Cher Public

A Rita bird talk

When sending out CDs to for me to review, our doyenne could not know that I have a fetish for 1950s vintage import LP jackets. I remember combing through the LP bins gazing admiringly at the import disks of a generation of middle-European singers who I was too young to have heard in person, who had no or negligible American careers anyhow, and yet whose names were legendary to me. The black and white portraits stared out at me in a way that was enticing yet forbidding. 

The CD that greeted me this afternoon, Rita Streich Waltzes & Arias (Newton Classics 8802069),  featured a charming portrait (with the obligatory string of pearls) of the delightful coloratura Rita Streich. Along with Erika Köth, Wilma Lipp, Emmy Loose and Lisa Otto she was one of a generation of light sopranos whose careers flourished in Germany and Austria in the 1950s and whose agreeable timbres were featured on Decca, EMI, and Deutsche Grammophon recordings from that decade.

Streich was a protégée of Erna Berger and sang many of her mentor’s roles. Her stage career was centered in Berlin and Vienna, with guest outings to Bayreuth for the Woodbird (in Krauss’ 1953 Ring). Her repertoire was as wide as that voice type would support and included Mozart, Strauss, and even some Puccini (websites and record notes like to point that it is her recording of “O mio babbino caro” that Rowan Atkinson lip-synchs to in Mr. Bean’s Holiday.)

But I’ll always think of her as the most perfect Zerbinetta (for Karajan with Schwarzkopf), a light but still effective Queen of the Night (Fricsay), a charming Sophie (Böhm), and above all a delectable Adele (Karajan). She was also known for Susanna, Blondchen, and Annchen, all staples of the lyric coloratura rep. She was a Lieder singer of great accomplishment and excelled at the bon-bons , which make up the bulk of the disk under consideration.

Waltzes & Arias is an eclectic mix of lighter songs and arias that allows the singer’s innate charm and expert vocalism to shine through.

Waltzes and Arias is heavy on the former and gets off to a great start with Johann Strauss’ “Frühlingstimmen.” With a somewhat breathless charm, a shimmering vibrato, and a timbre while thin, contains more shades of light and dark than some of her rivals, she captures the lilt and joy of this classic. I particularly enjoy that throughout her range (including the uppermost notes) she retains the integrity of her vocal quality.

On the whole it is while she is singing in her native tongues that she shines brightest on this varied program. I find her happiest in pieces like “Dorfschwalben in Osterwald”, and “Draussen in Sievering.” In Alyabyev’s The Nightingale (sung in Russian; she was born in Russia to Russian and German parents and thus bilingual) she is both introspective in its opening and fluent in its vocalization.

I loved Le Rossignol et la Rose (Saint-Saëns) where her timbre beautifully contrasts the harp accompaniment. The “Berceuse” from Godard’s Jocelyn is perhaps a little less successful (well sung but the text could use more specificity) but she brilliantly captures the mood of Delibes’ “Les Filles de Cadix.”

Am I being churlish for wanting something a little more in the Italian songs? Verdi’s La spazzocamino is beautifully vocalized but I felt the need for more idiomatic articulation of the text. Meyerbeer’s “Ombra leggiera” (sung in Italian not in German as indicated in the liner notes) seems superficial and lacking in both ombra and leggiera. Il Bacio seems to me to require more joie de vivre. And I hope she would have pardoned that my smile turned to a laugh when halfway through The Last Rose of Summer I discovered that it was being sung in English.

The surprise on this album for me was the “Song to the Moon”. With a slim vocal weight that I never thought would be able to sustain this aria, Streich magically conveys its mystery and light. The high phrases float as expected, but in the lower and middle range her voice takes on a smoky quality that communicates the rapture of this doomed water nymph. Just gorgeous!

So minor quibbles aside, I enjoyed this remembrance of a singer in pearls whose charm always has brought a smile to my face. I’ll listen to this again and again (perhaps occasionally skipping over the Italian songs) and think of those LP jackets.

  • Bill

    Rita Streich was an exquisite singer whose rather
    smallish voice was absolutely suited to recording due to the clarity of her sound and the perfection of tone she emitted.

    Her Zerbinetta is perhaps the most radiant of all those recorded for evenness of tone -- it was so brightly focused with great purity of sound but still with attention to notes and particularly to words.
    She does not attempt to trill on the highest notes as Gruberova does but the overall effect of her Zerbinetta as recorded is of the highest niveau.

