Friday, March 14, 2014

20 Under Appreciated Singers of the Past - 5 (Elisabeth Grümmer)

For years, hardcore opera buffs have praised the name of Elisabeth Grümmer. While she isn't, in reality, all that unknown, I think she is entirely underrated.

Elisabeth Grümmer (neé Schilz) was born on 31. March 1911 at Niederjeutz in Alsace-Lorraine. Because her family was German, in 1918 they were evicted from Lorraine and moved to the theatre town of Meiningen. She attended a drama school there and studied classical theatre and acting. Her stage debut was as Klärchen in Goethe's Egmont. She started a relatively successful stage and film career, but after her marriage to Detlev Grümmer, all of her artistic goals seemingly came to an end. Detlev Grümmer was a violinist and concert-master at the Landestheater Meiningen. When Detlev was engaged at the Stadttheater Aachen, they moved to Aachen and everything changed.

At the time, the music directer in Aachen was the young, Herbert von Karajan. Through his encouragement, she began studying voice and in 1941, he cast her in what was her operatic debut as the First Flower Maiden in Wagner's Parsifal. She became engaged from 1942 - 1944 in Duisburg. It is no secret that the second world war took a huge toll on the German people, and her situation is no exception. Her husband, unfortunately, was killed in an air raid. He died in their basement holding his violin to his chest. His death was a major blow to Elisabeth, she went on to say that he was her only love, and she was never remarried. After that, she dedicated much more of herself to her career. She became a regular at the Städtische Oper in West Berlin, and remained a regular until the end of her career. She went on to sing at all the great opera houses from Covent Garden and the Met to La Scala and Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Between 1957 and 1961 she became a regular at the Bayreuther Festspiele finding a real niche for herself in the lyric Wagner roles.

Like many singers of her generation, she confined her repertoire to a very select few roles that she made very much her own. Namely roles like Pamina (Zauberföte), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Contessa Almaviva (Nozze di Figaro), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Agathe (Freischütz), Marschallin (Rosenkavalier), Countess Madeleine (Capriccio), Desdemona (Otello) and the Wagnerian roles of Elsa (Lohengrin), Eva (Meistersinger), Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Freia (Das Rheingold) and Gutrune (Götterdämmerung).

Grümmer had a voice of exceptional beauty and freshness. Her elegant approach and elevated artistry lent itself well to sophisticated, noble roles. While nuanced and regal sounding, her voice had a brilliant shimmer, and a youthful quality that remained well into the later part of her career. Her performances, even on disc, are something to treasure. She had such an inward expression of musicality and text, it felt to many as though she was completely unaware of an audience. She really let those lucky enough to see her live into her own personal musical world. There was never a feeling of any sort of artifice at all in her voice, and through her utter simplicity of tone, she managed to achieve the utmost profundity, and warm-hearted sincerity. There isn't one performance I have heard where I couldn't hear her "bearing her soul" through the music. She was capable of finding the balance between "singer" and "actor" that is so rarely achieved in the opera world and virtually never achieved in the world of musical theatre.

She was equally respected on the concert platform, where her Frauenliebe und -leben was praised especially, probably due to the trust she had in Chamisso's texts, which most, quite frankly do not, and her "Ihr habt nun traurigkeit" in Brahm's Ein deutsches Requiem, is praised as among the best examples of the aria ever recorded.

Unfortunately she was not recorded nearly as much as her contemporary colleagues, such as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa della Casa, Irmgard Seefried, etc. But the recordings that we do have show her off to her best possible advantage.

She passed away on 6. November 1986 in Germany. I hope you find the charm and glamour of these recordings that give us all a glance at what the opera world looked like in a more civilized age.

Monday, March 3, 2014


So, it has been a while. Nigh unto a year. Life happens.

What has inspired me to awake from hibernation is one of my favourite operas of all time. It is met by most with misunderstanding and ridicule, for it is just about the longest lasting piece in the entire operatic repertoire lasting around four and a half hours (right up there with goliath works like Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, and the full five act version of Don Carlos). The opera is Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Meistersinger was originally conceived as a comic appendage to Wagner's earlier work, Tannhäuser, just as Greek tragedies were often followed by a satyr play. Wagner's first prose draft (for the libretto is his own) was written in Marienbad in July of 1845. As historical background information, Wagner used Gottfried Gervinus's Geschichte der poetischen National-Literatur der Deutschen of 1835-42. It is assumed that he used also other relevant volumes in his Dresden library such as Über den altdeutschen Meistergesang by Jacob Grimm, Friedrich Furchau's life of Sachs, and most likely the J. G. Büsching's edition of Hans Sachs's plays. More prose drafts were written up, probably around the time of November 1861, for the Schott publishing company. At this point, Wagner found J. C. Wagenseil's Nürnberg Chronical of 1697, which proved to be a rich source of information relating to the ancient crafts and guilds of Nürnberg. By late January 1862 the poem of Meistersinger was finished and he began composition by March or April. The work was not completed until October 1867.

