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I discovered my “treat” was no trick—Varady’s name had been posted on the marquee outside Music Hall—Argerich had withdrawn!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
Cio-Cio-San: Julia Varady
Suzuki: Gudrun Wewezow
Pinkerton: Giacomo Aragall
Sharpless: Raimund Grumbach
Conductor: Francesco Molinari-Pradelli
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