Ileana Cotrubas was born into a musical family: her father was a tenor in an amateur chorus and her mother also sang. When she was nine years old she joined a children’s chorus that performed on Romanian radio and in local opera productions, becoming a soloist with the choir at the age of eleven. In 1952 Cotrubas entered the Special Music School for gifted children in Bucharest, undertaking a variety of studies, including conducting, piano, violin and acting, during her first two years. From her mid-teens onwards however she concentrated on singing, even though she was initially rejected by the Bucharest Conservatory as her voice was considered to be too modest. Nonetheless, after further study that included music theory and practice, she was accepted by the conservatory in 1958. Here she studied voice with Constantin Stroescu while continuing with piano and learning the major operatic languages (French, German, Italian); she was also active as an athlete.
Cotrubas made her operatic stage début with the Bucharest Opera as Yniold/Pelléas et Mélisande in 1964, following this up shortly afterwards with appearances as Oscar/Un ballo in maschera, Blonde/Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Gilda/Rigoletto. In 1965 she took first prize in the opera, lieder, and oratorio sections of the ’s-Hertogenbosch (Holland) singing competiton, which brought with it operatic appearances both in Holland and elsewhere. The following year she won the singing competition of the West German radio stations, held in Munich, and her international career was effectively launched.
At the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels (1967) Cotrubas enjoyed great success as Pamina/Die Zauberflöte; was engaged to sing at the state operas of Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna; at the Salzburg Festival (1967–1968); and accepted a permanent contract with the Frankfurt Opera (1968–1971). She made her highly successful British début at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1969 as Mélisande/Pelléas et Mélisande, with John Pritchard conducting, and was quickly engaged by the Royal Opera Company, Covent Garden, as Tatyana for Peter Hall’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, premièred in January 1971 with Sir Georg Solti conducting. Henceforth Cotrubas was to be a firm favourite with British audiences, who responded warmly to her impeccable musical taste as well as her unusually powerful acting ability. Her later Covent Garden rôles included Susanna/Le nozze di Figaro, Norina/Don Pasquale, Violetta/La traviata, Mélisande, Adina/L’elisir d’amore, Gilda, Pamina/Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mimì/La Bohème, Antonia/Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Amina/La sonnambula (with her husband Manfred Ramin conducting), Elisabetta/Don Carlo and Alice/Falstaff.
In 1970 Cotrubas signed a three-year contract with the Vienna State Opera, where she subsequently appeared as Susanna, Zerlina / Don Giovanni, Mimì and Sophie/Der Rosenkavalier. Back at Glyndebourne, she sang Pamina and the title rôle in Cavalli’s La Calisto in 1970, and Susanna in 1973. It was with the Chicago Lyric Opera in the autumn of 1973 that Cotrubas made her American début: as Mimì, singing opposite Luciano Pavarotti. Later rôles at Chicago included Norina/Don Pasquale, Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo, Violetta, Gilda and Magda/La rondine (1986).
Mimì proved to be a particularly important rôle for Cotrubas, offering ample opportunity for the expressive singing at which she excelled. When Mirella Freni unexpectedly cancelled in this part at the beginning of 1975 at La Scala, Milan, Pavarotti, singing Rodolfo, cried ‘Get Cotrubas’. Arriving at very short notice, fifteen minutes before curtain-up, she enjoyed a great triumph. As she later told the New York Times: ‘In the end they shouted and shouted, and Pavarotti…left me alone for the applause. And I thanked God.’ It was as Mimì also that Cotrubas made her successful Metropolitan Opera début in the spring of 1977, opposite José Carreras with James Levine conducting. She returned to the Met that autumn to sing Gilda (opposite Plácido Domingo, with Cornell MacNeil) and later rôles there included Violetta, Ilia/Idomeneo, Tatyana and Micaela/Carmen.
A rare (for Cotrubas) foray into Massenet had taken place in 1974 when she sang the title rôle in Manon at the Paris Opera. During the 1980s she moved into heavier parts, for instance singing Marguerite/Faust (Hamburg, 1985), Amelia/Simon Boccanegra (Naples, 1986), and Desdemona/Otello (Barcelona, 1988). She retired in 1990, but remained active as a teacher, one of her pupils being the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu.
An artist who could be extremely demanding of her colleagues, Cotrubas withdrew from performances on several occasions when she felt the artistic circumstances warranted such action. She was more than justified, however, by her own brilliant performances, with their consistently intelligent acting and sensitive singing in both tragedy and comedy. The extraordinarily high calibre of Cotrubas’s work is matched by her collaborators on disc: she recorded La traviata with Carlos Kleiber, Carmen with Abbado, and Rigoletto with Giulini to name but three great conductors.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).