OP2090. LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, Live Performance, 23 Jan., 1960, w.Leinsdorf Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Söderström, Mildred Miller, Cesare Siepi, Kim Borg, Ezio Flagello, Regina Resnik, etc. (E.U.) 2-Walhall 0298. - 4035122652987
“Lisa Della Casa, the Swiss soprano who combined an outstanding voice, stunning beauty and exceptional stage presence to become one of the foremost interpreters of Richard Strauss, was one of a generation of sopranos to emerge from war-shattered Europe in the 1940s. In her Strauss roles, like the title character of Arabella, which alternately calls for demure graciousness and soaring enthusiasm, Ms. Della Casa displayed ‘a wholly appealing kind of fragility, tender and unmannered’, the musicologist J. B. Steane wrote in his book THE GRAND TRADITION: 70 Years of Singing on Record. She was equally extolled for her roles in Mozart operas.
In Europe, where Ms. Della Casa performed at the major opera houses, her beauty and charisma could seduce even a great conductor like Herbert von Karajan into pursuing her for roles that were out of her vocal range. ‘Karajan saw me as the Marschallin and, if you can believe it, immediately asked me to sing TANNHÄUSER with him’, even though the role, Venus, called for a dramatic soprano or a mezzo with an upper register and thus was not at all appropriate for her voice, she said in an interview in Lanfranco Rasponi’s book THE LAST PRIMA DONNAS. ‘He told me I had just the right kind of sexiness to make a splendid goddess of love’. She turned down the role.
Her complaint was the opposite at the Metropolitan Opera, where, she said, the general manager Rudolf Bing typecast her. She sang four roles at the Met — Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira, the Marschallin and Arabella — a total of 114 times in her 147 performances. ‘My 15 seasons at the Metropolitan were not happy ones’, Ms. Della Casa told Mr. Rasponi. ‘Mr. Bing would not have it any other way, for he kept repeating that I was indispensable for the Mozart and Strauss operas, and that he had a surplus of sopranos for the Italian and French ones’.
Yet Ms. Della Casa rarely bickered or engaged in offstage dramatics. In an opera world notorious for outsize egos and histrionic rivalries, her colleagues openly admired her. The Romanian soprano Maria Cebotari, famous for her portrayal of Arabella in the 1940s, lobbied for the young Ms. Della Casa to sing alongside her in the role of Zdenka. ‘I’ll put my hand in the fire for her’, Ms. Cebotari told a Vienna opera manager who was skeptical of this relatively unknown soprano’s talent.
Ms. Della Casa was also admired for her glamorous good looks. The German soprano Anneliese Rothenberger compared her to Elizabeth Taylor.
Still, at 55 and at the height of her career, she abruptly announced her retirement in 1974 after singing her last Arabella at the Vienna State Opera. She then retreated with her husband, Dragan Debeljevic, and their daughter, Vesna, who was often in poor health, to their castle near Lake Constance in Switzerland. She offered no public explanations, nor was she ever tempted into recitals or master classes.
Ms. Della Casa appeared first at the Salzburg Festival in 1947 as Zdenka in ARABELLA; after hearing her premiere performance, Richard Strauss himself asserted, ‘The little Della Casa will one day be Arabella!’ In the fall of 1947 she made her début as Gilda in Verdi’s RIGOLETTO at the Vienna State Opera, where she remained an ensemble member for 27 years.
In 1953 Ms. Della Casa made her début as the Countess Almaviva at the Metropolitan Opera, where she continued to perform until 1968. Her early Met performances as Donna Elvira and Madama Butterfly did not impress the New York critics. But she hit her stride with Arabella. ‘There was a youth in her movement and a beauty in her appearance that might well have driven Vienna’s gay blades wild', Howard Taubman of The New York Times wrote in 1957. ‘And her singing was unfailingly lovely — accurate, well focused and sensitively phrased’.
‘The strange thing about a singer’s destiny’, she told Mr. Rasponi, ‘is that you have to renounce everything for its sake, and then it’s all over in a flash’.”
- Jonathan Kandell, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 Dec., 2012
"Elisabeth Söderström, the Swedish soprano acclaimed for the plangent richness and intelligence of her singing and for her wide-ranging repertory, including influential portrayals of leading roles in the operas of Janácek, was admired by opera lovers around the world, notably in Sweden and England, where she performed most often, within the field she was revered. With her radiant, creamy voice, thorough musicianship and keen dramatic instincts, she was a model for singers. In roles like the Countess in Mozart’s NOZZE DI FIGARO the Marschallin in Strauss’ DER ROSENKAVALIER, Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s EUGEN ONÉGIN and more, she combined insightful acting with nuanced singing and a lovely stage presence to create alluring and memorable performances. An element of Scandinavian reserve in her dramatic and vocal artistry enhanced her work, lending an elusive quality to her portrayals. Reviewing a song recital that Ms Söderström gave at the Frick Collection in New York in 1975, the NEW YORKER critic Andrew Porter perceptively summed up her artistry. Her ‘quick musical intelligence, her vivid and engaging temperament, and a protean voice not exceptionally powerful but well able to compass soubrette mirth and tragic passion have brought her triumphs in a wide variety of roles’.
