Cher Public

The art of the steel

Idle question: Is there a singer today for whom you would stand overnight on line for a ticket to the following day’s concert? The Met was sold out, as was often true in 1979, but standing room, sold the day of the performance, was affordable, the inconvenience of acquiring it aside. It was an occasion—just the line, never mind the event. I began friendships that night that lasted for decades. 

The occasion was the return, after five years as a tax refugee from the United States, of Birgit Nilsson. No one knows who negotiated the standoff or ponied up the dough, but the mastermind who brought off the settlement and the reunion, and conducted the program, was James Levine.

But that day he was a hero (and yes, even then, everyone had heard the rumors). His orchestra played the prelude from Tannhauserto settle us in, and then the beginning of Act II—and out she came, with: “Dich, teure Halle, grüss ich wieder, … geliebter Raum!” And on “lieb,” she took a generous ritard, “I greet you, beloved room!” It was as if she had given each one of us a kiss. And why not? For whom was that room not designed if not to surround and display—somehow to enclose—the majesty of that sound, than Nilsson?

Somehow it didn’t occur to me that the remaining days of her career would be few, though she was sixty-one years old. For one thing, she had always sounded so all-conquering, each note exactly as loud as she needed it to be, filling any size room, overwhelming any orchestra, chorus, singer.

However, in the remainder of the aria, let me state heretically, she sounded like hell: wobbles and pitch problems, a broad, blowzy sound. But later in the evening, in the Immolation Scene, she was herself, steady, a little shrill but processional through the long scene.

Time was, she hadn’t needed to warm up. She hadn’t needed to focus: she was there. She had energy to spare for acting choices, banter with her Tristan, leaning back on the arm of a Siegfried. But that’s Time for you. Not even Nilsson could hold time at bay forever.

This Sony Classical set of live performances covers 1953 to 1976, a golden quarter century in the singing and staging of Wagner. Nilsson shared it with many other legends, and many of them appear on these discs. To those who came of age in that era, she seemed sure to go on forever, or as long as she was enjoying herself (and making lots of money). She appreciated our homage and she loved us back.

Every great voice has a brief period—a decade or so is my estimate—when everything is at peak. If the right roles are offered during that time, the performer and the admirers are very lucky. Sometimes the right roles are not available or the right people have not noticed.

Nilsson’s voice in the 1950s, on the evidence of these gorgeous recordings, was very different from what it was in her days of her later stardom. She ultimately discarded many roles, including all her Italian parts—Verdi, Puccini and Mozart. She took up Strauss’s more demanding but ungentle parts such as Elektra and the Dyer’s Wife—though she considered the Marschallin. Isolde’s “Liebestod,” one of her regular “party pieces,” became ever less about love and more about revelation or, as Wagner put it, Enlightenment.

By the time I first heard her, in Turandot in 1969, the sound was physical, a force that shoved you back in your seat. My astonished date, who had never been to the opera before, said, “What kind of sound system do they have here anyway?” I said, “Her own body. Nothing more.”

She gave up singing Turandot at the Met that year. But in Elektra the next fall and the new Tristan that spring, she was just drawing her second wind—or was it her third, as the three different performances (1957, 1967, 1973) in this compilation suggest?

One thing I did not know till I read Thomas Voigt’s essay in the Sony set is that she had had major surgery the previous year, 1968, for cancer. She said it was gallstones and took four months off. “I didn’t want anyone to pity me,” she said much, much later. And the next year she was back on stage. But I wonder now if the harshness, the lack of sensuality that, for me, marred her Isolde, Tosca, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde were not results of that surgery, of having a different body to command.

Hers was, from the first, a voice of legend, of a matchless clarity and power, defiant of electronic capture. How can it be described to those who never heard it? Loud of course, and even and seamless. Her breath control was a wonder of nature. Her stage presence was confident but she could be vulnerable when it was called for. (She attributed much of her acting chops to the coaching of Wieland Wagner.) She could be majestic, amorous, desperate. The steely sheen of the voice felt too clear to seem humanly produced. The assault was not merely on the ears; it rang through your body.

The sheer glamour, the size of Nilsson’s instrument when she let it fly, like a weapon in a cavalry charge—there were many occasions in the dramatic roles when this was appropriate—defied the microphone. In great part, Voigt suggests, this has to do with the arrival of stereophonic recording in 1958—it took a great many years for stereo engineers to figure out how to fit her in without losing everyone else on the record.

This was a career-long problem, but there were developments that helped her. The Solti Ring on LP always disappointed me in its failure to reproduce the qualities that made her instrument unique. The first time I heard the same recordings on CD, re-engineered, analog, the sound astonished me: It was so close to the sound Nilsson produced in the theater!