    On stage, as reports from Vienna from the late 1950s and early 1960’s testify, Streich could have bad
    evenings -- her voice was always even but could be
    covered by a large orchestra or a louder colleague
    (her Sophies with Ludwig seen in 1965-6 indicated an inbalance in the strenght of volume each was able to offer witgh Ludwig too powerful at times in duet for the fragile voiced Streich). The Boehm 1958 Rosenkavalier from Dresden shows Streich at her
    very best, absolutely delicious in the Presentation of the Silver Rose blending radiantly with Seefried).
    Has there ever been a finer recording of this scene
    (well I like the old Karajan version from 1947 with Schwarzkopf as Sophie and Seefried -- one can really feel the awe of a first meeting just in the voices singing with breathtaking delight and gorgeous tone -- nothing wrong with Gueden/Jurinac either from 1955).

    Streich sang, as reported above, most of the roles which a light Coloratura could manage at the time.
    Her Susanna was well received -- her Olympia apparently charming. Her Zerlina seen in Vienna was a pearl. Perhaps today those singers such as Streich and Koeth who sang Rosina or Gilda, would not find favor in those roles. Streich sang all the Mozart concert arias with great fluidity -- her lieder
    did not contain the drama which Schwarzkopf or Seefried could summon, but Streich’s recitals were
    always well received and she admitted she always
    dressed properly and formally for such events.

    Many of her recordings (mostly for DGG) are treasures
    and she has an endearing reputation due to her
    lovely voice, her charm, and her manner of communication all of which are touched upon by the reviewer of these bon bons. It’s fantastic that we are privileged to read reviews of older recordings which are not quite forgotten but hardly come to the forefront when one is listening to the radio. I too have many of these 1950s recordings -invaluable documents of the times and the talents of the singers recording during that decade.

    • armerjacquino

      Streich was indeed variable: there’s a Glyndebourne Ariadne from the 50s on Opera Depot where she comes to serious grief in ‘Grossmachtige Prinzessin’ (far worse, dare I say it, than Kim’s performance of the aria on the Met broadcast).

      My parents went to see her in concert in the early 60s and were, to say the least, disappointed that she replaced the advertised cantata 51 with Sheep May Safely Graze.

    • Camille

      Lieber Bill

      I cannot find my Kloiber Fach Lists!
      What official fach the Octavian and Komponist belong to is still a mystery although I strongly suspect it will be mezzo-sopran. When and if I find them, I will let you know.

      So sorry to not get back to you sooner and hoping you can forgive,

  • The very first opera I ever owned (my mother bought it for me) was Nozze di Figaro with Theresa Stich-Randall, Rita Streich, Pilar Lorengar (as Cherubino!), and if I remember correctly, Tito Gobbi and Rolando Panerai. Stellar cast and beautifully sung.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Sanford, the Count in that Aix NOZZE, led by Hans Rosbaud, is Heinz Rehfuss.

      Of course, *some* would say that Streich was not a patch on Gwen Catley!

      • Regina delle fate

        No, Mrs Vicar, only YOU would say that.

      • danpatter

        I’m not the Vicar, but I won’t hear a word against Gwen Catley. I’m warning the lot of you! A singer of consummate charm and a lovely voice with many superb recordings to her credit, Miss Catley would be welcome on any of today’s stages.

        • danpatter

          Here is Gwen Catley (1906-1996) singing “Sweet Echo, Come Tune Thy Lay,” from Bizet’s THE FAIR MAID OF PERTH.

  • That’s a similar cast to the recording I mentioned by I’ve never heard of Heinz Rehfuss so I’m assuming there was a studio recording made around the same time with a casting substitution, because mine was not a live recording.

    • armerjacquino

      I’m pretty sure Streich’s only studio Susanna was with Jurinac, Ludwig and Bohm.

      • armerjacquino

        And, come to think of it, I’m equally sure that Gobbi never made a studio recording of NOZZE…

        • Regina delle fate

          Correct on both counts, Armerj. Is the Aix Susanna Sciutti? Rings a vague bell, but I couldn’t swear it. I’ve got the Rosbaud Giovanni, but not sure about the Figaro.

          • Nerva Nelli

            Once again: the Aix Susanna is Streich. It is not a studio recording ( one hears stage noise and applause) but it was a commercial relase.


            As Armer says, Gobbi never recorded the Count or any other other Mozart role in the studio.

            Heinz Rehfuss was a Swiss baritone of considerable artistry. He also recorded a memorable KNABEN WUNDERHORN w/Forrester under Felix Prohaska.

      • Buster

        Streich sings Susanna on the Leitner studio Nozze from 1962 too. Highlights in German, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Maria Stader, Hanny Steffek, and Walter Berry.

        One of my favorite Streich recordings is the Etcetera recital with Maureen Forrester -- a live recording from the late seventies, so the voice is certainly not as it once was, but she sounds much more involved and alive than on some of her studio recordings.


  • WindyCityOperaman

    A lovely singer, love the reissues of the “Folksongs and Lullabies” and Christmas Songs and a terrific Zerbinetta in the Schwarzkopf/von K recording.