The premiere, which was immensely successful, was given at the Königliches hof- und National- Theater in München and conducted by Hans von Bülow, a mutual friend of Wagner's and Liszt's, who was married to Lizt's daughter Cosima. Two years earlier Cosima had bore Wagner's child and eventually left von Bülow for Wagner. But even after such a personal offense, von Bülow continued to be a champion of Wagner's music, conducting it regularly.

The work went on to be performed in medium sized houses like Dessau, Karlsruhe, Dresden, Mannheim, and Weimar. It was seen in the Berlin and Vienna Court Operas in 1870, in England in 1882, the Metropolitan in 1886, and Bayreuth in 1888.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is about the free imperial city of Nürnberg in the 16th century and the Master Singer guild. While on the surface it seems like a simple, 2-dimensional comedy, the work, while different from most of Wagner's output, is incredibly profound. It deals with the role of music in society, Schopenhauer philosophies of art, music and dreams, and the folly of mankind and the human condition.

One must mention some of the negative criticism that Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg continues to get.  Like all of Wagner's music, the Third Reich tarnished its reputation. It is true that some of the music from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg was used often in Nazi propaganda. On that note, many scholars and would-be "intellectuals" claim that the character of Sixtus Beckmesser is an antisemitic statement by Wagner in the form of making the character a Jewish stereotype. This is not the case. Just like all of Wagner's antisemitic sentiments, you can always find it if you are looking hard enough for it. His music makes no statements about the Jewish people. Stop looking. Beckmesser is a caricature of the music critic Eduard Hanslik. Hanslik was Jewish, however that is NOT why Wagner disliked him. Wagner disliked Hanslik because he was the biggest opponent of Wagner's music at the time. His reviews were almost entirely negative and Wagner's ego didn't deal with that very well. Beckmesser is more a criticism on academic pedantism in general than a Jewish stereotype. Scholars like Dieter Borchmeyer point out similarities to the figure of Malvolio in Sakespear's Twelfth Night. 

This opera is the most human of all of Wagner's works. It is a glorious affirmation of humanity and the value of art. It is a parable about tempering the inspiration of genius with the rules of form.

I love this piece. It has all the grandeur and sensual chromaticism of Wagner, but the score is filled with hope and energy and JOY!

The recording that I am reviewing is not necessarily what I would call the BEST recording… but I sure do like it.

The 1956 Bayreuther Festspiel production conducted by André Cuytens.

Hans Sachs - Hans Hotter
Veit Pogner - Josef Greindl
Kunz Vogelgesang - Josef Traxel
Konrad Nachtigall - Egmont Koch
Sixtus Beckmesser - Karl Schmitt-Walter
Fritz Kothner - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Balthasar Zorn - Heinz-Günther Zimmermann
Ulrich Eißlinger - Erich Bänke
Augustin Moser - Josef Janko
Hermann Ortel - Hans Hibietinek
Hans Schwarz - Alexander Fenyves
Hans Foltz - Eugen Fuchs
Walther von Stolzing - Wolfgang Windgassen
Eva - Gré Brouwenstijn
Magdalene - Georgine von Milinkovic
David - Gerhard Stolze
Ein Nachtwächter - Alfons Herwig

Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele

It is nearly impossible, when thinking about this performance, not to start the review by acknowledging the absolute luxury casting of a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the second string role of Fritz Kothner. In this case, to say Kothner nearly steals the show, in no way implies a bad performance. As Kothner he calls the roll with a dignity and poetic colouring that reminds one that Wagner wrote this libretto as one big poetic prose. He brings to life the role of Fritz Kothner as the fastidious keeper of the seal that he is, and his recital of the Tabalatur is done with his usual wit and nuance. With his subtle turns of phrase he perfectly evokes all the singing styles Wagner was using, and therein subtly parodying. It does remind us, however, that he never sang the role in this opera that seems as though could have been written for him personally, Sixtus Beckmesser. I have dreams at night about the erudite, elitist portrayal that this artist could have given to the role of Beckmesser, the pedantic, bitter, town clerk and score keeper of the Master Singers.

