Fire and Music

One more tribute to Birgit Nilsson. “Isolde’s Narrative,” 1967.

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3 Responses to “Fire and Music”

  1. Hans Lick Says:

    I heard Nilsson four times as Isolde, once in a complete Ring plus another couple of Walkueres and another Gotterdamerung, once as Sieglinde, three Elektras (one in ’70, the others in ’81), Tosca, Turandot, Dyer’s Wife, and a bunch of concerts. Sorry I missed her as Eliza Doolittle, and the Elettra in Idomeneo at tiny Glyndebourne that no one ever taped must have been a hoot….

    The first time I heard her was as Turandot, one of her last. I took a pal from Idaho who had never been to the opera before. We sat in the wall seats, last row of the Family Circle. When she sang “L’enigmi sono tre…” it was like a hand on my chest pushing me back in my seat. When the lights came on, Tom said, “That was AMAZING. What kind of sound system do they use here anyway?” The only voices I’ve ever heard of comparable size were Eileen Farrell, Joan Sutherland and Julia Juon. (Juon sang the Amme in Frau at the Met a couple of years ago.) And they were all smaller.

    But I found the quality of the sound harsh (and often sharp). She was not, for me, an ideal Isolde or Sieglinde (or Tosca) because she could not produce a sensuous, amorous, vulnerable sound. I wouldn’t have wanted to hear her sing Aida or Amalia, but perhaps I felt this way because I only heard her after she had turned 50. On several broadcast features, I noticed that she had an extraordinarily sensuous speaking voice.

    She was a superb vocal actress, and could twist a word to make a point — a bitter jest to Tristan, a loving, grateful, sigh to Orest. She always played with a role, with text, with interpretation — this was never set in stone. The best instance of her word painting that I recall was during her Return to America concert in — 80, was it? ’81? I remember standing all night for a ticket but not the date. (And I remember going after the line to the matinee of Tito at NYCO that afternoon – Vaness and Moser – and then through the Ramble and fooling around with a stranger, and then to my folks’ house for dinner and no nap, and then the concert – well, I was younger then.) Nilsson came out howling “Dich teure Halle” — and when she sang “geliebter raum,” she drew the words out into a ritard no doubt rehearsed with Levine, and it was as if she had leaned out and kissed every single one of us — and after all, the Met WAS her beloved room, designed for her voice more than anyone else’s. She sounded like hell for the rest of the aria, but still … welch ein augenblick.

    I also remember standing in the freezing rain for a ticket to Elektra that winter. (I was younger then.) And I have never heard anything louder IN MY LIFE than the cry of 3800 people leaping to their feet (the 200 of us were already standing of course) to scream when she came out for her first bow after the performance.

    She was not a big woman. I have held the costume in which she made her Met debut — a dull gray wool shmatta. Smaller than I am. (I am neither tall nor stout.)

    She always kept her head. She was a good colleague. Beverly Wolff (who died a year or so ago) was once asked at the last minute to rush to Dallas or Houston or some such place to replace an ailing Brangaene; she knew the role but had never met Nilsson; she did it. But she hadn’t studied the role recently, and there was one bit that scared her — after Isolde’s Curse, Brangaene abruptly enters in a very different place tonally from what has gone before, and she thought hitting that note would be tricky. Just as she was about to sing it, she heard the note sounding, in her ear — clear as a bell but somehow beneath the level of the orchestra, or where anyone in the audience would hear it. She came in on it, perfectly on pitch. When the act ended, she asked, “Madame Nilsson, did you give me that note?” Nilsson said, “Oh that one, yes — I always give my Brangaenes that note.” She had seen the problem and sympathized.

    My father often boasted of having been at many a Flagstad-Melchior performance, so I dragged him to the famous one-and-only Met Tristan with both Nilsson and Vickers. We had splendid seats in the Balcony. It was heaven (except for the horn player and the Brangaene). And after Act II I turned to Dad triumphantly and said, “Well?” He shrugged. “I guess she’s the second best Isolde I’ve ever heard — but he’s nothing.” Harrumph.

    The time she sang Sieglinde at the Met, the blade came off the hilt of the sword as Siegmund (Vickers again, I think) drew it from the tree. Though it had just missed her, she ran across the stage, giggling, to pick it up. I was also at the famous Gotterdamerung after she had fallen into the “subway staircase” cave during the dress rehearsal. No one was sure she’d really show up. When she appeared, hurrying up the stairs with her arm in a sling, there had to be a pause for joyous applause. And she was in splendid voice.

    For the final act I was in the Orchestra, Row K, dead center, and she stood there and slam-dunked the Immolation into my lap without apparently moving a muscle. I was dazed. Then she turned and walked majestically through the columns of the Gibichung throne room just before they liquefied. (The much-maligned Karajan Ring actually had many charms.)

    I could go on….

    Hans Lick

  2. this is from the 67 tokyo performance with windgassen, a must have despite the black and white. it is one of the few video documents of windgassen and it is a truly live document of Nilsson’s Isolde, the performance with Vickers is one live soundtrack with numerous live videos spliced together, the lipsyncing is not always perfect. this is the real thing. use to be available on Legato classics VHS.

  3. Nilsson was my first Turandot, Isolde and Elektra at Covent Garden. Like Hans Lick I found her Isolde steely and on the night I went often under the note ( the occcasion was Solti’s last night as Music Director). Her Elektra which I heard 3 times ( the last with Kleiber fils a bootleg recording of which I treasure) was incomparable encompassing every facet of scorn, anguish,and triumph. With Kleiber the voice fined down to the subtlest most delicate thread. With Solti at his most frenetic that performance was the nearest to mass hysteria I’ve ever experienced. When the great stage curtains finally began to close the sedate Royal Opera audience went demented.

    The last time I saw her was when after the new production of Otello to celebrate Solti’s 80th a group of celebrities came onto the stage. Nilsson let off a full voiced “Zu neuen Taten,tueuer Held”.

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