Aida – Ritorna vincitor; O patria mia
La Forza del Destino – Pace, pace mio Dio
Un Ballo in Maschera – Ecco l’orrido campo
Otello – Ave Maria
Don Carlo – Tu che le vanità
La bohème – Si, mi chiamano Mimi; Donde lieta usci
Turandot – Signore, ascolta; Tu, che di gel sei cinta
Tosca – Vissi d’arte
Manon Lescaut – Sola, perduta, abbandonata
Madama Butterfly – Un bel di vedremo; Con onor muore
Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (soprano)
Odense Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 24-26 November 2003 & 14-19 June 2004 in the Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: DANACORD DACOCD665
Duration: 77 minutes
Gitta-Maria Sjöberg is not a newcomer. The Swedish soprano has an almost twenty-year-long career behind her, crowned by awards and acclaim, but this is her first recital record, one which showcases her best qualities and places her among the best lirico-spinto sopranos currently active.
The tone itself is dense, creamy and mordant; the attractive sound of Kiri Te Kanawa coupled with the theatrical intensity of Renata Scotto, a combination most recently heard in the voice of Julia Varady. Above the stave she projects climactic phrases without becoming strident, while her low register is eloquent but avoids hardness.
The first half of the programme is devoted to Verdi. There are few arias in the soprano repertoire to match Aida’s first in terms of the character’s radically evolving psychological state and there is always the risk that the interpretation may be too studied. In this case, I do hear a certain lack of spontaneity but a greater fault is flatness of pitch for at least half of its length. ‘O patria mia’ is preferable. Sjöberg conveys in the opening bars that Aida is terrified on her arrival at the Nile, isolated in this hostile environment. The gently subsiding phrases which form the bulk of the vocal lines have an inwardness about their utterance, with the words hovering on the velvety tone, while the passionate climactic bars are filled with vocal intensity, though at the expense of the delicacy expected by Verdi, in particular his dolce marking for the top C. Given that the passage from “Otello” is delivered in a constant mezza voce, this is disappointing (as is the absence of the ‘Willow Song’). The doubling of her descent from that note on the oboe is clumsy, casting doubt on the claims of the Odense Symphony Orchestra to be considered a first-class band.
She possesses a lively dramatic sense but resists the temptation to exaggerate. Amelia’s aria at the gallows often finds the prima donna declaring her arrival with imperious self-confidence (in Act One she has to slip into Ulrica’s cave inconspicuously). Sjöberg observes that, as with Aida, the character is actually frightened and superstitious at this location and conveys this in her delivery. Leonora’s sojourn in the cave adjacent to the monastery has left her listless and debilitated and Sjöberg reflects this in wan, grey tone for much of the aria from the final act. The gain in urgency when she suspects that her solitude is being intruded upon is even more effective.
‘Tu che le vanita’ covers as large a musical range as the first “Aida” aria, though at a more comfortable pace. Sjöberg shows the breadth of phrasing needed for the opening and closing sections, the ability to withhold her voice and let the orchestra take the lead in recalling past experiences over her conversational utterances and to make the transition into agitation, concluding in a fateful chest voice.
Arguably Puccini is a less demanding composer than Verdi for the singer, assuming that she has the vocal resources: power, range and breath control. The characters are not drawn in such depth, nor does the music demand such subtle changes of expression. Sjöberg has the essential ingredients to cover the range from Liù through Cio-Cio San to Tosca. In fact the most hard-hitting musical line here is required by Manon Lescaut’s last act aria. Sjöberg easily encompasses the crude changes of mood, floating the tone at “terra di pace mi sembrava questa” and letting herself go in competition with the orchestra at “Ah! mia belta funesta” and “non voglio morir”.
The Swiss conductor Matthias Aeschbacher gives his forces their head in this piece but sets a dragging tempo for ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’. This gets the full tear-jerker treatment from the soprano, whose hesitancy in the first half sets off the outpouring of vernal warmth at “Ma, quando vien lo sgelo”. Mimi’s ‘Farewell’ is even better; with the singer appreciating the vital simplicity of Mimi and her concern for the little things, the “piccole cose”, the ring, prayer book and bonnet which she has left with Rodolfo. How beautifully poised is the delivery of the central word “bada” in this!
Liù’s two arias are also offered as evidence of a mature artist, the one full of luminous tone encased in demanding far-flung phrases, the other tightening the emotion at the climax as Liu delivers her final words before committing suicide. These performances enhance the music. The version of ‘Vissi d’arte’ which follows them has the opposite effect: the tempo is cloying, the style lachrymose, the climax vulgar. Fortunately Sjöberg offers much more distinguished singing as Cio-Cio San. A consistently inward first half and a strong portrayal of the geisha’s naiveté benefits from the precision of the verbal enunciation and makes the desperate outburst of optimism even more moving. The death scene has a high tessitura which never threatens to become unsteady but combines the singer’s vocal and dramatic skills in a suitable confirmation of an above-average recital. There are some misprints in the accompanying printed material.