It is forgivable, however, that he was not singing Beckmesser in this 1956 production because of their casting of the great Karl Schmitt-Walter in the role. Schmitt-Walter is the link here to the past generation of singers. He sang this role many, many times in Bayreuth and elsewhere in Germany and Austria, and while there are other documentations of his performances that may be better (particularly vocally), he uses his intelligence and dramatic intention to the fullest to give this character an adequately comic, yet understated persona, which is a nice change from the usual caricature that was customary at that time. His high lyric baritone, with his expertly deployed laser beam tone and, at times, almost Schoenbergian 'Sprechstimme', allows him the flexibility and freedom to colour this fascinating role in a reading that stands up with the likes of Erich Kunz, Hermann Prey, Thomas Hemsley, and more recently Thomas Allen.

David is a surprise casting of Gerhard Stolze, known for his portrayal of Mime in Siegfried. He sings the role of David with a pleasantly surprising youthful exuberance and we get a chance to see that this actor and his metallic vocal colour can be used with discretion and beauty. Milinkovic's Magdalena is pleasantly sung and acted throughout, but without much individuality or spark.

Josef Greindl sang Pogner regularly, and his understanding of the character shows. His singing lacks a bit of stability at times, but he delivers where it counts. His decree in act one (Das schöne Fest) really is done with an impression of authority and gravitas, and his relationship with Eva is very real and heartwarming.

Gré Brouwenstijn tends to divide people's opinions. Her voice lacks the "shimmer" one might want in Eva. She doesn't sing the role with the beauty of the always exquisite Elisabeth Grümmer, or the elegance of young Schwarzkopf, but she is an intelligent singer and while she has some trouble in act three (particularly in the quintet), her characterization makes up for it. Her Eva is innocent and gentle, with a hint of pep at times, and in her more sincere moments, verges on ethereal. All in all, I think she is great. Not Grümmer or Janowitz, but a commendable performance.

Wolfgang Windgassen is equally questioned by many reviewers. I am a fan of Windgassen. He didn't sing the role of Walther very often, probably because (as we hear at times in this performance) the role sits a bit high in his voice (for it is a terribly high role for most Heldentenöre). But overall his voice sounds full and fresh and he sings Walther with a lyrical skill and elegance one doesn't get to hear as much of in his Tristan or his Tannhäuser. While he does have moments where he seems to struggle with Walther's demanding tessitura, he still sings it better than the majority of performances one hears. He has the delicate balance of knight and poet weighed perfectly. In his first act aria, "Am stillen Herd", he plays with the text in a way that makes one believe that, yes, he may just be making these songs up on the spot.

No question, the true hero of this production is Hans Hotter's Sachs. Just about the largest role in the entirety of the operatic repertoire, he sang the role relatively frequently, but is only on a small number of recordings. Why he was not on Kempe's studio recording of this opera, I will never know, but of the few documentations we have, this is certainly his best. One could not ask for a better Sachs. He sings it with a warmth and stability, all the while taking huge risks that absolutely pay off. His Sachs is truly human. It is among the most intimate renderings of the role I have ever heard. His Act II monologue is beautifully introspective and his "Wahn, wahn!" aria of Act III is a picture of an infinitely wise and sensitive observer of human folly. He covers the gamut in this behemoth role from warm and fatherly, to almost sensual, and he does it with a sharp intellect and a personal quality that touches anyone who listens with adequately open ears. While there have been some excellent Sachs interpreters, i.e. Stewart, Edelmann, Schöffler, Adam, etc., there is no other Hans Sachs that I would call quintessential. Hotter's deep understanding of the text puts him on a level that is absolutely unrivaled. His final monologue is the perfect example of this.

This recording is, no doubt, about the singers and actors. Even the big Meistersinger guild meeting scene in act one, is done in a perfectly uncouth manner that reminds us, these are everyday tradesmen, that participate in the art of song in their free time. The conductor however, adds very little musically.

André Cuytens, a Belgian conductor, specializing in French music, methinks should stick to French music. He did, actually, conduct quite frequently at Bayreuth, and his reading of this score is fine. He gives the singers space and support, when they need it in their special moments, and I suppose he moves the music along in a broad "German" manner. But his performance is unmemorable. Except maybe those moments that suffer from severe lapses in ensemble - namely the end of Act II. With that said, he doesn't have the romanticism of Böhm, the beauty of Karajan, the grandeur of Kubelik… but he doesn't distract from the performance either. He gives what is ultimately a respectable recording.

