Over the last decade Alicante-born soprano Ana María Sánchez has become one of the best-loved Spanish singers at home and abroad. Her wide operatic repertoire encompasses most of the major international houses, and many of the great lyric roles from Donna Anna in Don Giovanni through Norma to Tosca and Aida. This is hardly surprising, for in the flesh her ringing vocal amplitude, technical control and emotional generosity make for a thrilling experience.
On the evidence of the Naxos La vida breve and this present selection, taken from last summer's sell-out programme at Madrid's Teatro Monumental, Sánchez is one of those singers whose vocal presence is cramped by recording. The flaws - a tendency to spread above the stave, a slight beat at close quarters - are unduly magnified by the microphone. And in much of this repertoire even the virtues - vocal opulence, crystalline tone and that evenness of line so prized in Verdi and Wagner - conspire to give the impression of a Rolls Royce gingerly picking its way around a go-kart track.
Not surprisingly the more operatic numbers fare best. "Sierras de Granada" makes an impressive opening, with Sánchez fining her instrument down to a true pianissimo for Giménez's gypsy roulades and evoking La tempranica's passionate intensity most effectively. The brooding romanzas from El anillo de hierro and Gigantes y Cabezudos fare well, too, and it's good to hear Sánchez include the long-breathed solo from Barbieri's recently revived Mis dos mujeres (the fine obbligato cellist is Suzana Stefanovic.) Elsewhere, notably in the Sorozábal items and the tarantula zapateado, the big voice just fails to negotiate the curves - there's too little variation in vocal approach, and too little sense of individual character to bring these numbers fully to life. The recital ends with another imaginative choice, the heroine's romanza rather than the more hackneyed waltz-song from Chateau Margaux, but as silence falls the net impression is one of relief at Mission Accomplished rather than Summit Gained.
Every modern singer's problem is that the past is always present, on record at least. The sense of easy artistry which Berganza, Caballé and de los Angeles convey so enjoyably in these romanzas is missing here, just as it was from Ainhöa Arteta's comparable RTVE CD of a year or two back. Like her Basque contemporary, Sánchez is a wow in the concert hall and opera house, and anyone looking for a well-sung, played and conducted souvenir of the live event will gain much pleasure here. For the rest of us, it's back to the shelves to rediscover that tonal flexibility and verbal imagination which transmutes zarzuela recitals into vocal gold.
© Christopher Webber 2005