Happy 100th Birthday Birgit!

This coming Saturday, May 19, 2018, will mark the centenary of Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson.

Nilsson was without question one of the biggest stars opera had to offer from the time of her sensational Met debut in 1959 until her retirement from the stage in 1982. The only singers of Nilsson’s day who could lay claim to equal celebrity would have been Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi. (I’m omitting Callas from the list because her career was all but over by the time Nilsson entered the firmament.)  If the American Average Joe might not have heard of Nilsson, anyone who knew anything about opera knew that she was the era’s preeminent Wagner soprano.

Nilsson’s stature can be illustrated by the three major galas the Metropolitan Opera put on during her tenure with the company. On the final night in the Old House, Nilsson was called upon to perform the Immolation Scene, thereby easily getting more stage time than any of the other singers. Moreover, she did it wearing a gold laurel wreath that had been presented to Kristina Nilsson (no relation), the soprano who had sung Marguerite on the first night in the Old House in 1883. On the last night of Rudolf Bing’s regime in 1972, she was once again a star among stars, and called upon to end that evening with the Final Scene from Salome. That was on a bill she shared with both Sutherland and Price. Finally, for the Centennial Gala on October 23, 1983, Nilsson provided the climax to an exhausting day’s festivities with the Narrative and Curse from Tristan. Again invoking Kristina Nilsson, Birgit was allowed an unannounced encore, an enchanting a capella Swedish ditty. Everyone around me in standing room that night agreed that Nilsson ought to have been allowed to end the gala. The ensuing desperate slog through the Ballo duet by Price and Pavarotti was an anticlimax we all wished we could forget.

Nilsson was that rarest of female operatic animals, a soprano capable of managing effortlessly the heaviest of Wagnerian roles, the three Brünnhildes and Isolde. Thanks to one of the milestones in the history of recorded music, Nilsson has been enshrined as the Wagner soprano for all time. Before the Flagstad fans jump down my throat, it’s a simple matter of the fact that Nilsson is the Brünnhilde in the Solti Ring. Itself celebrating a 60th anniversary this year, the Solti Ring is the one from which three generations of opera goers first learned the four operas. Despite subsequent developments in recording technology, Solti’s remains the most recommendable recording of the cycle. It will very likely always remain so. And, therefore, Nilsson will forever remain the Brünnhilde, probably until the end of time.

There’s more to it than those 19 LPs. Nilsson performed her heaviest of all possible repertory for close to 40 years. When Rudolf Bing took up the misbegotten idea of bringing Karajan’s Ring to New York, Nilsson’s participation was deemed absolutely essential. So essential that (if Nilsson’s memoirs are to be trusted), Bing was ready to tear up the maestrissimo‘s contract if Nilsson failed to sign hers.

Between studio performances, broadcasts and illicit in-house recordings, there is no shortage of recorded evidence of Nilsson’s singing. Although she made some good studio recordings beyond the Solti Ring, I believe one has to turn to her live recordings really to appreciate Isolde of her generation-and-a-half. Although the sound of a pirated Tristan cannot begin to compare with the glories of Decca’s ffrr recording, hearing the voice as it resounded in the theater without benefit of engineers to create a favorable orchestral balance gives a better idea of its size and penetration. Unlike, say, Leonie Rysanek’s instrument, which soared over massive Wagner and Strauss orchestras, Nilsson’s voice pierced through that wall of sound. Nilsson’s voice had a laser-like quality that made it so, well, so loud. And so thrilling as a result.

I am going to voice heretical opinions for the rest of this essay. Birgit’s fiercest fans should be warned.

I’ll begin by stating that I am not a huge fan of the Solti Ring. I recognize its enormous importance to the history of recorded opera, but I find that it glosses over many of the cycle’s more complex aspects. I find that Nilsson’s epoch-making Brünnhilde shares some of those same superficial qualities.

Cards on the table: my favorite Brünnhilde is Astrid Varnay, and my favorite Isolde is Martha Mödl. My favorite Wagner conductor is Hans Knappertsbusch. And, although Flagstad’s fans will have a collective stroke hearing it, I prefer Helen Traubel to their idol.

