Roberta Peters’ passing on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017 was a rough day for the opera community. The soprano, who had such a memorable career at the Metropolitan, was an artist like no other.
She was elegant both physically and vocally and her singing was undeniably fearless. She took on many repertoire classics but never had any qualms about adding her own spin. In this piece, I want to zero in on one particular interpretation of an aria that Peters simply owns like no other soprano before and since.
Early in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Gilda sings her famous “Caro Nome” in which she reflects on the great love she feels for this student Gaultier Malde. It is a virtuosic stunner for each and every soprano that takes it on, but Peters’ performance of the aria makes the listener repeatedly go “Did she just do that?” and “How did she just do that?”
Her approach to most of the aria is a rather brisk tempo, each word clearly articulated and Verdi’s sharp rhythmic melody finely etched. Every known recording, she has of this aria, , whether in studio or live, follows this approach, showing a consistency in both approach and technique. Verdi leaves the soprano some cadential freedoms throughout the piece and Peters slows the tempo to stretch notes and ascend into her upper range, all of these notes given breathtaking crescendos.
But the real genius of the aria comes at the final cadenza before the chorus of men joins her for the coda. She delivers the customary cadenza with brilliant high notes and enviable bravura. But the real masterwork is that second to last note, a sustained B natural that most sopranos hold for a bit, diminishing the sound into the final note of the section.
But what Peters elects to do is simply breathtaking, tremendous courage and pure virtuosity sewn together with musical brilliance. She approaches the note delicately, slowly building the crescendo. The build bides it time, creating incredible tension and exhilaration for the listener awaiting a triumphant switch to the final note at the apex of the volumes’ growth. But just as she prepares you for the release, she slowly pulls back to diminuendo, renewing the expectation we usually have in listening to this aria. That she manages this feat in one breath that lasts 13 seconds and in front of an audience is simply magisterial.
And while for me personally that is the most gorgeous singing in the entire rendition, she isn’t finished. She interpolates another set of ornaments at the very end climaxing on a high E natural, a note that she also sustains and diminuendos at the end of the note, her voice completely exposed as the orchestra whispers beneath her. This type of risk could misfire easily, the note already in a delicate part of the voice and any slight movement or vocal shift could derail it altogether. Leaving audiences with any such mistake could potentially cloud the rest of the performance of the aria.
The virtuosity explored here isn’t always as flashy or explosive as some of the other skills she showed in other pieces, but in many ways this more subtle display of musical genius and technical panache is more impressive in its impact. I leave you with two different recordings, one in studio and the other a live performance to see how this genius was undaunted at taking the same vocal risks regardless of the environment. In both she succeeds wondrously.