Cher Public

Lady With a Repertoire

sstri“If you’ve overdosed on Der Rosenkavalier in the past week, let’s go back a few years to Richard Strauss’ first operatic hit: Salome.

Covent Garden was one of the stops in the decade that Wiener Staatsoper trekked to various opera houses while its home on the Ringstraße was being rebuilt after the vast majority of it was destroyed by Allied Forces bombs.  This 1947 performance has a legendary cast: Maria Cebotari, Julius Patzak, and Elisabeth Höngen, conducted by Clemens Krauss.

Some Parterrians will be able to recite Cebotari’s tragic biography, some have listened to a few of her recordings, but many will ask, “Who?”

In hr 18-year career, Cebotari, a native of Romania, established herself as one of the most versatile, sought-after sopranos of her time. Herbert von Karajan called her the greatest Cio-Cio-San he ever conducted.  Richard Strauss referred to her as “the best all-rounder on the European stage,” adding “she is never late and she never cancels.”  She also acted in several films.

After her debut at age 21 as Mimì in Dresden, she was immediately signed for the Salzburger Festspiele by Bruno Walter.  In 1935 her success in the lead role of Aminta in the world premiere of Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau led Karl Böhm to persuade her to move to Berlin, where she reigned as prima donna of the Deutsche Staatsoper for a decade.

She was quickly invited to Europe’s main stages including La Scala, Covent Garden, back to Dresden, and, of course, Wien, where she moved in 1946 with her second husband, Austrian actor Gustav Diessl, and two sons.

To give you an idea of her versatility, let’s examine her Wiener Staatsoper performances in the 1947/1948 season:


Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) – 9 performances
Antonia/Stella (Les contes d’Hoffmann) – 7
Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) – 7
Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) – 5
Salome (Salome) – 5
Lucile (Dantons Tod) – 4
Marie (The Bartered Bride) – 3
Susanna (Le nozze di Figaro) – 2
Violetta (La traviata) – 2
Gilda (Rigoletto) – 1

Her repertoire also roles such as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, the Gräfin in Capriccio, Donna Anna, Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Luisa, Miller, and Turandot.

In early 1948 Diessl suffered two strokes and a heart attack and died at age 48.  Cebotai soon began to complain of pains, notably during a run of Le nozze di Figaro at La Scala where her illness was dismissed.  Less than three months later she collapsed onstage during a Staatsoper performance of Der Bettelstudent on the stage of Volksoper Wien on 31 March 1949.  It was to be her final performance: she died of liver and pancreatic cancer on 9 June 1949 at age 39.  Her sons were adopted by British pianist Clifford Curzon.

Thousand of people attended her funeral procession in what has been described as one of the most imposing demonstrations of love and honor any deceased artist has ever received in the history of Wien.



  • Camille

    Is this an article by Lindoro or a posting by Jungfer Marianne--as that’s how it’s tagged and it is Montag. It’s a little unclear.

    Also, there is an apparent typo in the last paragraph, “stroke” for the “strike”, I would imagine.

    • Cami, it’s my weekly Monday post. I have e-mailed La Cieca twice to make corrections -- and to add the link to the recording on my Mixcloud site! -- but haven’t received a reply.

      Cebotari’s “Salome”can be heard here:

      • Camille

        Thanks for the confirmation. It seemed as though it must be but something has somehow gotten a little mixed up. Nice to be able to hear her famous Salome, too. I remember seeing her in a bit of a movie, probably on youtube but no longer remember how or where or what. Was It with Beniamino Gigli???

        I will try to check up on La Cieca to see if she is all right. Could be she Is overexcited about the Sephora VIB Rouge Sale coming up and has forgotten us in the flurry….

