Saturday, January 21, 2006

Lebewohl, Brünnhilde

She sang, but the opera ain't over

The people who study these things tell us that opera is an Italian art form. That seems likely enough. Lots of the terms wear their Italian origin on their sleeve: aria, diva, mezzo, und so weiter. However, no one on the face of the earth can deny which opera is the opera—the archetype that occasions instant recognition. It's German. You may not know it by name, but even the most operatically disinclined knows it at a glance. It's Die Walküre, the one with the zaftig spear-wielding warrior maiden in the horned helmet. That's opera, doc!

The healthy Viking maiden is Brünnhilde, leader of the valkyries. She figures prominently in three out of the four operas of Richard Wagner's sprawling Der Ring des Nibelungen. She is the eponym of Die Walküre, in which she rebels against her father Wotan, chief of the Norse gods, and ends up imprisoned in sleep on a fire-girdled crag. In Siegfried, the hero of the title finally learns fear when he awakens her in Act III. Finally there is Götterdämmerung, the opera which ain't over till she sings, at which point the gods and the entire world are consumed in the flames of Siegfried's funeral pyre.

The part of Brünnhilde is one of the most challenging soprano roles in the operatic repertory. At any given time, we are lucky to have one woman who can fully embody the valkyrie on stage. During much of the twentieth century, the ruling Brünnhilde was Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, who passed away on Christmas Day 2005 at the age of 87. During her reign, she had no challengers to the Wagnerian crown. There was only Nilsson.

I first encountered Nilsson's voice in the sixties. Time-Life Records had decided to bring a little more culture to the masses. I had begun collecting Time-Life's volumes in its Nature Library and Science Library, so my mailbox overflowed with solicitations for other Time-Life items. I began to receive brochures containing a tear-out vinyl disk of highlights from Wagner's Ring. Time-Life had repackaged the London/Decca recording by conductor Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic. Buy Das Rheingold now and receive the remaining three operas at intervals. Even the flimsy vinyl teaser produced amazing sounds on my parents' stereo system: Kirsten Flagstad (Nilsson's great predecessor) as Rheingold's Fricka and Siegfried's funeral music from Götterdämmerung. Somehow I talked Mom & Dad into letting me order the albums. Soon I was the first (the only?) high school kid on my block with Wagner's Ring.

It came with books, including John Culshaw's Ring Resounding (memoirs of the producer of the Solti recording) and nice big librettos with the words and translations. (Today's compact disks are great, but their form factor has robbed the world of readable librettos.) The voices of Nilsson and other performers were described in words I did not understand. Nilsson's voice is white? Joan Sutherland's is colorful?

Gradually I began to get a clue. Even today I remain an untutored music aficionado, but I can share a sense of what I learned over the years of listening to recordings and live performances. Nilsson's voice was white the way a beam of light is focused. A prism will break up a beam of white light into a spectrum of different hues and some sopranos produce sounds that evoke the aural equivalent of a spectrum of different shades. Nilsson, however, was as focused as a laser. She emitted a beam of coherent sound that was diamond pure. It was powerful and clear, without any trace of trembling vibrato. What's more, Nilsson maintained her vocal strength and control over a career that lasted for decades.

It was my privilege to attend three of Nilsson's performances at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. In 1974, she portrayed Isolde opposite Jess Thomas's Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. A dispute with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service kept her out of the country for several years, but she returned to San Francisco in 1980 to portray the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten. It was a new role for her, but she had never hesitated to broaden her repertoire; Strauss's Salome and Puccini's Turandot were two of her signature non-Wagnerian roles. Then, finally, in 1981 I was at one of her final San Francisco appearances: her last run as the title character in Die Walküre. There she was, the dramatic soprano of her era in the opera. Her softest tones carried clearly to the back of the house and her strongest threatened to burst the whole structure. We applauded and cheered her curtain calls until our hands were red and sore and our throats raw. Her throat, I'm sure, was fine. As she once smilingly told a reporter, "I have strong things in my throat."

Since Nilsson's retirement, I have seen other Brünnhildes on the stage of the San Francisco Opera. Dame Gwyneth Jones, Eva Marton, and Jane Eaglen (today's reigning warrior maiden) all had remarkable vocal attributes, but I once got to hear Birgit Nilsson herself. Nilsson. Herself.

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