Cher Public

With honor

Julia Varady

Since it began last fall, “Trove Thursday” has regularly featured works from off-the-beaten track. However, today it instead offers Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with an unexpected heroine: the electrifying Julia Varady, seduced and abandoned by the suavely ardent Giacomo Aragall

A celebrated Mozart and Verdi singer, Varady didn’t seem to perform much Puccini. Wikipedia lists Liù as part of her repertoire but that might have been during the early years. Other than Cio-Cio-San and a late performance of Edgar for French Radio, her other major Puccini role was Giorgetta in Il Tabarro which proved to be more important to the soprano personally than musically. A new production of Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi was mounted at the Bavarian State Opera in 1973 and her Michele was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau whom she married four years later. They were together until his death in 2012.

As far as I can discover, the vibrant Varady sang opera just twice in the US—Donna Elvira at the Met in 1978 and Fiordiligi at the Washington Opera with Daniel Barenboim in 1983. The Met announced her return in 1994 as Wagner’s Senta so I, of course, bought a ticket for the first performance—which I then immediately gave away when she withdrew a few weeks before the premiere. But by then I had already heard her under the most expected circumstances.

In the fall of 1989, Armin Jordan and L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande were touring the U.S. with two soloists, Varady and pianist Martha Argerich. Both appeared in New York, for example, but most other cities just got one or the other. To my chagrin Argerich was announced for Cincinnati where I was living at the time, but I still obediently planned to attend as I knew she was an extraordinary musician unlikely to appear again locally anytime soon.

But secretly I still hoped that I would be hearing Varady instead. When we arrived that Halloween evening, I discovered my “treat” was no trick—Varady’s name had been posted on the marquee outside Music Hall—Argerich had withdrawn!

That evening the soprano sang a most unusual Vier Letzte Lieder, raw and intense, vigorous and inward; it was very different from the more ethereal interpretations I preferred at the time. But I was still extraordinarily grateful to have heard her just this once, particularly as I knew she had a growing reputation for canceling nearly as often as Argerich!

Over the years I made do with Varady’s numerous commercial recordings and the many pirates that circulated of her live European performances, particularly her marvelous Verdi portrayals. My favorite of her collaborations with her husband is surely the most unexpected: Cimarosa’s delicious Il Matrimonio Segreto conducted by Barenboim in which her delightfully waspish Elisetta spars wittily with the sparkling Arleen Auger and Julia Hamari as her sister and aunt.

Later in her career, the recording company Orfeo began releasing an essential series of operatic recitals of arias by Tchaikovsky, Verdi (two volumes), Richard Strauss and Puccini that I recommend to anyone interested in the soprano—most though are now out of print. Still active as a teacher, Varady turns 75 next month.

Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Bavarian State Opera, Munich
16 October 1980
In-house recording

Cio-Cio-San: Julia Varady
Suzuki: Gudrun Wewezow
Pinkerton: Giacomo Aragall
Sharpless: Raimund Grumbach

Conductor: Francesco Molinari-Pradelli

“Trove Thursday” offerings can be downloaded via the audio-player above. Just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, Butterfly, as well as Beethoven’s Leonore from last week, and all previous fare remain available from iTunes or via any RSS reader.

  • PCally

    Varady as Butterfly? That sounds like an interesting prospect. I know she was versatile but for some reason I have a very hard time imagining her in that role. I have to admit that I find it much easier to admire her to actually like her. It’s weird because I can’t really explain why I feel that why but I’m never completely taken with whatever I’m listening and watching her in. And I know I said earlier that Janowitz had problems with Italian, but those are nothing compared to Varady. There’s a video of Don Giovanni in Salzburg where she more or less abandons even so much as attempting to sing the text and just starts making vowel sounds. And that’s not an isolated incident.

    I bought a tickets for the Senta as well and wound up with (I think) Behrens…

    • Krunoslav

      I concur-- for such a smart musician and celebrate interpreter, Varady had among the worst Italian diction of any major 1970s/80s (post-Sutherland) recording artists I can think of.

  • You said you saw her under the most expected circumstances. Pretty sure that should be unexpected. If I recall correctly, she was the Roselinda in a Kleiber-led Fledermaus that was spectacular.

  • mike_ant

    One of my most cherished recordings of her is Zemlinsky’s “Lyrische Symphonie” with DFD under Maazel. Her performance in that recording is electrifying, particularly in the magical 4th song below, which never bettered in any other versions, IMO.

  • armerjacquino

    Yikes, Butterfly’s entrance is perilously close to a train wreck. I guess you couldn’t have the band from offstage.

    • armerjacquino

      That’s ‘ she couldn’t have heard’.

  • samson got a buzzcut

    A conducter friend of mine says Butterfly’s entrance is one of the most difficult entrances in opera. Obviously, it’s challenging for the soprano, but coordinating it with the orchestra can be a nightmare.

    I was surprised (and, I admit, a little disappointed) that Varady didn’t sing the D-flat. She certainly had the note. Either way, this is a beautiful performance.

  • Krunoslav

    • samson got a buzzcut

      Thank you, Krunoslav! The Mason recording is stunning in its lyricism and beauty, all capped with a perfect D-flat!

      • Krunoslav

        Glad you enjoyed it, it’s about as good as the Entrata gets…

        • messa di voce

          As Scott pointed out in The Record of Singing, there is nothing in Mason’s sadly small discography that is less than beautiful.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    This is the worst jupe bleu in opera that I have ever seen!

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    One does not hear Liszt’s magnificent Réminisences de NORMA often in live performances. How overwhelmingly sublime it must have been to attend a soirée where Liszt performed it.

    The manuscript was recently added to the IMSLP collection

    • grimoaldo

      Speaking of such --

      Language is inadequate to describe how much I have loved Liszt’s “Reminiscences of Robert le Diable” for these many years.This upload to youtube is particularly delightful as it synchs the sheet music with the virtuoso performance by Earl Wild with commentary along the way such as “Oh god, that climax…Sorry, don’t mind me, I’m just cleaning my keyboard”

      • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

        I LOVE all those transcriptions, especially the “Réminisences de Norma.” I heard Earl Wild when I was just a kid -- probably about nine or 10 -- play the Scharwenka first concerto and it was the only time in my life I can recall that the audience not stop applauding after the second movement and demanded a mid-performance encore! What a spectacular artist and human being he was!

        Do you know all the Liszt transcriptions and fantasias on Wagner? Insane stuff!

        • la vociaccia

          I adore all of the Liszt opera transcriptions but my favorite by far is his arrangement of the Polonaise from ‘Eugene Onegin.’