Looking back on this recording, I ask myself, could it be that the success of this opera about song (which is to say the intimate marriage of text and music) is that so many of the singers here (Hotter, Schmitt-Walter, D. F.-D.) are specialists in song? Is it possible that their inherent understanding of song and text gives them an upper hand in an opera that is all about that very musical phenomenon? Something to think about…

This disc has pretty questionable sound. Live mono from '56, it is riddled with white noise, cracks, odd tape breaks, and even some occasional pitch-waver. But that doesn't bother me particularly, I am used to listening through these things. Some people may not be able to look past it as easily.

It probably shouldn't be your first or only recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. For that I may recommend the 1970 Karajan set on EMI. Not my favourite, but it is excellent sound and a solid performance from beginning to end. If you can find it, I would absolutely recommend the 1967 Kubelik recording on Calig with Thomas Stewart, Franz Crass, Thomas Hemsley, the highly underrated Sándor Kónya, Brigitte Fassbaender, and the exceptional Gundula Janowitz, or even the 1956 Rudolf Kempe set with Frantz, Frick, Schock, Grümmer, and a very young Hermann Prey as einen Nachtwächter.

But if you are a fan of this work or a collector, this is an essential recording. It is worth it just to hear Fischer-Dieskau and Hans Hotter in these roles.

-Christopher Michael Kelley

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


Something that often gets overlooked by musical connoisseurs and afficionados is the genre of Operetta. Operetta, while many claim it began with Offenbach in Paris, and many in the U.S. and the United Kingdom first think of Gilbert and Sullivan... to me, Operetta IS Vienna. Operetta is Johann Strauß II and Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán and Carl Zeller etc. Viennese Operetta has always held a very special place in my heart just as Vienna does and for that matter, Austria. Particularly when the Summer months roll around and I find myself lost in thoughts and memories of my time spent in Austria, I become intoxicated with the elegant lilt of the Waltzes, Ländlers, and Polkas of Viennese Operetta.

What Schubert did for the Lied, what Handel did for Oratorio, what Mozart did for Opera, Johann Strauß II did for Operetta. He brought the genre to life and shaped the way all others would compose in the genre henceforth. He did that with one pivotal work: Die Fledermaus.

The quality of Die Fledermaus is such that it is often referred to as an opera and held up against the German operas of Weber, Lortzing, and Nicolai. Its music is challenging and energetic, the drama is clean and witty and there isn't a misplaced note in this elegantly frivolous, sparkling score. Even so, the flavor of this piece in undeniably operetta.

While it was not entirely well received at its premier at Theater an der Wien in 1874, famous music critic Eduard Hanslick having called it "commonplace," it has become among the most popular of all musical theatre pieces and remains firmly in the repertoire even outside of Vienna.

There are few recordings that I truly respect out there of this work. It must always maintain its heritage. The Viennese style must always be in the forefront, not only in the conducting and orchestral playing, but in the singing and acting style as well.

I love the recording from 1950 conducted by Clemens Krauss with Julius Patzak, Hilde Güden, Alfred Poell, Anton Dermota, Wilma Lipp, Sieglinde Wagner et al. This recording is possibly in many ways the most stylistically accurate as every person involved in this recording is Austrian and most of them Viennese at that, but to most modern ears tends to sound dated.

Another great recording, and among my personal favourites, is the film version conducted by Karl Böhm and directed by Otto Schenk, starring Gundula Janowitz, Renate Holm, Erich Kunz and Eberhard Wächter.

In fact any recording with the young Eberhard Wächter as Eisenstein is golden, as he was the benchmark Eisenstein at the Staatsoper and the Volksoper in the years before he became the general manager of BOTH houses (Volksoper in 1987 and Staatsoper in 1991).

The 1975 recording is sung and conducted phenomenally (if a bit quick for my taste) by Carlos Kleiber with Hermann Prey as Eisenstein, Julia Varady as Rosalinde, Lucia Popp as Adele, Bernd Weikl as Falke. Aside from a very disturbing Orlofsky singing in his relatively undeveloped falsetto the whole time, it is quite good. Lucia Popp and Julia Varady are incredibly charming and Hermann Prey is as close to perfectly sung as it gets.

The document that I think best represents this work however, is the 1971 EMI recording conducted by Willi Boskovsky.

Gabriel von Eisenstein - Nicolai Gedda
Rosalinde - Anneliese Rothenberger
Adele - Renate Holm
Dr. Falke - Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Prinz Orlofsky - Brigitte Fassbaender
Alfred - Adolf Dallapozza
Frank - Walter Berry
Ida - Senta Wengraf
Frosch - Otto Schenk
Dr. Blind - Jürgen Förster
Iwan - Gerd W. Dieberitz

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Wiener Symphoniker
Dialogue directed by Otto Schenk

While I personally prefer Gabriel von Eisenstein to be sung by a baritone, if one MUST deal with a tenor, Nicolai Gedda is ideal. While the role is not particularly challenging for him vocally, he sings the role with stylish buffoonery and flows through the dialogue with a humorous finesse that displays Gedda's true adeptness with language. The man was fluent in seven of them after all.