The Fach – vocal category – into which the categorizing Germans place the three Brünnhildes and Isolde is called hochdramatisch. The hochdramatisch concept was invented in order to describe the extreme demands of Wagner’s music, demands that no previous composer had ever made on the female voice. There is something potentially misleading about the term, however. Hoch is indeed the German word for “high” – but there is nothing high about either of the four roles under discussion. Yes, they all call for a high C, but, as Flagstad demonstrated, the Cs are, if not optional, at least dispensable. Isolde sings for three hours and has two flashing Cs in all that time. If Flagstad could live without them (and she did), you can live without them. On the other hand, the thing you cannot live without is a full middle register that can compete with the racket of a Wagnerian orchestra.

The hoch in hochdramatischer Sopran should be read, not as an adjective, but as an adverb. Thus, not “high-dramatic soprano” (which would be hoher dramatischer Sopran) but “highly dramatic soprano”. Although a soprano with a glorious high C can make the end of the duets in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung duly thrilling, there are other qualities that were adjudged to be more important in the 80-odd years that Wagner was being performed b.b. — before Birgit.

And, yet…what is the first thing we think of when we think of Nilsson? Those Cs. The two overwhelming Bs in the first act of Tristan. And the ability to obliterate the orchestra with the pons asinorum of Walküre, that “Hojotoho” business immortalized by Elmer Fudd.

Varnay had a comfortable and often exciting top C, but the last note in Siegfried isn’t the first thing you think of when her Brünnhilde comes to mind. That would be the crescendo she makes in the middle voice on “Der diese Liebe” in the last act of Walküre. The hochdramatisch paradigm had always favored the middle register over top notes.

Enter Nilsson with a freak-of-nature voice that possessed Bs and Cs (and no doubt more) forged of a magical (Valyrian??) steel such as the world had never experienced. The Nilsson high notes were thrilling, and, because they were so thrilling, they became the chief feature of her interpretations of the hochdramatisch repertoire. That would forever change the way those roles were understood. The almost contralto-like instruments of Flagstad, Traubel and Varnay were replaced by an unequivocally soprano sound, one which led conductor Karl Böhm to exclaim “but she’s a soubrette!” when he first heard Nilsson.

(She must have been the loudest soubrette he ever heard, but you can see Bõhm’s point.)

Nilsson’s unique and inimitable vocal gift created a mammoth paradigm shift. The idea of an Isolde ducking her Act II high Cs became unthinkable. The result? A new class of highly soprano hochdramatisch sopranos such as Gwyneth Jones and Rita Hunter.

Was it a change for the better? High Note Queens will rejoice at those high Cs, but did Traubel, whose highest functional note was B-flat, not do the majority of Isolde’s music better justice than Nilsson?

I today listened to a pirate of Nilsson’s legendary one-night-only Met Tristan with Jon Vickers. The most glorious moment in her second act is the high A over 100 instrumentalists playing fortissimo right before she extinguishes the torch. The effortlessness with which that silver-steel sound cuts through the orchestra is breathtaking. The impact in the house must have been even more overwhelming. And probably worth the price of admission. Although Nilsson is “on” throughout that legendary performance, and sings with an unusual amount of subtlety and passion, nothing in the second act (not even the Cs) has quite the impact of that note less than ten minutes into the proceedings.

Listen to Flagstad or Traubel in the second act of Tristan, however, and you experience warmth, sensuality and just plain beauty in their handlings of the the Liebesnacht. Their weightier voices with their contralto underpinnings uncover a gorgeousness in the music that doesn’t come out with Nilsson. On the other hand, they don’t blow you out of your seat when putting out the torch.

