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Vera Galupe-Borszkh [Photo by Robert Milazzo]
21 Jun 2009

Madame Says Farewell

Last week (May 27), “without further a-don’t,” as she adorably puts it, Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh, the world’s reigning traumatic soprano — lately, she says, more of a soprano “spento” — bade a last, lingering, loving farewell to her adoring public in a sold-out concert at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Madame Says Farewell

Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh Back By Personal Whim (and popular demand).

Above: Vera Galupe-Borszkh [Photo by Robert Milazzo]

 

She said it again twice more that week, in the same venue; no doubt other such occasions will occur. (In any case, there are several CDs and DVDs available. Check her Web site, www.granscena.org.)

It is easy for anyone to make jokes about opera — everyone already has. Most of them aren’t funny, never mind witty, never mind as delicious as the real thing — but that never stops the jokers. What is rare, besides jokes about opera that are actually funny, witty, and delicious, is someone who can make a joke about opera last (before a pretty knowledgeable audience, too) for three hours at a stretch, without deadening out. Anna Russell managed it — but opera, though her best-known target, was not the only string to her bow. (I’m not mixing metaphors; I’m setting them on PUREE.) Gerard Hoffnung managed it, but died too tragically young. Vera Galupe-Borszkh can still clock it in at three hours after 28 years in the saddle, which is nothing short of extraordinary — sometimes she has even been known to resort to new material! No doubt she owes some of her creativity to a long and suspiciously well-guarded but indescribably relationship with the vastly knowledgeable Ira Siff, who co-announces Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

But how she manages to get her magnificent mane of red hair (natural, she swears by the Virgin of Kiev) out of its scruffy featherduster á la nature into a taut geisha coiffure during one swift scene change (you never saw a redheaded Butterfly? This must be the place) and then formed into a trillion sausage curls for the dying Violetta in another — that calls for skill, technique and effrontery, which have been (along with a haphazard, not to say biohazard, shtetl Bessarabian accent) the hallmarks of her career.

Born Vera Vsyevelodovna Borszkh on the outskirts, or fringes, or gym socks of Odessa, more years ago than Madame can be relied upon to count, she fled Soviet Russia “when I got tired of singing Aida in languages which got no wowels.” Later she became the last pupil and ultimately the bride of the last bel canto castrato, Manuel Galupe (“for a diva, marrying a man already a castrato is good thing — it save so much time”). Vera Galupe-Borszkh is not only a living legend (they’re common enough), she is a voice from the golden age when such things were preserved only by memory and by the rare and often unconvincing magic of scratchy shellac at 78 revolutions per minute. When you hear G-B, you not only hear the technique, the talent, the dedication of a bygone golden era, you seem always to hear in her very throat the echo of scratchy shellac. Perhaps she is one of those who has used her throat not wisely but too well — the Muse is a harsh mistress, and G-B has never been one to hold back. Fake it, yes — hold back, never.

Only a cad — or a critic — to make a distinction without difference — would point out that Madame’s sustenance of tone has begun to waver, like the breeze flitting over the Ukrainian wheat fields at noon. To put it crudely, you could drive a tractor through that tremolo. Yet, properly warmed up, she can still exquisitely float the opening tone of the opening “Pace” in Leonora’s aria from Forza del Destino so that it seems to last longer than the entire opera usually does. (Just as well she omits the rest of the aria.) Her pitch in the Philip Glass takeoff is no longer machinelike — and Glass’s music, even in sendup, does not take kindly to human performance. And was I really the only member of the audience so moved by her singing of the Sleepwalking Scene from Bellini’s La Sonnambula that I could not resist shouting: “Jump! Jump! Jump!” (A friend said he was saving the comment for Mary Zimmerman’s next curtain call.)

More grateful for her instrument in its present vocal estate (or tenement, as she has been a New Yorker for years), were five “Rossyan fok songs,” in which the audience was invited to join her. (“You are good! You must all be Juilliard drop-outs!”) Lieder, too — her signposted “Erlkönig” is justly famous, her “Morgen” sublime — were rather easier on voice and ear than the full-scale arias. Let lesser singers take note: Madame never sings with surtitles or subtitles or translations — the voice and the gestures (and the costumes) give us every drainable drop of meaning, and you’re lucky to get it.

It was a great event in the present — but it was, still more, as Madame put it herself, an evening of extraordinary mammaries. So much of the style — and the singing — and the shtick — and the annotation — seemed uncannily to recall occasions long, long ago. But it was delicious to hear her shtick it to the Met, with all the fervor of someone who might have been tactfully repressing her real opinions during a season of broadcast commentary. (“I love the Salome — where she take off everything! Even some of the high notes!”)

She was ably assisted by Maestro Sergio Zawa, engulfing the piano, and Carmelita della Vaca-Browne stealing the crumbs of the scenes Madame was chewing. Della Vaca-Browne lovingly recreated a moment I’ve never forgotten, from the very first season of La Gran Scena Opera Company di New York in 1981, when Annina beheld the gasping Violetta on her deathbed and tossed confetti in her face, then responded to her furious glare with the explanation, from the libretto: “E carnevale.” In Vera’s vocal presence, when is it not Carnival?

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say is (to echo Tosca, one of Madame’s great roles): “Ecco un artista!”

John Yohalem

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