Cruz-Romo, The Great Verdian, On CD at Last

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VERDI: Il Trovatore: Tacea la notte placida; D’amor sull’ali rosée. La Traviata: E strano…Sempre libera; Addio del passato. Luisa Miller: Tu puniscimi, O signore. La Forza del Destino: Me pellegrina ed orfana; Son giunta!…Madre, pietosa vergine; Pace, pace mio Dio. Aida: Ritorna vincitor!; Qui Radames verrà…O patria mia. Otello: Ave Maria. Macbeth: La luce langue / Gilda Cruz-Romo, soprano; unidentified orchestras, conductors & dates / Urtext JBCC265-1

I think it was only New York and Italy that got to know the greatness of Gilda Cruz-Romo up close and personal, as the say. As a young woman going to the Met in my teenage years and early 20s, I couldn’t afford to go as often as I would have liked, and so only got to know her voice via the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, but they were enough. Her combination of a beautiful timbre, superb phrasing, musicality and interpretation made her one of my favorite sopranos at the Met in those years (the 1970s), even more so than the iconic Leontyne Price. Dr. Louis Leslie, co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand Method, was one of my closest friends at the time. His operatic experience went back to 1917 and performances with Enrico Caruso, and he always raved about her every single time he heard her sing. He thought she was a Golden Age singer reincarnated.

As this album so clearly illustrates, she could sing the phone book and make it sound interesting. What it does not illustrate is the phenomenal range of roles she could sing, which included not just the “heavy” Verdi roles but also, believe it or not, Gilda in Rigoletto, which I heard her sing (much to my astonishment) with a perfection that was beyond imagining. Her repertoire included more than 40 roles, and in addition to all the above-mentioned virtues she also possessed a splendid trill, the bane of nearly all her Italian-born rivals.

So why isn’t she better known? Well, because she apparently didn’t have the most powerful management in the world despite having one of the greatest voices, thus she never made a commercial recording. Not one. All that exists of her artistry are sound clips from live performances, of which a fair number are collected on this CD…without attribution as to date, location, orchestra, conductor or subsidiary singers. The two Trovatore arias are conducted with much greater rhythmic freedom (call it laxity) than was the case when she sang Leonora under James Levine at the Met or Riccardo Muti at La Scala. My guess is that the tempos were the unnamed conductor’s choice, not the soprano’s, but she does sing them gorgeously. She always sang gorgeously. Although there are “pirate” CD issues of complete operas with her on them (particularly Forza with Bonisolli and Muti and Il Trovatore with Cossuta and Muti), this is, so far as I know, the first CD recital by her.

Although her Gilda is not represented here, her Violetta in La Traviata is, and with the exceptions of Magda Olivero and Ileana Cotrubas I have never heard “Ah, fors’ e lui…Sempre libera” sung so affectingly, with so much drama and color in the voice. Cruz-Romo never just sang a role; she inhabited it; and this, in itself, made her a very special and unique artist. That being said, her attention to score detail is phenomenal. How many sopranos have you heard sing those descending staccato notes in “Ah, fors’ e lui” as detached eighth notes, as Verdi wrote them, and not as quarter notes? Not many, I’ll wager. An interesting moment comes at the end of the aria, however, where Cruz-Romo immediately launches into “Follia! Follia!” with almost no pause. Her intent is evident: she didn’t want the audience to break the mood with applause. She wanted them to feel the sudden shift of emotion in Violetta as she switched gears from the first aria to the second. Sadly, the Alfredo sounds like a third-rate Italian sad sack. This, however, is what she often got stuck with unless she was performing at the Met under Levine or at Milan with Muti. She doesn’t take the high E-flat at the end of the aria, but this is musically correct. I heard her go as high up as a D above high C, but am not sure if she had the E-flat. Her reading of the letter at the start of “Addio del passato” will break your heart. Maria Callas, move over. And just listen to that sustained phrasing…phenomenal!

cruz-romo-in-forzaCruz-Romo brings the same intelligence, sensibility and depth of feeling to the much lesser-known aria “Tu puiniscumi, O signore” from Luisa Miller. I’ve heard numerous Met broadcasts of this opera without Cruz-Romo, and it never sounds this good. Never. In the Forza excerpts, one can hear the almost wild, Gypsy-like quality she could bring to certain roles, particularly in “Madre, pietosa vergine,” the most intense performance I’ve heard this side of Maria Caniglia. This could be from the complete performance conducted by Muti with Franco Bonisolli and Cesare Siepi, as the musical style is taut and no-nonsense. “Pace, mio Dio” is sung with that unique combination of musicality, perfect voice placement and passion that was her trademark.

The stiff-sounding orchestral accompaniment to “Ritorna vincitor!” gives you yet another indication of the kind of conductors she had to put up with…they weren’t all gems. In the aria, Cruz-Romo is singing the music in proper rhythm (albeit at the conductor’s draggy tempo) whereas the orchestra is lagging behind her. Good God! Where did they find this guy, under a rock somewhere? He’s not that much better in “Qui Radames verrà…O patria mia,” but she’s phenomenal as usual. The music literally stops in the middle of nowhere to allow the obviously Italian audience to go ballistic with applause. To hell with musical continuity.

Both the soprano and Verdi fare better in her deeply moving performance of the “Ave Maria” from Otello, the best I’ve ever heard. A shame they didn’t include the “Salce! Salce!” preceding it. This recital ends with Lady Macbeth’s “La luce langue.” Although she could gilda-cruzromotechnically sing the role, and sing it well, I find it hard to hear a real Lady Macbeth with her “hard, dark, stifled voice” as Verdi specified, in Cruz-Romo’s singing. Her timbre was just too pretty for the music, despite a very fine and rather dramatic reading.

These live recordings were evidently cleaned up to remove tape hiss, hum and other distractions. The voice comes through clearly and beautifully; many times, the orchestra—particularly the strings—sound a bit muddy as a result of the noise reduction. Personally, I’ll take it that way. I’m not a noise collector. In addition to the recordings on this album, I also recommend that you go to YouTube and listen to her sing “Teco io sto” from Un Ballo in Maschera from a Met broadcast with the late Richard Tucker. It’ll make your hair stand on end.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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