Although Nilsson sang hundreds of Brünnhildes and Isoldes, the role she sang most frequently at the Met was Turandot (52 performances of Puccini’s Chinese princess to 33 of Wagner’s Irish one.) Nilsson’s repertoire was small, but she did sing Aïda, Amelia in Ballo, Lady Macbeth, Tosca and (of course) Turandot during much of her career. (Nilsson actually sang 21 Aidas at the Met.) She called Turandot her “vacation” role, and, indeed, it must have made a pleasant change of pace from all that Wagner. She could let those spectacular high notes rip to her heart’s content, and go home with an Isolde-sized check for only 20 minutes of singing.

That Nilsson was able to sing these Italian roles proves my point about the non-Wagnerian construction of her voice. Although Flagstad did sing Aïda at the start of her career, the role was beyond her capabilities during the years she stood atop the Wagner pyramid. She would have exploded attempting Turandot.  Traubel would have exploded into even smaller pieces had she attempted the second act of Ballo. Varnay did manage to squeeze in some Italian roles (even the Trovatore Leonora), but there is some significance in the fact that, when she sang Aïda in Chicago in 1955, she was Amneris to Tebaldi’s Ethiopian princess.

On the other hand, consider that, of the major post-Nilsson Brünnhildes, Gwyneth Jones was a Verdi soprano of considerable distinction, and Rita Hunter’s Met repertoire included both Aïda and Norma.

Shocking thought it may sound, I prefer Nilsson in Italian opera. Her voice could do full justice to Verdi and Puccini, and I think hers was an Italian opera brain. That’s neither good nor bad; it merely is. Nilsson wasn’t cut out to ponder the profundities of Wagner’s philosophy-in-music. In interviews and in her memoirs, she comes off as an emotionally forthright, businesslike, devoid of pretense, aware of her own worth, charming and, often, very funny.

That type of character is better suited to Tosca than to Isolde. And that voice of Valyrian steel is surprisingly more supple and capable of a greater dynamic range than is revealed by Nilsson’s Wagner work. As I write this, I’m listening to a live performance of “O patria mia”. (For those who care about such things, it’s the 1960 La Scala.) The performance is almost unique in my experience in that it gives us an Aïda who’s looking forward to that dreaded high C, and who takes enormous pleasure in hitting the note and then holding onto it. It’s not the fil di voce Verdi requests, but a pianissimo high C in the Nile Aria just doesn’t happen in live performances. On the other hand, when Nilsson comes in on the high A in the next phrase, she attacks it piano and performs a fearless and brilliant crescendo on the note. Then, at the end of the aria, she floats a gorgeous and perfectly sustained and supported A-natural.

You don’t get “O patria mia”s like that. (A comparable performance can be heard as part of a Stockholm concert on YouTube.)

Until the very end of her recording career, Nilsson rarely recorded music that wasn’t in her stage repertoire. An exception is some of the Verdi album she recorded for Decca in the early 60s, where she takes on the big Nabucco aria, “O don fatale”, and the two main Forza solos. Not only does she fly through [most of] Abigaille’s voice-wrecking demands, but she sings a completely first-rate “Pace, pace mio Dio”, pianissimo B-flat and all.

Although I’m sure her Ballo recording with Solti sold a hundredth as many copies as the Ring, the performance is well worth hearing. So are her AïdaTosca and Macbeth recordings — to say nothing of the two Turandots. (All these have been collected into a monster boxed set released by Decca in time for the centenary. The problem with the set is that you have to acquire two Tristans and two complete Rings in order to get the Italian titles.)

I had the great luck to experience Nilsson live at the very end of her career. Although I heard her as the Dyer’s Wife at the Met in 1982, the in-person experience of Nilsson that is most etched in my memory is her appearance, swathed in flowing apricot, at the Met Centennial Gala.

At which she sang Wagner.

But – wait… Yes, I remember the Narrative and (especially) the Curse, but the thing that is most etched in my ears is that delightful unaccompanied Swedish ditty she performed as a seemingly unscripted encore. It was a couple minutes of magic, during which 4000 very tired people held their collective breath, and made for my outstanding memory of that interminable October 23, 1983.

The composer? A certain Herr Lillijebjorn.



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