Anneliese Rothenberger is a slightly lighter voiced soprano than is often cast as Rosalinde, however it is not hindering for her in the slightest, in fact due to the lighter voice, the highs which are often strident and even screechy at times, maintain a beauty and ease that is quite frankly a relief to the ears and only helps her portray the astute, savvy character of Rosalinde. Operetta was a major part of Rothenberger's career and her style here is perfect.

The relatively unknown Rente Holm was a major player in the Operetta scene in Vienna. She was in many operetta films such as Schön ist die Welt, Der Graf von Luxemburg, Der Vogelhändler, and the film version of Die Fledermaus. She brings an Austrian flare to this saucy Stubenmädchen with a clean, silvery tone. She is truly at home in this role that she practically owned during her time in Vienna.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is not the first name that comes to mind when thinking about operetta, but as Dr. Falke, he brings the usual erudite nuance and subtlety that he brought to everything he ever sang. His dialogue is smart and charming and when you have a singer of Fischer-Dieskau's calibre, it is a great joy to have the addition in act II of the rarely heard Strauß aria "Die ganze Nacht durchschwärmt,"  from his unknown Operetta, Waldmeister about the revelry of young men. His second act II solo, "Brüderlein" is sung with a grace and beauty that has most certainly never been heard on the piece before or since, but definitely challenged by Olaf Bär's wonderful reading of the role on the set with Dame Kiri and Andre Previn.

The Viennese Walter Berry brings his Wiener Gemütlichkeit to Prison Director Frank. Finding the perfect balance in this difficult comic role between singing and a sort of Buffo Sprechstimme. His scene in the opening of act III in strong Viennese dialect with the famous actor and director Otto Schenk as Frosch is entirely amusing and maintains a bit of subtlety in its comedy which is more than we can say for most productions in the US of this work.

Fassbaender as Orlofsky is wonderful as Fassbaender always is. Her Russian accent is spot on and her aria is sung with a great eccentricity and whimsy. Dallapozza is very funny as Alfred, inserting Wagner arias throughout. Alfred to my thinking, is probably the most amusing role in the opera when done right, and Adolf Dallapozza does it right, even if he could give it a bit more ridiculousness at times. Otto Schenk's directing of the dialogue is a great representation of how it should always sound with great distinction and nuance, even though the dialogue is greatly cut, it is better than the unacceptable readings that cut ALL the dialogue from the recording. This is a Viennese take on this work that rarely hits the mark outside of it native Vienna.

The real reason that this recording beats out all the others is the conductor. Willi Boskovsky is among the greatest Strauß conductors of all time. Having joined the Vienna Academy of Music at the age of 9 for the violin, he became concert master for the Wiener Philharmoniker from 1936 to 1979, and from 1955 he became the long standing conductor of the Vienna New Year's Concert. He was, until his death in 1991, the chief conductor of the Wiener Johann Strauß Orchester, conducting in the Straußian style of the "Vorgeiger," which is directing the orchestra in front while playing the violin just as Strauß I and Strauß II did. His adroit conducting of this piece is exactly as it should be, from his credentials alone, one can tell that Willi has an ingrained flair for the Strauß idiom. He maintains a sophistication throughout, while never losing the moderate dance-like tempi. Never too fast. Never too slow. It conjures up the feeling of grand balls of the Viennese upper crust, stumbling about to waltzes and drowning themselves in champagne. It has moments of farcical comedy, and moments of true beauty - if still lacking any true depth in the most delightful way possible. This recording truly has a personality of its own, and even with the tasteful interpretation of the singers, it possesses an energy that is nearly unrivaled.

This is an unpretentious, yet amazingly stylish reading of this great work. If one is interested in learning about how Viennese Operetta should be done, this is the disc to start with. Perfection.

- Christopher Michael Kelley

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

20 Under Appreciated Singers of the Past - 4 (Set Svanholm)

It has been quite a while since my last blog. I apologize for my extended period of blogging apathy, but sometimes it takes a cause to start the fire that inspires us to get back on the horse!

As of late I have had a new… well maybe not such a new cause.

When one sets their ears upon the Wagnerian recordings of the 40s, 50s, and even 60s, they cannot help but marvel at the richness and beauty and the warmth of this lush art. The singers voices during the golden days of Bayreuth would soar and glide through dense orchestrations that seemed to blend together into one gentle sound that brings the audience into the world of the drama. However, since the 1980s, for even the most Wagnerian among us, most recordings of his music seem forced and pushed and the voices like slabs of steel smacking down on an over sized and under sophisticated orchestra.