These live recordings, the earliest ones (Bluebeard’s Castle, the Bayreuth Lohengrin and Tristan, the Swedish-language “Immolation”), were made on equipment more accustomed to grand solo voices. Nilsson is at once recognizable, but at the same time the voice is sweeter, more delectable than it was in the performances I attended in the 1970s. Even the later performances, the Tristan from 1973 and the Frau ohne Schatten from 1976, are a great deal closer to the singer than studio recordings ever brought her.

A common problem (a problem throughout her career) is that tenors simply did not measure up to her blockbuster certainty, her inexhaustible security. Ramon Vinay sounds old, Wolfgang Windgassen’s Siegfried anything but youthful. Jess Thomas matches her well as Tristan, Jon Vickers less well.


Bluebeard’s Castle

1953 (in German) – Sönnerstedt, Fricsay

The fascination of hearing Nilsson’s voice, fully capable of singing the lowish role of Judith, unsteady only in the abrupt top C of her ecstasy at the Treasury, should not distract from a fascinating moody account of the score by Ferenc Fricsay.

Lohengrin

1954 – Bayreuth, Varnay, Windgassen, Jochum

This was Nilsson’s Bayreuth debut, and her Elsa is luscious, blooming, of an astounding sweetness and clarity. In addition, we have Windgassen’s tenor when it was still fresh enough to be her proper cavalier and the spine-tingling contrast of Astrid Varnay’s malevolent Ortrud. The Elsa-Ortrud duet is a tangle of giants, Nilsson’s Elsa a static quantity, Varnay, very nearly as sizable and as solid, but coloring her voice to insinuate and undermine against the serpentine figures of the orchestration.

Varnay may lack Nilsson’s perfect security, but she plays with that, emphasizing Ortrud’s madness, while Nilsson sounds as pure and certain as medieval faith. When they whisper secrets, their voices are perceptibly smaller and more intimate. In the confrontation at the church door—the incident at the very heart of this opera, that Wagner stole from the Niebelungenlied—the ladies are barely to be distinguished for size, beauty, perfect focus of instrument.

What a pity that Nilsson, with this example before her, never undertook Ortrud herself! As for the demolition of her own happiness, which does not seem a likely key for the sureness of Nilsson’s technique, she lightens the voice, ever more desperate without ever straying from the musical. And the sorrow gleams in Windgassen’s narrations.

Die Walküre Act I

1957 (as Sieglinde) Vinay, Knap

By this point in time, the Nilsson voice was at peak, the early sweetness fading but the metallic gleam glowing like copper in noonday sun. Vinay’s Siegmund, though he is past it, unsure and vague of pitch in “Wintersturme.” Nilsson, by the way, sings the so-called “Rysanek scream” when he draws the sword from the tree. She sang this role at the Met in 1975, replacing another soprano (Berit Lindholm sang Brünnhilde), and we were all so grateful for the opportunity we paid little attention to details. Diction extraordinary.

Tristan und Isolde

1957 – Bayreuth, Windgassen, Sawallisch
1967 – Vienna, Thomas, Böhm
1967 – Stockholm, Rybrant (Liebestod only)
1973 – Orange, Vickers, Böhm

The Sony set includes no less than three complete presentations of Tristan und Isolde. I’d have preferred a Macbeth or Ballo in Maschera, or a few arias and ensembles from a Don Giovanni.

But then, which of the three Isoldes (as we’d better call the opera when Nilsson is the game) would you leave out? The Bayreuth 1957 when she was fresh in the role and had her favorite conductor, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and her favorite Tristan, Windgassen? The Vienna 1967 when she was, for my money, at her most powerful and her sweetest, and well practiced in singing with the Nilsson version of a fil de voce, scaling herself down to a dreamy glow to parallel the lyrical Tristan of Jess Thomas? Or the Orange 1973 (which was filmed and can be found), in which she matched with Jon Vickers?

Windgassen was a very great singer, and Bayreuth could command the woolly bluster of Hans Hotter‘s Kurwenal and the cavernous Marke of Arnold van Mill. But Nilsson was still exploring the part. I first heard her sing it at the opening of the Met’s psychedelic August Everding production in 1970, then a couple of times in San Francisco in ’74, and then back at the Met for her celebrated encounter with Vickers—which was not their greatest performance together.

She acted it differently each time, playing with the lines, adolescently passionate or full-blast furious in the curse, joking sarcastically when she first spars with Tristan, sinking into bliss or questioning that bliss. The role was never set for her—she was still, in her fifties, trying to understand everything in it, working to match what each partner brought to it.

This is not clear from her singing—her clarity rather whelms the role. The best set for me would be the Vienna performance, where she is in total control, aware of every possible difficulty, and can transform her personality from the vindictive shrew to the woman lost in love.

The voice is as close to sensuous as I ever heard it. You feel her relaxing into the embrace of Thomas’s Tristan, and he never sounded more romantic. She restrains herself until the frenzy of their mutual climax, when she gets carried away. Well, Wagner intended her to get carried away.

