ORFEO International


December 2011

Grace Bumbry 75th Anniversary

If Grace Bumbry, who celebrates her seventy-fifth birthday on 4 January 2012, is a legend in her own lifetime, this is due not least to her Bayreuth début in 1961, when she appeared as a “black Venus” in Wieland Wagner’s production of Tannhäuser. Grace Bumbry
Grace Bumbry
And yet her appearances in this part were hardly typical of her later career and repertory, for it is principally in Italian and French roles that the singer from St Louis, Missouri, has set standards that others have sought in vain to equal, not just in mezzo roles but in soprano roles, too. (She has sung Wagner’s Venus, for example, not only in the original “Dresden” version but also in the lower version that Wagner rewrote for Paris and Vienna.) Within three years of her sensational Bayreuth début she was already singing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in Salzburg – as in Bayreuth, she appeared alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau under the direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch. The live recording of the first night that has been released on Orfeo’s Festspieldokumente label indicates why Bumbry was hailed once again as the sensation of the evening. Her ability to strike the right balance between searing brilliance (but without any sense of acidulous sharpness) and expressive characterization comes close to that of a benchmark interpretation. During the years that followed, Grace Bumbry often had the opportunity to appear in Salzburg not only as a recitalist but also as Bizet’s Carmen under the direction of Herbert von Karajan. A CD of arias that she recorded with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra under Stefan Soltesz and that is available on the Orfeo label shows how flexible and stylistically varied was her choice of roles in the 1970s and 1980s: Verdi’s two Leonoras from La forza del destino and Il trovatore both feature here, as do roles from Classical and Romantic reform operas by Gluck and Cherubini, while the late Romantic and verismo periods are represented by arias from Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Massenet’s Le Cid and Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, all of them indicating why Grace Bumbry deserves the accolade of primadonna assoluta in the most literal sense of the term: here is an outstanding singer for whom no limitation in terms of role or period is an obstacle that cannot be effortlessly surmounted.