Anna Elisabeth Söderström made her début as Mozart’s Bastienne when she was just 20 at the Drottningholm Court Theater, on the outskirts of the city, a company she would direct in the mid-1990s. Shortly after her début, she joined the Swedish Royal Opera. She remained a member of that company until her retirement. In her early years she focused on soubrette roles, including Mozart heroines. Soon she was branching out dramatically. Her début at the prestigious Glyndebourne Festival in England came in 1957 as the Composer in Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, and for years she remained a favorite with the festival. Among Strauss singers, she was one of the few to have sung all three lead rôles in DER ROSENKAVALIER: the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie. A milestone in her career came in the 1969-70 season with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London, when she sang Mélisande in an acclaimed production of Debussy’s PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE conducted by Pierre Boulez, subsequently recorded. That Sony Classical recording, with George Shirley as Pelléas, is considered by many to be definitive.
Another series of landmark performances and recordings involved the Australian conductor Charles Mackerras, an informed champion of the Janácek operas. Ms Söderström became Mr Mackerras’ soprano of choice for his Decca label recordings of complete Janácek operas, including JENUFA and KATYA KABANOVA, with Ms Söderström singing the title roles, and THE MAKROPULOS CASE, a mysterious, haunting work in which Ms Söderström portrayed, unforgettably, the 300-year-old Emilia Marty.
Among the many contemporary roles she sang were Elisabeth Zimmer in Hans Werner Henze’s ELEGY FOR YOUNG LOVERS and Juliana Bordereau in Dominick Argento’s ASPERN PAPERS for the premiere production in Dallas in 1988. She was also an active song recitalist.
Ms Söderström made her Metropolitan Opera début in 1959 as Susanna in Mozart’s NOZZE DI FIGARO. For the next five years, she made regular appearances at the Met, but then drifted mostly to Europe, returning in the 1980s for performances as the Marschallin in DER ROSENKAVALIER and the Countess in NOZZE DI FIGARO. For her last Met performances, she came out of retirement, essentially, to sing the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s PIQUE DAME, a dramatically complex and crucial role with scant vocal demands. She received an enormous ovation."
- Anthony Tommasini, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 21 Nov., 2009
"Erich Leinsdorf, a conductor whose abrasive intelligence and deep musical learning served as a conscience for two generations of conductors, had a utilitarian stage manner and his disdain of dramatic effects for their own sake stood out as a not-so-silent rebuke to his colleagues in this most glamorous of all musical jobs. In addition, Mr. Leinsdorf - in rehearsal, in the press and in his valuable book on conducting, THE COMPOSER'S ADVOCATE - never tired of pointing out gaps in culture among musicians, faulty editing among music publishers and errors in judgment or acts of ignorance among his fellow conductors. He rarely named his victims, but his messages and their targets were often clear. Moreover, he usually had the solid grasp of facts to support his contentions.
Mr. Leinsdorf moved to this country from Vienna in 1937. Helped by the recommendation of Arturo Toscanini, whom he had been assisting at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. Leinsdorf made his conducting début at the Metropolitan Opera a year later with DIE WALKÜRE. He was 25 years old at the time . A year later he was made overseer of the Met's German repertory, and his contentious style - in particular an insistence on textual accuracy and more rehearsal - won him no friends among singers like Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. Backed by management, he remained at the Met until 1943. At the New York City Opera, where he became music director in 1956, Mr. Leinsdorf's demanding policies in matters of repertory and preparation made him further enemies, and he left a year later. His searches for permanent employment turned mostly to orchestras. After the briefest of tenures at the Cleveland Orchestra during World War II, Mr. Leinsdorf took over the Rochester Philharmonic and stayed for nine years.
Mr. Leinsdorf's last and most prestigious music directorship was at the Boston Symphony, where he replaced Charles Münch in 1962. No contrast in style could have been sharper: Münch had viewed conducting mystically, as a kind of priesthood; Mr. Leinsdorf's policy was to make performances work in the clearest and most rational way. Observers both in and out of the orchestra could not deny the benefits of Mr. Leinsdorf's discipline, but there were some who were hostile to what they perceived as an objectivity that could hardly be called heartwarming.
One American orchestra manager a few years ago responded to musicians' grumblings over Mr. Leinsdorf's rehearsal manner by saying that he was ‘good for my orchestra’. And so he probably was.”
- Bernard Holland, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 12 Sept., 1993