Why has Wagnerian singing fallen so rapidly by the way side??? Some claim that it is because 'Italianate singing' has taken over the pedagogic landscape these days… but I disagree. Listen to Gigli,  De Luca, Rosa Ponselle, Claudia Muzio… Hell, even the young Giuseppe di Stefano! If you know these singers, you know that there is NO Italianate singing going on right now in the world's vocal studios.

What is going on in the studio's of the world right now is science. Plain and simple. Science is the new vocal technique. It isn't that there isn't a place for this, there is. However between the homogenous recording industry and the new trend to discuss art as if it were calculous, we have lost any kind of individual style or identity in our singing. Along with this we have become uncomfortable with what we don't understand. Singers play it safe, and in truth, singing is still an enigma to some extent that cannot be explained, even though we THINK we can. Wagnerian singing has become taboo. People are afraid of it, and that's why there isn't a man alive today that can sing a Tristan that anybody would actually want to listen to.

But I digress. On 4 September 1904 Set Svanholm was born in Västerås, Sweden. At 17 years of age he started his musical career as a precentor, elementary school teacher, and and organist. He then went to the Royal University of Music in Stockholm and at this time began studying with none other than John Forsell. The Swedish baritone that taught Jussi Björling.

Svanholm made his debut as a baritone in 1930 singing the role of Silvio in Pagliacci. He has always had an easy upper register and started retraining himself on his own. Historian Dr. Marie-Louise Rodén claims that he called up his old voice teacher, John Forsell, and told him that he had a promising new tenor that he should hear, and surprised him by showing up himself. Then in February of 1936 he re-debuted as a tenor singing the solo in Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and operatically a few months later in a little role called Radames in Verdi's Aida. The following year at the ripe age of 33 he found his niche and debuted his first two Wagnerian tenor roles: Lohengrin and Siegfried. He Sang regularly at the Wiener Staatsoper from 1938-1942, at the Met from 1946-1956, and at he Royal Opera House in London from 1948-1957.

In 1956 he became the director at the Royal Swedish Opera and was until 1963.

In the memoirs of Kirsten Flagstad she remarks: "For me, there was only one Siegmund . . . that was Set."

His voice was deep, baritonal, and metallic, and it always maintained an inherent lyrical quality. He was an intelligent and sophisticated musician with an athletic physique, and he always adhered scrupulously to the score. These were all things that were appreciated by audiences after years of listening to his predecessor, Lauritz Melchior, who was nearing the end of his career. His interpretations could not be described that way…

He was a great example of healthy, yet pleasant sounding, stylistically appropriate Wagnerian singing. Hopefully the tide will turn and this is something that we will all hear again one day.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

20 Under Appreciated Singers of the Past - 3 (Gerhard Hüsch)

Gerhard Heinrich Wilhelm Fritz Hüsch, or as he was more commonly known - Gerhard Hüsch, was born on 2 February 1901 in Hannover, Germany. He started his education studying acting and then later took up singing. He quickly proved to be among the finest comic actors in the German opera system and in 1925 began singing regularly in Berlin. Soon after he spread his reach throughout Germany and Austria. By the 1930s he was singing at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan as well.

He was perhaps best known in the opera world for his portrayal of Papageno in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. in 1937 he recorded the role in its entirety with Sir Thomas Beecham and the Berlin Philharmonic. He sang other roles often as well, including Wolfram von Eschenbach in Wagner's Tannhäuser, which he sang in 1930 and 1931 at the Bayreuther Festspiel.

He didn't have the large, dramatic voice of his contemporaries like Rudolf Bockelmann, Heinrich Schlusnus or Herbert Janssen, but he made up for it with an unfailing legato, a beautifully rounded tone and impeccable, lucid diction.

Among all this opera, his professional focus alway really remained the Lied. Between the world wars, he recorded a huge amount of Lieder; primarily Schubert and Beethoven, but also Wolf and Pfitzner (many with Hans Pfitzner accompanying him at the piano).

Another notable benchmark of his career is his debut of many songs by the obscure Finnish composer Yrjö Kilpinen.

