Times Music Writer

She is not pretty, she was wearing an unflattering 1950s-style, dark-persimmon ball gown (with an antique-gold bodice), and up to this point in time she has earned no particular fame as a recitalist.

Against these odds, and armed only with a kaleidoscopic but mellow voice and a comprehensive artistry, Edita Gruberova--the Czech soprano who for more than a decade has reigned in the coloratura repertory in Vienna, Salzburg and Glyndebourne and at the Met--made her local debut at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

And triumphed.

For the second event in the "Stars of Opera" series, the singer from Bratislava chose a program with no operatic blockbusters: songs and ariettas by Mozart, and Lieder by Hugo Wolf and Richard Strauss. When she came to encores, however, Gruberova gave her attentive and gracious audience--an audience thoughtful enough to hold its coughs until breaks between songs--two bonuses, "Depuis le jour," from Charpentier's "Louise," and Ophelia's mad scene from Thomas' "Hamlet."

A coloratura soprano who does not squeak or mince is already a singer of one's dreams. Entering and leaving the stage, Gruberova is friendly, direct and businesslike. She flirts not; neither does she cloy.

Without exaggeration, however, she does create, in every song she sings, stage action, a dramatic situation and a background for her thoughtful sense of text. Every item on her recital was a vignette, every poem a scene.

Her singing, though wide-ranging in dynamics, color and scale, proved consistently handsome and word-pertinent. Musically, Gruberova and her self-effacing but authoritative pianist, Friedrich Haider, unfailingly chose the most articulate tempos, the most telling climaxes, the richest nuances. Their easy teamwork appears at all times natural and self-regulating.

Haider, despite an extremely youthful appearance and a certain sartorial tackiness--Thursday night, he was wearing white socks with his black tuxedo--delivered the complicated piano parts of the Wolf and Strauss songs with eloquent understatement, yet supported the singer fully, and with pristine clarity. He is a cherishable collaborator.

The generous but not overlong program surveyed six of Mozart's most elegant vocal pieces, from a commanding "Als Luise die Briefe" through a perfectly controlled "Un moto di gioia"; 10 of Wolf's Moerike songs, and a substantial bouquet of seven Strauss Lieder. Bouquet describes the last group exactly: It began with the four songs of "Maedchenblumen," Opus 22, and reached its emotional and musical peak with the high C of "Kling!"

No sense of self-display or hungry ego surfaced to separate Gruberova the song-interpreter from her receptive listeners. She used her resourceful voice--rich and unstrained throughout a range from Middle C to High E--to project emotion, mood and word, and added interest through the application of tone-color and inflection. Her artistry is forceful because it is direct; the singer and the song do not contradict each other.

In an evening of insights--and it was a pleasure that this audience chose, apparently by itself, to hold its applause until the end of each of the three song-groups--one came away with particularly resonant and touching memories of "Ridente la calma," of "Zitronenfalter im April" and "Im Fruehling," of "Mohnblumen" and "Wasserrose" and "Freundliche Vision."

The first encore, before the two arias, was Richard Strauss' "Amor," given a performance of exquisite lightness, grace and good humor.

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