Monday, November 14, 2011

Happy Birthday: Leonie Rysanek

"Der Männer Sippe"
Die Walküre (Wagner)
Born Leopoldine Rysanek on November 14, 1926 in Vienna, Austria, the world came to know this dramatic soprano as Leonie Rysanek. Born to working-class parents, she found herself in a musical family in a musical city. Both her brother and her younger sister, Lotte (who became a professional soprano), showed vocal talent. Early life wasn't easy, but she managed to enroll in the Vienna Academy, where her teachers included two noted baritones, Alfred Jerger and Rudolf Grossmann. Her education was slowed by the war years, during which she was obliged to work in a factory, but by the age of twenty-two she was ready for her official stage debut, as Agathe in Der Freischütz, at the Innsbruck Landestheater. The following year, she married Grossmann, a quarter-century her senior, and undertook two-year contracts at the Saarbrücken State Theater, then at the Munich State Opera. In the

"Una macchia è qui tuttora"
Macbeth (Verdi)
meantime, her stature as a Wagnerian was affirmed by Sieglinde in Die Walküre at the 1951 Bayreuth Festival under conductor Herbert von Karajan, with Wieland Wagner as stage director. She was to become a Bayreuth regular, taking on the romantic lyric-dramatic roles of Elsa in Lohengrin, Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. The 1950s also saw the start of a long series of guest appearances in foreign theaters -- La Scala (Milan), Covent Garden (London), the Paris Opera and major German houses. In 1956 she made her U.S. debut with Senta at San Francisco Opera, where she continued to appear for the rest of her life, taking on a variety of German and Italian roles. Her desire to maintain this variety interfered at first in her relations with Rudolf Bing, who wanted to bring her to the Metropolitan Opera -- but only in German operas. Rysanek held her ground,

"Traft ihr das Schiff"
Der fliegende Holländer (Wagner)
finally convincing Bing, her fellow Viennese, to sign her for a mixed repertory. Scheduled for a debut as Aida on February 25, 1959, she actually first appeared twenty days earlier as an emergency replacement in Macbeth* for Maria Callas, who had come to a parting of the ways with Bing over the terms of her contract. During this mature period of her career, she entered upon her second marriage, to Ernst-Ludwig ("Elu") Gausmann, a writer. She came to divide most of her appearances between the Vienna State Opera and the MET. Currently available figures credit the soprano with a grand total of 532 performances at the Viennese theater and, at the MET, 299 in her thirty-one seasons over a nearly thirty-seven-year period, in twenty-four roles. In the Strauss repertory, her most frequent MET appearances were as the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten*, Chrysothemis in Elektra and the Marschallin

"In questa reggia" Turandot (Puccini)
in Der Rosenkavalier. These were matched by her many outings as Wagner's Senta and Elisabeth. As a Verdian, she sang Lady Macbeth and Abigaille in Nabucco* especially often; she also was heard frequently in Fidelio and Tosca. No less important were her Ariadne* and Salome, her Desdemona, Aida and Elisabetta in Don Carlo. In her last seasons with the company, she undertook two taxing character parts in Czech -- Kabanicha in Janácek's Kát'a Kabanová* and Kostelnicka in his Jenufa. She made her farewell to the MET as the Countess in The Queen of Spades (sung in Russian) in January 1996. Her final performance was at the Salzburg Festival in August 1996, as Klytämnestra in Elektra. She was appointed curator of the Vienna Festival a few months after her retirement, a post she held until her death in Vienna at age 71 (she had been diagnosed with bone cancer

"Del fiero duol che il cor mi frange"
Medea (Cherubini)
during her last MET performances). Leonie Rysanek's voice was astride the spinto and dramatic soprano voices in certain roles. Although her voice fell in the upper end of the jugendlich-dramatisch and dramatischer sopran categories in the German repertoire, it was exclusively dramatic by Italian operatic standards. In the octave just above middle C, the voice could sound dry with wobbly intonation, but at the top of the staff it blossomed into one of the most glorious sounds of the twentieth century. Her endurance in the high tessitura of Strauss' operas is legendary. She excelled in the music of Richard Strauss. She was especially successful as the Empress (Kaiserin) in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the title role in Salome, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and Chrysothemis in Elektra. She occasionally sang Ariadne/Prima Donna in Ariadne auf Naxos and female leads in Strauss operas rarely staged (Die ägyptische Helena

"Vater, bist du's?"
Die Frau ohne Schatten (R. Strauss)
and Die Liebe der Danae). However, cautious of playing out of her league, she didn't tackle Salome until 1972 when she was 46, although she kept the role of Sieglinde in her active repertoire from her early 20s until age 62. She avoided offers to sing Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde despite speculation that the role would be perfect for her. She sang Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1950 in Innsbrück but did not return to this role. She stated in interviews that her great respect for her colleague Birgit Nilsson was a factor in her avoidance of that soprano's signature roles. Extraordinarily, one of her performances in Die Walküre took place in the same week as her appearance as Gilda in Rigoletto. This little-known feat equals the more often cited accomplishment of Maria Callas, who once performed Die Walküre and Bellini's I puritani within the same week. Strauss

"Allein, Weh ganz allein"
Elektra (R. Strauss)
sopranos often make excellent Puccini voices and accordingly Rysanek sang many Toscas and a few Turandots. She also sang a remarkable Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio. In Wagner, she sang many Tannhäuser Elisabeths and Lohengrin Elsas, a few Ortruds in her later career - she virtually owned the role of Senta in Der fliegende Holländer for two decades, but the role in which she was most revered, in addition to Strauss's Kaiserin and Chrysothemis, was Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Such a powerful, long and expressive voice as Rysanek's allowed her to sing many Verdi leads, notably Desdemona in Otello, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Leonora in La forza del destino, and Aida. She also sang Abigaille in the Metropolitan Opera's first staging of Nabucco in 1960. She found this last role uncongenial, and the strain of performing it numerous times during that season

"Abscheulicher!...Komm, Hoffnung"
Fidelio (Beethoven)
brought on something of a vocal crisis, from which she successfully recovered. The overall nature of Rysanek's voice is particularly evident in her 1959 recording of Lady Macbeth, when she was in her prime at age 33, where her somewhat hollow lower register is combined with soaring, dramatic power in her upper range, with strong skills at negotiating Lady Macbeth's upper range coloratura. As an Austrian and a Mitteleuropäerin, Rysanek also took an interest in music from Slavic countries, both Russian (Tchaikovsky) and Czech (Smetana, Janáček). Of the notorious five "biggest" soprano roles, Rysanek sang Turandot and enjoyed success as Kundry in Parsifal at the MET and the Bayreuth Festival. Starting her career when Kirsten Flagstad was still alive and Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay at the peak of their vocal abilities, Rysanek knew better than to go for Wagner's Isolde or any of his three Brünnhildes. However, in 1981, Karl Böhm persuaded her to sing Elektra for a Unitel film (with the soundtrack recorded in the studio), not a live production in an opera house. In her later years, and like many "big" soprano voices, Rysanek reverted to dramatic

"Pace, mio Dio" La Forza del Destino (Verdi)
mezzo-soprano roles like Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin, Herodias in Strauss's Salome and Klytemnestra in his Elektra. [Source, Source]

*Leonie Rysanek starred in the MET premieres of these operas.

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