I have always admired Hüsch for his voice as well as his dedication to the Lied even before it was "cool"

I am certain you will too.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

20 Under Appreciated Singers of the Past - 2 (Lisa della Casa)

For many, many years, the world has known Lisa Della Casa for one thing and one thing alone: Richard Strauss's Arabella. Unfortunately most of the world doesn't even know her for that. There is truly one real reason why the musical world of today doesn't know her, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

By politely naming Della Casa as the greatest Arabella, it allows Schwarzkopf to reign supreme in all the other Strauss roles that are "more important." Don't get me wrong, I love Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Any one who has read this blog would know that, but I adore Della Casa. It is a shame that she had to be such a close contemporary and fach to THE Schwarzkopf. She deserved better.

The Swiss soprano started her performing career in small swiss films and plays which her father, a doctor, put on in his spare time. He had a passion for the theatre. She sang with the Zürich Municipal Opera House from 1943 to 1950, where she sang a wide range of roles from die Königin der Nacht in Die Zauberflöte to Dorabella in Così Fan Tutte. When she sang Zdenka in Arabella at the Salzburger Festspiele in 1947 with Maria Reining and Hans Hotter, Strauss himself said, "Die kleine Della Casa wird eines Tages Arabella sein!" or "The little Della Casa will one day be Arabella!"

Like all the great German/Austrian/Swiss singers of the day, her specialty was Strauss and Mozart and occasionally the lighter Wagner heroines. Her Strauss was phenomenal. She was the greatest Arabella the world will ever know, her Countess in Capriccio easily matches Schwarzkopf's, her Ariadne is beautiful, she sang a mean Chrysotemis in Elektra, and she has been recorded singing all three leading roles in Der Rosenkavalier. Marschallin being the most wonderful, but Octavian and Sophie are both admirably sung as well.

Her Contessa di Almaviva is legendary, her Donna Elvira is perfection, and her Pamina is practically without equal.

I also recommend her Elsa in Lohengrin and her Eva in Die Meistersinger.

She sang all these roles with such impeccable style and finesse. She was always the picture, physically and vocally, of beauty and elegance. She was at one point dubbed the most beautiful woman on the operatic stage. She reminds us of that long lost time when the Opera world was elegant, tasteful and sophisticated onstage and off.

She turned 93 last February and is still kicking, living in a castle on Lake Constance in Switzerland (Schloß Gottelieben am Bodensee).

These are some wonderful examples of her Mozart and Strauss. I can't think of a better small representation of her wonderful voice, personality and presence in the world of opera.

For those of you who speak German, check out this great (short) documentary about her life that aired on German TV when she turned 90. Be prepared… some of this interview is in Swiss German…

I hope you all have a new favourite singer after this short introduction. She personifies elegance and her silvery voice rings in my ears whenever I think about the good ol' days of opera.

- Christopher Michael Kelley

Sunday, May 20, 2012


It is high time for me to spice this blog up with a little French flair. As my life is full of French music at the moment, I could think of no better time than the present. I assumed I would review Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Offenbach, primarily because everyone in my daily interactions right now thinks so highly of the work that it is one of the most frequent topics of discussion, but honestly I am just not all that familiar with the work. I don't know it well enough to speak with ANY kind of authority on the subject. Something I plan on remedying in the not too distant future.

However a French opera I do know pretty well is Faust by Charles Gounod. Now, to start, I have to say that to literary gurus, this libretto dashes Goethe's Faust to pieces. It mutilates and perverts Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's original intent until it becomes a work unto itself with only a slight resemblance of the brilliant work that it comes from… BUT… it truly is a wonderful old school French opera. Nobody wrote melodies like Gounod and this score is riddled with them. I assumed from the get go that I would review the somewhat legendary 1959 EMI set conducted by André Cluytens with Nicolai Gedda, Victoria de los Angeles, Boris Christoff, Ernest Blanc, Rita Gorr etc. but as much of a benchmark as it is, it leaves me feeling somewhat ambivalent. So instead, I have chosen the 1994 Teldec recording conducted by Carlo Rizzi:

Faust - Jerry Hadley
Méphistofélès - Samuel Ramey
Marguerite - Cecilia Gasdia
Valentin - Alexandru Agache
Siébel - Susanne Mentzer
Marthe Schwerlein - Brigitte Fassbaender
and the Welsh National Opera Orchestra & Chorus

This truly is a great recording. I was skeptical at first. For some reason I had a hard time trusting the French style to an Italian conducting Welsh people… I was wrong. This performance, while not entirely traditional, is absolutely stylistically spot on.

