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Edita Gruberova, Dazzling Soprano With Emotional Power, Dies at 74

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Edita Gruberova, a Slovak soprano who enchanted audiences with gleaming, vibrant and technically dazzling singing over a 50-year career, becoming a leading exponent of the coloratura soprano repertory, died on Monday in Zurich. She was 74.

The cause was a head injury from a fall in her home, said Markus Thiel, a music journalist and her biographer.

Ms. Gruberova, whose career was mainly in Europe, was a true coloratura soprano. She had a high, light and agile voice that was easily capable of dispatching embellished runs, all manner of trills and leaps to shimmering top notes.

She excelled in the roles associated with her voice type, especially in the early 19th-century bel canto operas of Bellini (Elvira in “I Puritani” and Giulietta in “I Capuleti e i Montecchi”), Donizetti (the title role in “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Elizabeth I in “Roberto Devereux”) and Rossini (notably Rosina in “Il Barbieri di Siviglia”).

Reviewing her 1989 performance as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the Metropolitan Opera, the critic Martin Mayer wrote in Opera magazine that Ms. Gruberova “trills without thinking about it,” could “sing very softly and still project into the house,” and “soars over ensemble and orchestra in the great third-act finale.” Many opera devotees considered her a successor to the formidable Joan Sutherland.

Ms. Gruberova knew that opera fans were often swept up in the sheer pyrotechnics of a coloratura soprano’s singing. That was the easy part, she said in an interview recorded at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1986, where she was starring in “Lucia di Lammermoor.” The hard part was conveying emotion through the technical feats.

This, she said, “is what people want to hear from me, or what they hear from me and like.” Even a coloratura’s high notes, including a big final high note in an aria, “must also be the expression from emotions,” she said. It must “say something” and not be “for display.”

Reviewing that 1986 “Lucia di Lammermoor” in Chicago for The Christian Science Monitor, Thor Eckert Jr. wrote that Ms. Gruberova had given “an astonishing demonstration of her art.”

“The level of poise, of sheer vocal mastery, of musical and dramatic insight” were unmatched on the vocal scene of the time, he said. Her performance of the Mad Scene, he added, was “a study in the communicative power of histrionic simplicity.”

Yet there were dissenters on this occasion, including John von Rhein, the critic for The Chicago Tribune, who wrote that she had treated the scene as if it were “merely a florid showpiece.”

To her many admirers, however, Ms. Gruberova artfully balanced technical execution and emotional expression, a quality described in a 2015 Opera News article by the soprano Lauren Flanigan. Ms. Flanigan was an understudy to Ms. Gruberova in the title role of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” in Barcelona in 1992.

In that troubled queen’s first aria during the run, Ms Gruberova “was by turns girlish and direct, vulnerable and overbearing,” Ms. Flanigan wrote, adding, “Her voice was compelling me to pay attention and listen.”

Ms. Gruberova in 1970. A teacher arranged for her to audition the previous year at the Vienna State Opera without the knowledge of Czechoslovakia’s Communist authorities.Credit…Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive, via Getty Images

Edita Gruberova was born on Dec. 23, 1946, in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (in what is now Slovakia), the only child of a German father, Gustav Gruber, and a Hungarian mother, Etela Gruberova. Her father, a laborer, was a volatile man who drank to excess and was imprisoned for anti-Communist activities when Ms. Gruberova was a child. Her mother, who worked on a collective farm, a vineyard, had a pleasant singing voice and encouraged her gifted daughter’s singing in school choirs and local ensembles.

Ms. Gruberova attended the Bratislava Conservatory and continued her studies at the city’s Academy of Performing Arts. While still in training, Ms. Gruberova performed with the Lucnica folk ensemble and appeared with the Slovak National Theater. She once played Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

She made her official debut in 1968, in Bratislava, as Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” That same year she won a voice competition in Toulouse, France, and the acclaim led to appearances with an opera ensemble in the central Slovakian city of Banska Bystrica.

Her teacher at the conservatory, Maria Medvecka, arranged for Ms. Gruberova to audition for the Vienna State Opera in 1969. She did so secretly so that the Czech authorities would not find out.

An engagement there as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” followed in 1970 and brought her considerable attention. That year she emigrated to the West. She would go on to give more than 700 performances with the Vienna State Opera, the last a farewell gala concert in 2018. She became a mainstay as well of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

Mozart’s Queen of the Night was also her role in a highly praised debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in England in 1973 as well as in her Met debut in 1977. A breakthrough came in 1976 when Ms. Gruberova sang Zerbinetta in a new production of Strauss’s “Ariadne aux Naxos” in Vienna, with Karl Böhm conducting.

The reviews were sensational, especially for her brilliant rendering of Zerbinetta’s long showpiece aria, when the character, a coquettish member of a comedy troupe, tries to persuade the heartsick Ariadne to forget the godly lover who has abandoned her and look to other men.

The eminent Böhm, who had worked closely with the composer, famously commented at the time, “My God, if only Strauss had heard your Zerbinetta!”

Performing primarily in Europe, Ms. Gruberova made only 24 appearances at the Met through 1996, including performances as Verdi’s Violetta (another of her trademark roles), Donizetti’s Lucia and Bellini’s Elvira.

In 1970, she married Stefan Klimo, a musicologist and choir master. The marriage ended in divorce in 1983. She is survived by two daughters, Barbara and Klaudia Klimo, and three grandchildren. From 1983 to 2005 she was in a relationship with Friedrich Haider, an Austrian conductor and pianist.

Ms. Gruberova leaves a large discography of recordings, including classic accounts of operas by Strauss, Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, and albums of arias and songs. She appeared in several films of operas, most notably two directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle: Verdi’s “Rigoletto” in 1982, singing Gilda to Luciano Pavarotti’s Duke of Mantua, with Ingvar Wixell in the title role, and Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” in 1988, singing Fiordiligi.

Ms. Gruberova’s last performance in opera was as Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” in Munich in 2019.

In 1979, while singing Zerbinetta at the Met, she was briefly interviewed for the afternoon radio broadcast and made comments about the role that seemed pertinent to her own character.

“I don’t see her as a soubrette but as a young lady who has lived, you could say, with quite a past,” Ms. Gruberova said. “But she does not take anything too seriously, because she can laugh it off. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word melancholy.”

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