SEEN AND HEARD OBITUARY
an appreciation by Göran
Truly great dramatic sopranos – especially exponents of the
heaviest Wagnerian roles Isolde and Brünnhilde – tend
to emerge only one or two per generation. Frida Leider, who dominated
the roles during the 1920s and 1930s, was succeeded by Kirsten Flagstad
from the mid-30s, who in her turn abdicated in the mid-50s, when
Astrid Varnay and Birgit Nilsson were ready to step into her shoes.
Nilsson at least reigned well into the 1970s and by then Hildegard
Behrens was fully fledged and remained at the top of the trade for
another two decades. Without in any way belittling the achievements
of some other highly accomplished singers, I think it is fair to
say that when she passed away at the age of 72 in a hospital in
Tokyo on 18 August, she was the last in the royal line of
great dramatic sopranos from the 20th century.
Like most of her predecessors, with the exception of Astrid Varnay,
her international recognition came at a relatively mature age. Before
embarking on a singing career she studied law and graduated as a
junior barrister from the University of Freiburg. Her professional
debut was as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro in 1971. She was
then already in her mid-30s. After that she sang mainly minor roles
at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf until she was discovered
by Herbert von Karajan, who was looking for a Salome. He brought
her to the Salzburg Festival in 1977, where she was a sensation,
and from then on she was the dramatic soprano of her generation.
She sang at most of the leading opera houses of the world, including
the Metropolitan, N.Y, where her debut role, somewhat surprisingly,
was Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro. She sang other
Italian roles as well and was among other things a great Tosca.
But it was in the heavy German roles that she excelled. Her Leonora
in Fidelio was one of her great impersonations and she
was an Electra to reckon with. She may not have
had the steely power of Birgit Nilsson but she is certainly one
of the few truly great dramatic sopranos, enthralling audiences
also through her acting ability.
Her recorded legacy comprises many of her most important roles and
my personal choice would be Salome with Herbert von Karajan
(EMI), Tristan und Isolde with Leonard Bernstein (Philips)
and Der Ring des Nibelungen with James Levine (DG). These
interpretations must be counted among the very best ever and will
stand as a worthy memorial of Hildegard Behrens for generations
The Eton Mess
- Idle thoughts on culture, food and music
Brown Bread: Hildegard
I am much saddened to hear of the passing of Hildegard Behrens,
of a ruptured aortic aneurism aged 72. In my limited experience
of live opera she was one of the three great post-war Wagnerian
sopranos along with Birgit Nilsson and Rita Hunter. They are all
gone. Not only was hers a gorgeous voice she was a true actress
with the deepest intelligence. Not only was she a singer she began
her working life as a lawyer.
Behrens was one of the major performers of the second half of
the twentieth century. Her professionalism and musicality set
the benchmark in the German repertoire. She will be greatly missed.
Behrens was not only a fine singer with a bright, incisive soprano,
but a singing actress of rare power and intellect. I have memories
of her as Marie at Covent Garden (my first Wozzeck in the theatre,
an overpowering evening for a number of reasons) and on records
as Brunnhilde in the complete Sawallisch Ring – the finest
recorded cycle of the stereo era – and delivering a remarkable
Isolde in Bernstein’s eccentric, infuriating, absurdly slow
and mannered but intermittently rather glorious Tristan.
Hildegard Behrens sang Brunnhilde in a complete Ring Cycle under
Haitink in concert performances in Birmingham’s Symphony
Hall a little over a decade ago (also featuring John Tomlinson
and Siegfried Jerusalem inter alia). She was sensational –
and she took the time to mingle with a group of stage door loiterers
after Götterdämmerung on the Saturday night, wherein
she seemed utterly sweet and delightful.
R.I.P. Hildegard Behrens 1937-2009
Today I learnt of the death, aged 72, of Hildegard Behrens, another
star who this time meant so much to my operatic wunderjahren.
It was 1978 and I was 16: I'd been turned into an incipient opera
queen hungry for Sutherland by mamma, who'd seen the Bell Song
from Lakme in some film or other. But I was slowly coming to realise
that much of the rep Joanie sang, including that season Donizetti's
Maria Stuarda, wasn't quite to my taste. I wanted Strauss, Wagner.
And having just bought the LPs of Behrens's Salome with Karajan,
I was thrilled to bits to go to a friends rehearsal of the Royal
Opera production. She stunned me with that odd, silvery sound
and that terrifying development from innocent to harpy. I went
backstage and the lady, clad in a leopardskin coat and with huge
false eyelashes, was charm itself. She wrote 'Best wishes for
you' on the back of the cast-list (in which I note John Tomlinson
sang Fifth Jew) and signed my EMI booklet not just on her photo
but also on
the booklet's cover, across the midriff of a naked dancing princes
who, surprise, surprise, didn't do much for me.
Since then I saw Behrens's Elektra twice, relished her Met Brunnhilde
and her Dyer's Wife for Solti on CD and will always remember her
great singing acting as synonymous with my own musical growing-up.
Friday, 21 August 2009
Following my personal memories further down in 'A star fell',
I had the honour of writing Hildegard Behrens's obituary for The
Guardian, now up and running here. The newspaper version has a
splendid full-length colour portrait of La B as Brunnhilde, managing
to look austerely beautiful in the unattractive weeds of Otto
Schenk's hideously dressed Met production.
We must have a clip of Behrens at her most idiosyncratic. There
are three YouTube chunks of her in 1994 as Strauss's Elektra.
I thought the final dance of death was a bit close to the bone,
so here's the big soliloquy. Levine's conducting is pretty fine,