Leonie on the Nile

Leonie RysanekLeonie Rysanek, who as you know was the diva who awakened your alte Jugfer to opera with her 1954 recording as Sieglinde under Wilhelm Furtwängler, would have turned 90 today had she not succumbed to bone cancer in 1998 at the age of 71. While the Wiener Staatsoper, which last week opened a special exhibition devoted to her in the Gustav-Mahler-Saal, remained her artistic home with the Met a close second, she also had a very special relationship with San Francisco Opera, the site of her 1956 American debut, from whence originates this week’s tribute: a 1960 Aida with Jon Vickers and Irene Dalis. 

While a complete broadcast of Leonie’s Aida is readily available from the amazing series of new productions which celebrated the postwar reconstruction and reopening of Wiener Staatsoper in 1955, the fact that it is sung in German is somewhat off-putting (“Bald kommt Radamès…” – Leonie once regaled me with how utterly ridiculous she found singing Italian operas in German, and demonstrated some particularly egregious passages of Tosca).  Here she sings in Italian, as do her aforementioned colleagues, as well as Robert Weede and Giorgio Tozzi; ubiquitous maestro Francesco Molinari-Pradelli is on the podium.

Aida was not a staple of her repertoire (it seems to have been active from about 1954 through 1963): she sang it 19 times in Wien (usually in German or bilingual performances with some colleagues singing in Italian), seven times with the Met (four at the house, three on tour), and three times with San Francisco Opera including one performance in Los Angeles.  This performance is the only extant recording of her complete Aida in Italian.

As was recently mentioned on Parterre, Leonie was scheduled to record the role for RCA Victor, but her acrimonious relationship with Georg Solti led to her being replaced by Leontyne Price in that historic document.  Her fallout with Solti, as well as with Herbert von Karajan, certainly contributed to the paucity of her studio recordings: she did not set foot in a recording studio between 1960 (Otello under Tulio Serafin and Der fliegende Holländer under Antal Dorati) and 1990 (Herodias in Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording of Salome for Deutsche Grammophon; an exception was the recording of the soundtrack of Götz Friedrich’s 1981 film of Elektra, her sole performance of the title role into which she was coaxed by Karl Böhm).

I was somewhat taken aback when I first heard Vickers in this performance: at first I though it to be a labeling mistake, as had occurred with a Chicago performance of Fidelio with Régine Crespin in which Florestan’s sound was definitely not that of the wrongly-credited Vickers, but Vickers it most definitely is!  It’s just a younger, sweeter sound that what we are used to.

Dalis’s career, begun in provincial German houses in the early 1950s, was centered at the Met where she sang 274 performances over 19 seasons, most notably as Amneris and the Amme in the company premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten.  She was also the first American Kundry at Bayreuth in 1961 and, after retiring from the stage, began teaching which led to her establishing and running Opera San Jose in her hometown.

As many of you know, I was graced with Leonie’s friendship for nearly 30 years and often cooked for her when she was in New York.  She once claiming that my chicken soup cured her of a head cold which had knocked her out of a Met Tannhäuser: “Zhey say is called here Chuwisch penezillin?”  Perhaps my crowning glory was the Sachertorte I prepared during her final stay in New York in December 1995, which she served to Anthony Tommasini as he interviewed her for the New York Times:

At 69 Miss Rysanek has robust beauty and unflagging energy.  Recently, greeting a visitor to the apartment she was renting near Lincoln Center, she emerged from the kitchen with an enticing gleam in her eye, balancing an elegant dessert tray, like Salome’s silver platter, on one hand. “This is homemade Viennese chocolate cake,” she said.  “It’s wicked, the absolute best, maybe 2,000 calories.  After this, for two weeks we eat just vegetables.’”