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Opera Daily 🎶 — Gabriela Beňačková
A guest post by Heather Johnson
This issue of Opera Daily is by mezzo-soprano and guest author Heather Johnson. If you’d like to hear more from Heather, you can find her Rossini posts here and here. She also shared her thoughts on the loyal and deep friendship and companionship between Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki in Madama Butterfly in this post.
Before we hand the mic to Heather, I wanted to share this message that popped up in my nephew’s fortune cookie last night. When he read it out loud, I immediately thought of all of you. 🎶💖
Studying Gabriela Beňačková
By Heather Johnson
While we are all familiar with the opera household names of Renée Fleming, Leontyne Price, Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Netrebko, and the like, I wonder how many people know the incredible Slovakian soprano Gabriela Beňačková? I knew only a little about her until recently when I was driving home from a rehearsal in NYC, and The Met Radio Station was playing a recording of her singing the title role in Kát’a Kabanová in the early 90s. Her singing was honest and so powerful. I was mesmerized. When I got home, I went online to learn more about her. I listened to one recording after another. I was obsessed.
Beňačková, born in 1947 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia, quickly became the quintessential interpreter of Czech composers of her time during the 80s and 90s. It was the conductor of the Opera Orchestra of New York, Eve Queler, who launched her career in the United States with her 1979 debut in Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová followed by Smetana’s Libuše in 1986, Dvorák’s Rusalka in 1987 and then Janáček’s Jenůfa in 1988. The public went crazy for her!
Here is a selection from Act 2 of Jenůfa. In this scene, Jenůfa, awakens groggy from her drug-induced sleep (given to her by Kostelnička, her step-mother) looking for her baby but discovers he is not there (she had the baby out of wedlock with Števa, who has rejected her). In a panic, she prays, pleading with God to protect her baby. Her vulnerability and purity are heartbreaking in this performance.
📺 Watch and listen here (8 minute listen) Soprano Gabriela Benačková singing “Jenůfa's Prayer” from Act 2 in the title role of Jenůfa by Leoš Janáček, Opera of the National Theatre in Brno, 1979, František Jílek, conductor
Her successes with Opera Orchestra of New York led to her Metropolitan debut in the first Czech language production and first production of Káťa Kabanová by Leoš Janáček. Her debut was followed by 39 appearances, including Mimì in La bohème, Jenůfa, Leonore in Fidelio, Desdemona in Otello, and the Met's premiere of Rusalka.
Here she is singing the most famous piece from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, "Měsíčku a nebi hlubokém", (popularly know as the “Song to the Moon”) from Act 1 from the Met premiere of Rusalka in 1993. While we have heard many sopranos sing this aria with great beauty and emotion, there is nothing like someone singing in their native tongue. Her caressing of the language and the honesty in her delivery is unrivaled.
📺 Watch and listen here (7 minute listen), Soprano Gabriela Beňačková in the title role of Rusalka singing “Song to the Moon”, in a 1993 Metropolitan Opera production conducted by John Fiore
As I dove deeper into her recordings, I was overwhelmed by her singing and commitment to the drama, not just of the Czech works but everything she sang. When I found the following aria, I don’t think I blinked or took a breath throughout the entire aria. I was mesmerized. I have heard this aria sung often but never quite this heartbreaking (and her eyes throughout 👀). This woman is committed to this character.
In this scene, Margherita has poisoned her mother at the urging of Faust, killed her illegitimate baby she conceived (with him), and is now imprisoned. Losing her sanity, she sings of when she threw her baby in the sea, poisoned her mother, and begged for mercy.
📺 Watch and listen here (5 minute listen), Soprano, Gabriela Beňačková singing “L’altra notte infondo al mare” from Mefistofele by the Italian composer-librettist Arrigo Boito, in a 1989 production of Mefistofole, San Francisco Opera directed by Robert Carson and conducted by Maurizio Arena
Finally, I want to share this performance of another Marguerite with you, but this time the opera is by the composer Gounod. I must admit this is not my favorite aria, but I do love her singing it! This aria is the famous “Jewel Song” from the opera Faust by the composer Charles Gounod. In this scene, Marguerite tries on the jewels delivered by Méphistophélès as a gift from Faust. She is captivated by how they enhance her beauty.
📺 Watch and listen here (5 minute listen), Soprano Gabriela Beňačková as Marguerite, singing “Jewel Song in the 1985 Vienna Staatsoper production of Faust, directed by Ken Russel and conducted by Erich Bender
Can you see why I am obsessed? I’m so grateful to have taken the time to go deeper and learn more about this fantastic singer.
Does Beňačková’s singing sound familiar? She can be heard singing Rusalka “Song to the Moon” in the movie Driving Miss Daisy and “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca in the American thriller Copycat.
Thank you for reading and listening,
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