First of all, one would assume that the only real reason to buy this recording would be for the Devil of Samuel Ramey. Truly one of the great roles of his career. He sings Méphistofélès here in prime voice. To young male singers (especially the lower voiced singers) Samuel Ramey has attained a near Godly reputation. All of us at some level consider him somewhat of a "God walking amongst mere mortals"… or perhaps a demon as the case may be… He sings this role with excellent French. He manipulates and deceives throughout the opera with hints of the subtlety of Journet and Plançon, and balances that with some of that Chaliapin slavic school of snarl that is so pervasive in Boris Christoff's interpretation of this role... every role he sang actually. It works for Ramfis (Aida) and Boris, and here to some extent, but not so much in roles like Padre Guardiano (Forza) or Silva (Ernani). And neither of them have the suave subtlety of Cesare Siepi. But while Ramey does in fact do an excellent and noteworthy job, much to my chagrin, he is not ultimatley the draw of the recording. Ramey is a wonderful sounding Méphistofélès but when push comes to shove, he is somewhat boring. The role has so much potential to "play" and he just doesn't take advantage of it. He is great on the disc but compared to some of his less respected colleagues on this set he doesn't quite deliver as expected.

The late Jerry Hadley really comes through with his idiomatic performance of the desperate and tortured Doctor Faust. He sings the opening scene with such beautiful melancholy that we almost forget what a slow start it gives the opera. The rest of the role is sung par excellence with a legato and musical continuity that one just does not hear in his Italian repertoire. He sings with such tenderness in moments like the love duet, and the climax of his aria, Salut, demeure chaste et pure, is sung with a true piano (as written by the composer). He makes this note, that most use to show off their powerful top C, a moment of introspection. He floats up to the C with a gentle ardency that stays much more in keeping with the line of the aria than most interpretations. His moments of passion are also much more committed than one would expect from such a lyric voice. Gedda, probably the most beloved Faust of his era, said himself that he didn't like the role of Faust. It is too one dimensional and not in keeping with Goethe's concept, so he never sang the role as much more than beautiful music. Jerry Hadley takes what he is given and brings it to life in a magical and honest way.

The relatively unknown Cecilia Gasdia of Verona delivers a performance as good or better than her wonderful aforementioned counterparts. Her voice is bright and glistening, and her characterization is impeccable. A young, vulnerable, spiritual girl with a blinding, innocent love for her "young" suitor, Faust. She does the Jewel Song in a way that seems genuinely delighted and fresh, as if we hadn't heard the aria 5,000 times. She almost succeeds even in the impossible task of giving life to Gounod's dull setting of  Il Était Un Roi De Thulé. One of the highlights of the whole opera is the last scene when her pleading for salvation is so impassioned one is easily swept away in her desperation. She gives a detailed character with equal commitment to de los Angeles's famed performance, but with admittedly more depth. Gasdia, remarkably, is able to bring Marguerite to the forefront of the drama through her committed interpretation, even if Gounod chose not to.

The secondary characters are well cast too for the most part. Valentin is sung here by the Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache. His voice is not the most beautiful, but he sings an admirable soldier, even if it is often over-covered and occasionally a bit flat, but what he lacks in voice, he makes up for in truly great character interpretation. He is ardent and true and brings dimension to what is usually a bit of a cardboard stock character. This is best heard in his death scene, Ecoute-moi bien, Marguerite! Siébel is sung with light, silvery voice by Susanne Mentzer. She doesn't offer the role a whole lot in her approach, but she delivers an attractive and consistent performance. The novelty casting of THE Brigitte Fassbaender in the role of Marthe Schwerlein is a wonderful part of this recording, although it pales in comparison to the vanity casting of Rita Gorr in the Cluytens recording. However, since it isn't too much of a role to begin with, neither have much of an effect on the outcome of the set.

Lastly Carlo Rizzi really does deliver a wonderful reading. He takes quite a few unusual tempi, mostly incredibly slow (coming in at around 3:10, where the Cluytens comes in around 2:51). While I would not take most of these tempi so slow, I think it can definitely work. It is a grandiose and monumental opera and the slower tempi really emphasize that side of the work. The Welsh National Opera Chorus responds well to his baton, turning out some of the cleanest ensemble singing I have ever heard, and the orchestra rejoices and weeps along with the singers throughout the work. I really appreciate that, and while they did cut the ballet numbers, they still recorded them as an appendix.

Lastly, I would say that this recording really is a wonderful way to get to know this opera. The Cluytens is definitely more traditional, and the singing is some of the best you'll find on any recording of the opera. However for dimension, sensitivity, and passion I would recommend this recording above all the other usual options.

- Christopher Michael Kelley

PS. I actually would probably first and foremost recommend the live Met recording from the early 50s with Jussi Björling, Dorothy Kirsten, and Cesare Siepi, that is if you can handle some, er, not so perfect French diction… but that recording is nearly impossible to find these days. If you do find it… please let me know where. ;)