Cher Public

The green hills of home

The 2017 Bayreuther Festspiele broadcasts may be over, but I am still stuck up here on this comely Green Hill.  Accordingly, the principal cast members for the week’s Aida are all Wagnerians: Birgit Nilsson, Sándor Kónya, Rita Gorr, and Cornell MacNeil, led by Silvio Varviso in 1964. 

Cornell MacNeill, remembered mostly as a Verdi baritone and Scarpia, is the only one of this group who never sang at Bayreuth, but Wagner’s Holländer was in his repertoire: of what I could easily find, he sang two Met performances with Leonie Rysanek in 1968 (one of which was broadcast), and four at Wiener Staatsoper in 1972.

Birgit Nilsson had the longest association with Bayreuth singing there almost every season from 1953 through 1970 as Ortlinde, Elsa, Sieglinde, Isolde, and Brünnhilde.  She frequently received accolades as great as those awarded for her Isolde for her dips into the Italian repertoire, which included Donna Anna, Aida, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Tosca, and, of course, Turandot.

The incredibly versatile Sándor Kónya was my first Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor.  Throughout his lengthy career, he maintained an elegant balance ranging from bel canto to dramatic roles.  I also recall his Rodolfo at Dorothy Kirsten’s Met 25th anniversary La bohème.  His association with Bayreuth spanned 1958 through 1971 as Froh, Lohengrin (one of his signature roles), Walther von Stölzing, Parsifal, and two unscheduled performances as the Junger Seemann in Tristan und Isolde when he filled in for an ailing colleague.

Rita Gorr performed at Bayreuth only in 1958 and 1959, but she managed to sing Fricka, Ortrud, the Third Norn, and Grimgerde.

Silvio Varviso was a Bayreuth podium regular between 1969 and 1974, during which time he led performances of Der fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, and Die Meistersinger von Nürmberg.

John Macurdy, heard here early in his career as the King, later made a name for himself in the great Wagner bass roles at the Met.

Of this Aida, a local critic wrote, “If Birgit Nilsson bowled over Atlanta when she opened our 1961 season in Turandot, she was as brilliant Monday night and perhaps more expert in dispensing her great vocal riches.  Memories would have to reach back to Zinka Milanov, Claudia Muzio, and Rosa Ponselle for such magnificent singing.  In such company the well-endowed Rita Gorr had strong competition, though the Judgment Scene won her well-merited favor.”

  • Dan Patterson

    This was fun to hear! This sounds like an audience tape, and though the fidelity is less than ideal, it’s great to hear Nilsson’s splendid voice soaring over the chorus and orchestra. Gorr, Konya, and MacNeill are certainly worth hearing too! Thanks for posting this.

  • Christian Ocier

    Oh, that voice! How it cuts through an ensemble! There really will never be another like Birgit Nilsson. We may have singers who mimic the golden, seamless warmth of Kirsten Flagstad’s instrument, but Nilsson’s voice was phenomenon never to be repeated again. That column of laserlike tone, so powerful and solid from top to middle (and even to the bottom during her earlier years)--who else had such indomitable vocal prowess? Who else had a voice that was not only top heavy, but also ringed powerfully in that register (apart from Rysanek)? You could quibble about the comparative lack of variety in her portrayal of Isolde, Brunnhilde, or Elektra when compared to more nuanced actresses like Varnay, Modl, or Stemme, but that voice is truly something else. Thank you for the post!

    • Christian Ocier

      Also: what other live Aida can you clearly hear singing the final “Ritorna Vincitor!” in the ensemble prior to launching the aria proper?

  • Apulia

    gee, I thought Minneapolis audiences were supposed to be the worst coughers on the tour….

  • Leontiny

    On my knees at your altar for this, Jungfer. Thank you. Big voiced Aidas are my faves. Let it rip is my reaction to the piece, and Birgit and Leontyne did. So looking forward to Netrebko’s assumption for very different reasons. Beergut as we referred to her in our stupid insensitive although adoring youth had that searing diction that Vickers had. I love her Donna Anna because it makes the walls of the theatre quake, if wrong in style and incomprehensible in language. But who cares when she poured so much anguish into that first scene. I’d scream too if I’d just been raped by my father’s killer.