As we await the Met’s latest Lady Macbeths, “Trove Thursday” remembers the company’s very first via Leonie Rysanek’s NYC debut in a concert performance of Verdi’s Shakespeare masterpiece less than a year before her first Met appearance 60 years ago in the same role—plus the flaming diva in a bonus Verdi “bleeding chunk” from a week after that Macbeth.
Rysanek made her US debut at the San Francisco Opera as Senta in 1956 and during her second engagement there the following year she appeared in Macbeth opposite Giuseppe Taddei in his US debut. Today’s New York
concert the opera’s local premiere over a century after its first performance occurred the next year.
Immediately after this Macbeth Rysanek traveled to Chicago to perform Messa da Requiem for the Chicago Symphony and Fritz Reiner with colleagues Regina Resnik, David Lloyd and Giorgio Tozzi. A recording of its concluding “Libera me” is also included.
Despite her immense legend, Rysanek remains for me a problematic figure. It’s a commonplace that one misses much of her magic without the visual component which may explain why she made so few studio recordings. I heard her during the last dozen or so years of her New York career—1982 to 1995—and several were among the most riveting performances I have ever attended. But I often find her difficult to just listen to even when it was an event I attended.
I eagerly traveled to New York in March 1988 for the third annual Czech work that Opera Orchestra of New York presented with Gabriela Benackova. After her extraordinary Libuse and Rusalka, there was no way I was going to miss the soprano in Janacek’s Jenufa, particularly with Rysanek as her foster-mother, an incendiary pairing which had earned raves in San Francisco a year and a half earlier.
And indeed that night at Carnegie Hall exceeded everyone’s highest expectations and eventually BIS released it on a 2-CD set I eagerly bought. Benackova ravishes the ear and breaks the heart but I almost never play the disks because I find Rysanek pretty unlistenable. I hadn’t remembered how hollow much of the singing was, and the often-faulty intonation can be painful.
If the staged Jenufa four years later with Ben Heppner as Laca was less powerful, I still remember it an electric night as had been Benackova’s Met debut the year before at the house’s premiere of Kat’a Kabanova with Rysanek strikingly malevolent at her side.
With the exception of a Tannhäuser Elisabeth during my first visit to the Met, I never experienced Rysanek in her greatest Wagner and Strauss although I did later hear her twice as Klytämnestra first opposite first Hildegard Behrens and then Gwyneth Jones. Neither instance struck me as an entirely satisfying—wildly overacted and hoarsely sung.
While much of the rhetoric about Rysanek strikes an ardently ecstatic tone, I’m always reminded of the detailed examinations of her by Paul Jackson in his terrific, essential three-volume study of Met broadcasts.
Although he’s generous and complimentary sometimes to Rysanek, by and large he’s her fierce critic. And yet, like mine, his are just one pair of ears, and I always have to remind myself how effusive and indulgent he is on the topic of Licia Albanese’s many radio appearances.
I’m grateful my last Rysanek Met experience was the best: as the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Pikovaya Dama, her final production there, she was both poignant and terrifying. I remember being slightly put off by her distracting fussiness during the Pastorale—she just never stayed still—but her wistful Grétry air was heartbreaking while her coup-de-théâtr eentrance through the floor of Gherman’s barracks evoked astounded gasps.
I have an in-house pirate recording from that run with Karita Mattila, Heppner and Dmitri Hvorostovsky but what a tragedy there was no telecast!
This Macbeth broadcast is missing several minutes but it and the Requiem provide compelling glimpses of Rysanek in Verdi—in all her strengths and weaknesses–just before her fabled 37-year Met career began.
Little Orchestra Society of New York at Carnegie Hall
26 March 1958
Lady Macbeth — Leonie Rysanek
Macbeth — William Chapman
Banquo — Donald Gramm
Macduff — John McCollum
Conductor — Thomas Sherman
Verdi: Messa da Requiem—excerpt
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
3 April 1958
Conductor — Fritz Reiner
Both Macbeth and the “Libera me” can be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 files will appear in your download directory.
In addition, 260 other podcast tracks are always available from iTunes for free, or via any RSS reader. The archive which lists all “Trove Thursday” offerings in alphabetical order by composer has been recently updated.