    • Bill

      I have this performance on an underground CD from
      one of the Salomes in 1947 in London which was taped (probably privately as the sound is a bit of a trial). Cebatori had alternated with Welitsch as Salome. Cebotari was certainly beloved by the Viennese as stated and was singing all sorts of repertoire with sometimes 3 or 4 (or even 5) performances a week and at a time when Vienna was so overloaded with brilliant soprano talent that virtually every soprano role in any opera could be cast 3 or 5 times over. Cebotari (original name Cebutaru) started out as an actress at the age of 16 and the mentioned debut as Mimi in Dresden was approximately at the age of 21. She also sang, aside from the World Premiere of Die Schweigsame Frau, in the world premieres of Romeo und Julia (Heinrich Sutermeister), Danton’s Tod (von Einem) and Zaubertrank (or Zauberinsel) also of Sutermeister. When Regine Hangler performed Daphne at Lincoln Center with the Cleveland Orchestra I mentioned to the conductor
      Franz Welser-Moest, after the performance, that the sound of Hangler’s voice was similar to recordings I had heard of
      Cebotari and Welser-Moest beamed and said “genau”
      meaning “precisely” -- a lyrical voice in all ranges but
      capable of the necessity of riding over a large orchestra without compromising vocal purity when necessary --
      Apparently Cebotari was rather glamorous and made a number of films some where she also sang.

      • Camille

        Is that so?

        I had forgotten she was the original Aminta. Very difficult role.
        Maybe I should try giving it a listen again as now it must he fifteen years or more since trying. Hoped Dessay might have
        brought it into prominence, somehow—

        Beim Schlafengehen.
        Frau Schwanewilms is, simply, a wonderful recitalist. The highlight of this entire season.

        • Re: “Die schweigsame Frau” -- Strauss is on my list of composers whose entire operatic output will be posted on my Mixcloud site (Wagner and Puccini are already complete; Janácek soon). I’ll be adding “Capriccio,” “Intermezzo,” and “Die schweigsame Frau” before the end of summer, so you may want to wait: I think you’ll enjoy the casts I’ve selected.

        • Bill

          Anne Schwanewilms’ liederabend (matinee ?) began at 5:00 pm at Alice Tully Hall together with Malcolm Martineau and it was a serious affair, a throwback to when a soprano presented lieder with no distractions, no change of dress at intermission, in service to the music and the text. It was Easter and the programming was 15 Richard Strauss songs
          (plus two Strauss encores) and 6 Hugo Wolf
          songs to texts of Moerike -- a heavy program
          deftly chosen by Frau Schwanewilms to show off her considerable understanding of the “Lied” and her ability to present the texts with the clearest of diction. No artificial artifice here and most of the songs were
          not at all cute-like or bouncy but of a serious nature which could present Schwanewilms marvelous legato with great clarity and
          control, her absolute pitch (no scooping here), her ability to pick a note right out
          of the air with beautiful lustrous tone.
          Only in Strauss’ “Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen” a song with which I was
          unfamiliar, did Schwanewilms play with the audience in the most charming and rather hilarious fashion ( the more so in that most of the songs she presented were dour and emphasized Schwanewilms’ remarkable ability to spin a long instrumental line
          vocally (as often required in Strauss) with pure sometimes tubular sound.

          Schwanewilms received a warm prolonged applause upon her first entrance in a
          slender elegant red dress, dearly remembered in NYC for her imposing cool elegantly sung Kaiserin. Almost from her first stately utterance I dearly regretted that
          Schwanewilms had not sung the Marschallin in the recent premiere of
          Rosenkavalier at the Met -- Schwanewilm’s
          voice is very even in tone throughout the range (the range of the Marschallin, that is,
          for very high notes were not in abundance in this recital) -- there is no break in the voice
          throughout the range or alteration of timbre.
          One maybe can think of Leminitz, Janowitz, Gessendorf in the vocal emission, the sumptious sound, the absolute pitch -- but
          Schwanewilms is also a very intellectual
          singer (as her interviews about characterization of her roles have indicated).
          The audience at Tully Hall (not at all full)
          was rapt, song after song. One had the feeling that Schwanewilms, like Schwarzkopf, Seefried, Ameling before her
          was a master at creating a program which
          displayed each of their interpretive strengths
          and we know both Schwarzkopf and Seefried were bold enough to present an all Hugo Wolf recital at times in cultural centers but also creative enough at other times to give a very rounded recital of a variety of composers to display all the positive wares at their fingertips. Schwanewilms just presented each song as it is written (Morgen, an encore, was taken very slowly and in cool manner but Schwanewilms is able to sustain the vocal line in such a lingering fashion as more reflective than inspiring of the future.

