VIENNA - At the dizzying heights of her operatic career, Edita Gruberova has unexpectedly chosen to return to the role that helped make her famous.
In reprising Violetta Valery of Verdi's La Traviata for the first time in more than a decade, the queen of coloratura is in some ways retracing her initial steps to stardom. But when she first sang Violetta 42 years ago, enchanting the audience in the tiny provincial theater of the Czech town of Banska Bystrica, she was barely out of her teens. Now she's 64.
But the grandmother of three sees no problem in returning to the role of a twentysomething. "I love Violetta as much as ever," she said in a recent interview.
A full, scenic performance in November in Hamburg, Germany, was followed this month by concert stagings in Munich and Vienna, in what was billed as her last appearance in the role.
Last week's sold-out performance at the Vienna Musikverein was interrupted by tumultuous ovations and cheers, despite small signs of wear in Gruberova's lower registers and intonation.
The fact that she makes her affair with Pavol Breslik as Alfredo totally believable - though the Slovak tenor is about half her age - attests to her magnificent dramatic and vocal skills.
"La Gruberova was in total control of events and breathed life into the role with just a few gestures, glances, and with her amazement-creating voice," the Muenchner Merkur wrote of her Munich appearance.
Gruberova never looked back from those first performances in Banska Bystrica. The tragic courtesan with the heart of gold became one of her signature roles, performed in Vienna, Barcelona, New York, Venice, Munich, and Tokyo under Carlos Kleiber, Giuseppe Sinopoli, and other conducting greats.
Along the way she added many beloved operatic portraits to her repertoire: the Queen of the Night, Thibault, Giulietta, Zerbinetta, Gilda, Lucia, Konstanze, and on and on. Her discography runs into the dozens - operas, lieder, recitals. She has been favorably compared to the gold standard, the late great Joan Sutherland.
But the last time she sang Violetta was in the 1990s. So why return now to a role for which many would argue she is too old?
The petite blue-eyed diva agrees that age is a factor - but a positive one.
"I don't have any problems with creating this role. Quite to the contrary," she said. "I think the more experiences you gather in life that you can transfer into music, into song, the better. And my voice is still there."
Voice is definitely much of what Violetta is about, calling both for a smooth lyric soprano and coloratura artistry, abilities Gruberova has effortlessly combined over time.
But there is more to one of Verdi's most complex, intensely sketched characters; she's a portrait of a short life experienced to the full, a blazing star that flares and expires, leaving darkness and misery.
In short, a Violetta that is all voice and no drama is woefully one-sided - and that, says Gruberova, is why a mature artist may be better suited to convey the complexities of her character than one closer to Violetta's actual age.
"There is a whole range of emotions in the music, and one can re-create this much better at an advanced age than when one is still very young," she says. "The difference is how one's soul has developed, or the feelings . . . the emotions that one has gathered over a whole life. Good as well as bad experiences are collected . . . and of course that is reflected in a role."