By the time of the performances with Vickers, the roseate bloom was fading. She works very hard to replace it with something that can pass for amorous, but there is a stretching out of the sound. You still marvel at the grandeur and the power, and when she’s enraged, the whole world knows it. Nilsson’s Isolde is beautiful when she’s angry, but Isolde doesn’t remain angry after she drinks the potion.

Turandot

1961 – MET, Corelli, Moffo, Stokowski

This ’61 Turandot, a Met broadcast of the new Cecil Beaton production, was a uniquely happy conjunction of stars: Nilsson new to the role that would become a signature, Anna Moffo and Franco Corelli new to theirs and in the full bloom of their youthful beauty, vocal and otherwise, Leopold Stokowski doing wonders in the pit, the minor roles well cast, everyone seemingly roused to their heights, the chorus ardent and involved.

Nilsson recorded two commercial Turandots, one with Bjoerling and Tebaldi, the other with Corelli and Scotto, and this performance equals either of them. Nilsson seems to be feeling her role under the trumpeting vocalism. During the (much abbreviated) Alfano duet, she seems to melt in Calaf’s arms, and Corelli is surely the one tenor who gives an impression of overwhelming her. Her concluding “Amor” leaps brilliantly up into the face where Caballé or Sutherland sang a gentler happiness. Well, why not exult and leap when you can?


Salome

1965 – MET, Dalis, Liebl, Böhm

“Silvery” is not usually the word for Nilsson’s singing, and no capable Salome ever sounds girlish (except Stratas, who only performed it in the studio), but this Salome from 1965, manages to suggest naiveté and precocious abandon. She creates a childish self-involvement in the triumph and yearning of her madness over the Head, drawing us into her clamor at the restrictions of her undesired virginity.

But that is not the only delight here. Irene Dalis was a justly famous Herodias, and Nilsson’s dialogue with Walter Cassel’s glum Jochanaan is edge-of-the-seat, his gathering dismay, her rising lascivious frustration, the bitter denouement sinisterly underlined in the orchestra.

Not least of the pleasures here is the demonstration, under a very involved Karl Böhm, of how able the Met could be in a virtuoso score a decade before the great “rebuilding” of the orchestra ever began. The build, they swim, they interject sarcastic commentary, they rumble and explode.

Siegfried Act III

1967 – Windgassen, Suitner

Windgassen, Nilsson’s favorite leading man, sounds exhausted but game and she sounds fresh as if from an eighteen-year restorative nap. This is inevitable but cruel – any live performance of Siegfriedwill result in the same disparity. But Windgassen, nearing the end of his long career, is often simply weary—and she never is.

Elektra

1967  – Böhm
1971 – Böhm

It’s not clear why two performances of Elektra so close to each other in time, both conducted by Karl Böhm, are included here. Böhm, who considered himself Strauss’s chief disciple (whether or not it was true), conducts both orchestras with elegance, as if rippling fingers over the strings of fifty violins, allowing the lyrical elements to call attention to themselves but never holding back on the fiercer outbursts.

Nilsson sang Elektra first in 1965 in Stockholm and in Vienna; in 1967, the Wiener Staatsoper took their production to Montreal, the performance presented here. Four years later, the Met broadcast the performance in this set. Both performances are splendid, and I am inclined to attribute to microphone placement that Nilsson is heard with such greater clarity at the Met. The supporting casts are excellent, but I prefer Nienstedt’s Orest, at least as it sounds here, to Thomas Stewart’s on the Met set.

The one problem is that the prompter, or some other interference, is faintly audible during Elektra’s speech to Orest, an especially gorgeous account. One can ignore it. I did ignore it. But it was there.

Fidelio

1970 – Spiess, Bernstein

Nilsson is sarcastic in her autobiography when she describes Bernstein’s careful coaching for this RAI performance. It is a bit slow-moving but one has the feeling Lenny was keeping the pace majestic precisely so that Nilsson could handle Leonore’s coloratura. At this stage in her career, that sort of agility did not come easy to her, and Leonore never comes easy to anyone. (A pity this set does not include one her Donna Annas.)

But her tops are thrilling and her skill at toning herself down to a womanly lyricism immensely gracious, especially opposite Ludovic Spiess, a very strong and lyrical Florestan with whom she matches superbly. Other treats of this recording include Helen Donath’s Marzelline and Franz Crass’s Rocco. And Bernstein adores wallowing in the choruses.

Götterdämmerung (Immolation)

1953 in Swedish, Celibidache
1973 in German, Mackerras

Robert Lawrence, in A Rage for Opera, showed three pictures of Nilsson, before singing the Immolation Scene at a Met Gala, while singing it and after completing it. His point: Her posture did not alter; she was ramrod straight in all three pictures. These two narrations, 20 years apart, show that while her posture might not change, her understanding (after any number of Rings) did.