          Our dear Claire was also there in the audience and it was a joy to see a familiar face both in anticipation of the event but also in repose after each exquisite number. Hence, a Liederabend for connoisseurs to be sure, but a very rewarding one indeed. I have seen Frau Schwanewilms of course here as the Kaiserin and in Vienna as Arabella, the Marschallin and Ariadne, never in anything other than Richard Strauss -- let us hope that not too many Easters pass before she returns to sing for us again in New York.

          • PCally

            This was my first Schwanewilms recital and I have to say I think her true strength is Lieder. With just a piano, her textual specificity and access to a variety of vocal colors is really astonishing and her voice projects effortlessly. I also think in opera she can come across as so introverted as the appear detached. This is not present at all in recital. I think she may be the best female recitalist currently performing, and I am not an unqualified fan.

            Perhaps she’ll return to the met as the Marschallin when it’s revived. It’s certainly her finest role

          • spiderman

            This interview indicates that we won’t hear very much of Schwanewilms anymore. She has reduced her appearences and apparently has very little upcoming performance (she seems to be nowhere on a roster: not New York, not Paris, not Vienna, not London, not Munich …) maybe except for some recitals or concerts.

            • All Ears


          • ducadiposa

            What a wonderful report Bill! My only experience of this unique voice was in the most recent Met Frau and it was a revelation. The most pure-toned operatic voice I’ve ever heard that could still carry over the huge orchestra. One of my greatest memories!

      • This was the only Salome Cebotari sang in the run and I have understood she was covering Welitsch who was scheduled for them all. Her work is accomplished but the role stresses her now and then. The craziest performance comes from Hoengen who has no voice at all and coughs and barks her way through. But it is great to hear Patzak (Herodes) and Clemens Krauss

        I met some Viennese queens years ago who spun quite a story about Cebotari’s early life with her first husband. According to them he was the ring master/producer of a circus which she ran away to join. They had a stint in Paris. According to these gossips who I oughtn’t be dignifying, an older admirer discovered her voice and paid for her first lessons. She dumped the husband and became respectable. They had some colorful details, and their tale would have made quite an engaging old fashioned novel of the sort that centered on sexy female opera singers who had done everything to have careers (and became highly expurgated movies with Jeanette MacDonald).

        I was skeptical if not completely so (many people have done wild things to try and have careers) but years later I was talking to Elena Nikolaidi, by then a fabulous old lady (although at 345 years I am older now) with a fantastic memory who had the dirt on EVERYBODY. She confirmed some details, much to my surprise. Little Maria, when a girl, back in old Chisineu (then Russia-Bessarabia had evidently been quite a creature. (Nikolaidi had made a huge success by surprise at the VSO in ’36, and had done well if perhaps not spectacularly in America where she told me “my voice was too small for these barns and stables!” Bruno Walter adored her — and maybe more — despite his permanent mistress Delia Reinhardt. He had a wife too and was a big proponent of “family values”).

        Nikolaidi said she had been sick for several years before collapsing on stage (everyone’s dream, certainly mine, luckily it won’t happen I’d break the stage) but kept it a secret. It was in London that she met the very great pianist Clifford Curzon and asked him to adopt her sons were she to die.

  • Benrenki

    I was surprised when I watched Pabst’s Büchse der Pandora a few years ago to discover that Diessl, who plays Jack the Ripper, was married to Cebotari. He was also in a few other interesting films, including Fritz Lang’s Testament des Dr. Mabuse and two films featuring the inimitable mountain hijinks of Leni “I am an artist and care nothing for politics” Riefenstahl, Die weiße Hölle von Piz Palu and Eisberg S.O.S.

    • Gualtier Maldè

      BTW Gustav Diessl predeceased Cebotari, dying in 1948 after two strokes. Cebotari followed him in 1949 leaving their two sons orphans. Evidently they were cared for by their devoted nanny until the British pianist Clifford Curzon and his wife Lucille adopted both boys since they had no children of their own. Here is a picture of Curzon with the two boys Fritz and Peter. Fritz Curzon is now a photographer:

  • southerndoc1

    Cebotari is a fascinating singer and personality. I’ve always wondered, as with Supervia, if she shaved a few years off her birth date.