  • Maria Malcontent

    There is something quite lovely and ‘vulnerable’ in the voice generally, I think, and the You Tube clip makes this apparent again for me. For whatever reasons she is not a singer whom I have much focused on -- every time I turn to her recordings I find myself pleasantly surprised and charmed, but I don’t, for some reason, go back to them all that often -- and I much appreciate the lead review and also Bill’s comments. It may be something about the fact that while there is a general responsiveness in the voice to emotion, there is not often a particularly individual coloring of the words. She is more likely, it seems to me, to convey a more generalized sense of emotion (albeit a real one), rather than something more specific. The odd thing is that with someone like Tebaldi (whom I love above almost all others of her period), you could make the same comment if you wanted to, but there it doesn’t affect me the same way.

    • mia apulia

      It’s quite possible that a singer who realizes that there is a forest and is moved by that fact sometimes has as much value as a singer who’s pointing out individual
      leaves on the trees.

  • Will

    I was lucky enough to catch Erika Köth in Munich in 1970 singing Despina (opposite Lillian Sukis and Brigitte Fassbaender) in the gorgeous little baroque court theater that was so perfect a venue for this opera.

    She was latish in her career, a little matronly, but with everything that had made her who she was vocally. She and the director were smart enough to play Despina as a worldly-wise little cookie who’d been around — never, however, in a vulgar way — and who approached the young ladies with a “listen girls, let mamma tell you how it really is” kind of way that worked extremely well. Vocally the bloom was still there.

    • Often admonished

      She was a fabled Lucia in Munich and in Berlin some 15 years earlier. Not to be underestimated!

      …But a way overparted Constanze whether live (Salzburg ’56) or in the studio.

    • Regina delle fate

      And how lucky to have seen Cosi in the Cuvillies! Nowadays it’s way to popular to be economical in such a tiny theatre. I recently saw Idomeneo there, but that was a special anniversary anniversary event for 900 years of Munich.

  • Regina delle fate

    A few years later I saw Koth as the Italian soprano in Capriccio also in the Cuvillies-Theater, with Claire Watson, Barry McDaniel, Donald Grobe and Kieth Engen -- the Munich ensemble was full of Americans in those days (not sure if Engen is/was American, tho). She was a bit veteran and she had put on a lot of weight but she played up to it, stuffing herself with cream cakes in the Countess’s salon. A singer with lots of “face”.

    • armerjacquino

      That’s very interesting, Regina: on records I’ve always found Watson to be beautiful but lacking personality. One to add to the list of singers who didn’t ‘translate’, I suppose.

      Despite all her recording success, I think Gruberova would be top of that list- her voice is so very much more beautiful in the house, and although she’s not an actor she has undeniable star quality on stage.

      • Cocky Kurwenal

        The other day I was listening to an opera and thought crikey what an exciting voice, who is that? And it turned out to be Claire Watson. And I thought oh, Claire Watson, NEXT! Which is kind of ridiculus.

      • Nerva Nelli

        Try Claire Watson in the Leinsdorf/BSO near-original ARIADNE with Sills. Watson is fantastic, really riveting, with fabulous high notes and complete control. By far the best work I have heard from her.

      • Batty Masetto

        Watson was a radiant Arabella as well. The Munich audience, which was still used to Della Casa in the days when I saw it, also liked Watson just fine.

      • Orlando Furioso

        Try Claire Watson in the Leinsdorf/BSO near-original ARIADNE with Sills.

        Why NEAR-original? It follows Strauss’s original score (minus the Bürger als Edelmann business beforehand), as I have discovered by… well, following the score with it.

    • WindyCityOperaman

      Kieth Engen was an American. There was a time when upcoming singers going to Europe was almost a necessity, and not an option. Not like that anymore.

  • Joe Conda

    When Streich sang Zerbinetta, she was able to sing on point -- there’s a photo of her comme ca somewhere.

    I heard that, while on tour in Japan, she woke up one morning and the voice was gone, thereby ending her career.

    I remember seeing her in Paris in the mid-80s surrounded by all sorts of handsome young men…

  • pasavant

    ” She retains the integrity of her vocal quality” Is Engish your native tongue?

  • manou

    Hannah Gordon/Rita Streich -- separated at birth?


    (I can always be depended on to add a touch of triviality to serious proceedings)

    • MontyNostry

      Did she star in a lame sitcom called “My Coloratura Next Door”?

      • manou

        Not to mention “Upscale, Downscale”

        • Baltsamic Vinaigrette

          And didn’t she turn up in A Midsomer Night’s Murders some time back…?

      • armerjacquino

        She presented Watercoloratura Challenge.