She is cool in the Swedish Radio performance, phrasing impeccably but uninvolved. In 1973 (it was the opening concert of the Sydney Opera House, an occasion), she is just as steady and clear, but she has grown pensive; she ruminates over the actions and motives of the drama, over Siegfried’s betrayal and Wotan’s self-destruction. The “Ruhe, du Gott” is immensely sympathetic; then she takes up torch, audible in her voice even on a concert stage where there was no torch.

Die Frau ohne Schatten

1976 – Munich, Bjoner, Varnay, King, Fischer-Dieskau, Sawallisch

Nilsson’s last new role was the Dyer’s Wife, undertaken at the urging of her friend Leonie Rysanek, long famed for her Kaiserin. It was the summer Strauss Festival in Munich; several operas had to be dropped from the schedule and Nilsson, asked which one she would retain, chose the Dyer’s Wife, saying, “There will be many Americans here. They haven’t heard me sing this. And I’ll never sing in America again …”

She was wrong. In 1981, she sang the Dyer’s Wife in San Francisco, and in 1982, at the Met, where I found her able but seldom comfortable, a harsh tang giving an air of anger to her interpretation.

In the performance here, from 1976, all the faults of the later Nilsson can be heard in Act I: there is a wobble, the legato is harsh, the pitch is often sharp, but she has the ringing high notes Christa Ludwig had never possessed. Varnay, too, is past her long, long prime, and Bjoner, the Empress, has pitch problems.

But the other two acts, all these singers improve and Nilsson, in particular, seems to drop a decade or two. The high notes shine out, with desperation at times, and the wildness of the Storm Scene has seldom had so forcibly, insistently hysterical a focus.

Die Walküre

1969 – MET – Crespin, Vickers, Adam, von Karajan

Brünnhilde is, with Isolde and Turandot, the role most identified with Nilsson, and none of them have been neglected on recordings, studio and otherwise. But which recording sounds like Nilsson in person—or is that important the recording presents a spectacular, goddess and more-than-goddess Valkyrie, and the rest of the cast (and the conductor) are first rate?

The Walküre in this set is the matinee broadcast from the Met of 1969. Herbert von Karajan had introduced his famously dark Salzburg production to America. Long distrusted here because of his Nazi past, Karajan saw the Met as a major redoubt for capture.

He deployed his forces accordingly: Besides Nilsson (a favorite with Rudolf Bing and with New York), he brought Regine Crespin, Josephine Veasey, Jon Vickers, Theo Adam and Martti Talvela, each of them never better, and the orchestra blooms for this conductor.

It is a sumptuous, sweeping Walküre, and one regrets again the many scraps and strikes and fumbles that kept the full Karajan Ring from arriving until 1975, by which time it had lost its maestro and its thrilling propulsive drama—and Nilsson was six years older.

That was my first Ring. Nilsson had tumbled down the awkward stairs of the “subway entrance” to her cave during the Götterdämerung rehearsals, and no one was quite sure she would risk the first night. When she emerged, leaning on Jess Thomas, her arm in a sling, there was a joyous roar from our side of the footlights. (“How much will this cost us?” company executives wondered. But so the story goes, she merely asked the Met to reimburse her for concerts she was obliged to cancel due to the accident.)

I focused here on the “Todesverkundigung”—because its stichomythia requires subtle acting, not mere pouring out of tone, and because it is the pivotal moment of Walküre and of the entire Ring: the moment an immortal being not only understands (as none of the others do) the tragedy of brief, human life, but at that electric instant feels human—at which point she herself ceases to be immortal.

Nilsson begins with a measured, stately sound, and uses the shattering, fully supported high notes to express her revelation, her change of sides, her exultant unity with her beloved half-brother. She sounds beautiful in her duet with Theo Adam’s Wotan as well—there are oceanic swells of sound—but still invulnerable where other Brünnhildes retreat to the memory of daughterly dependence.


I did not hear the young Nilsson, but what I did hear amazed me. More amazing now to hear her youthful recordings, the sweetness, the sensuality that were no longer present. I did not hear the young Price or Sutherland or Tebaldi either; and I’m glad I did not realize how much I had missed; there was so much pleasure in what they still possessed. But the early recordings survive to tell their own exceptional story.

I wanted to hear this set particularly to hear the Nilsson of the 1950s and early ‘60s, and these performances—the naive Elsa, the determined Salome, Isolde and Turandot when the roles were newly acquired—are delightful surprises to which I shall often return. But the Karajan Walküre and the Bernstein Fidelio are extraordinary documents as well.

This is a superb set for lovers of great dramatic singing from an exceptional set of musicians, for those who delighted in the era when it was passing and for those who doubt we can ever have known such giants.