still can have fun with such a Puccini concert but on CD, the challenges are so much bigger as a recording is theoretically meant for eternity.
Gabriela Benackova opens the show and after having listened to the whole CD it can firmly be stated that she is the best suited to this kind of music, as she has the warm enveloping sound necessary. She has the good idea to open with the less hackneyed “Addio, addio mio dolce amor” from Edgar; the one aria sung at the composer’s burial by the formidable Hina Spani. Benackova is a match for Scotto and Varady and a lot of other Puccinians who have recorded the piece. In Manon Lescaut, however, she cannot hide her frayed top which becomes a yell at the high C. Her vocal means nevertheless outdistance Eva Marton’s efforts. By 1994 the Hungarian soprano was still the possessor of a very large voice though the amount of decibels was no longer marked by beauty of sound. In “Vissi d’arte” she is clearly short of breath; in “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio” she flattens and sings shrilly. Strangely enough, she is at her disciplined best in Angelica’s “Senza mamma,” a role one doesn’t associate with Marton. The other big voice, Gwyneth Jones, carefully husbands her voice in “Laggiù nel Soledad”, singing light on the breath and with the infamous wobble not very obtrusive. “In questa reggia” is even steady though she never had a very distinct vocal personality. It’s only in the ‘tre enigmi’ part of the aria she goes wrong and finishes the aria with a painfully flat note, honestly recorded and not smoothed away but maybe not the best way to conclude a CD.
I’ve left discussion of Gruberova for the last (as this is her own label) and Puccini isn’t the repertoire she is known for. I was quite surprised as she is excellent in every aria she sings. The sound has more vibrato and colour than usual (the voice was often not kissed by the mike as her volume is far bigger than one assumes from some recordings). Moreover she can easily float her voice in such pieces as Doretta’s dream or Liu’s request to Kalaf. She is not a real rival for young Price’s ‘blue’ recital but she is a good contender. Of course she gets the “Babbino caro” in this concert and here she is very convincing as well though on record she must give place to De los Angeles or Te Kanawa. The late Garcia Navarro is a good accompanist though it is clear (very clear indeed with Gruberova) that on such a night the sopranos decide the tempi and the conductor courteously indulges them.