Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is gone at 90 and I'm caught completely off guard. I knew of her before I knew properly of opera. From an internet café in Sydney I've neither time, nor am I in the right state of mind, to write something, so instead I'm reposting this, which I wrote on the 14th of January this year.
Among my Christmas presents was an EMI Classic Archive DVD of performances by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Irmgard Seefried and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The Fischer-Dieskau (Mahler) I haven't watched yet, Irmgard is very good in Strauss Lieder though even the effusive liner notes by André Tubeuf concede she was not captured at her prime - but Elisabeth was the reason I was given the DVD, and it's Elisabeth I want to talk about.
The performance presented here is the Rosenkavalier Act I finale: "Kann mich auch an ein Mädel erinnern" and so on. Certainly my favourite part of the opera: better, even, (if only just) than that trio; in fact, one of my favourite operatic moments anywhere. What I'd forgotten until I played this DVD for the first time is that it's this very same film - or at least, the excerpt which comes as a bonus sample on the Régine Crespin DVD from the same series - which constituted my Rosenkavalier epiphany. I'd heard it and seen it before, I already was beginning to fall the Marschallin, but it wasn't until I saw Elisabeth look into the camera and sing those seven words, "Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding" that I felt this was something very special: and by this, I mean not just the monologue, but the Marschallin, Der Rosenkavalier and Richard Strauss in general - all of which loves continue to the present day.
The extract in full lives up to the revelatory promise of the few minutes I saw back then. This is not the colour film she made later. It's black and white, Charles Mackerras conducts, her rather lumpish Octavian is Hertha Töpper. Töpper is not a convincing Octavian to me: awkward in all the wrong ways, vocally fine but uncompelling, but she's almost irrelevant: it's Elisabeth's moment to shine and she's radiant. This is a spellbinding performance: an actress mouthing to Elisabeth's voice could not manage a more believable or touching interpretation. She strikes the perfect balance between tenderness and aristocratic reserve, something which comes across in her gestures and facial expressions and, of course, in her voice as well. She sings sweetly, gracefully: the Marschallin we hear at every moment matches perfectly the Marschallin we see. Elisabeth is often reproached for affected, mannered singing, but whatever one's feelings on that point, it's difficult to manage any such charges being levelled at this stunning performance.
I actually watched this a little while ago, but was reminded of it tonight by a couple of the comments left on this post at Vissi D'Amore. A commenter there mentions never having really "got" Elisabeth. I know she presents difficulties. I can hear them. I can't claim to love everything I've heard from her. But I do love her. I'm lucky, I think, in that I came to Elisabeth, and fell for Elisabeth, before I knew there was anything to "get". She was one of the first sopranos I latched on to when my proper devotion to opera was beginning: her disc of operetta arias charmed and delighted me, and by the time I finished watching her self-portrait documentary, I was ensnared for good. Only later did I start to read what others had said about her, about the complaints some had made. So I can see both sides of it: but I remain firmly in the pro-Elisabeth camp.
This evening I've been listening to her in operetta: Die Lustige Witwe and Die Fledermaus. It occured to me just a few hours ago that I hadn't listened to her Hanna since the day I bought the CD. Which sounds unforgivably terrible, I know, but there's a reason. I bought that recording partly on account of Elisabeth - but partly also to prepare for the performance of The Merry Widow I was about to see in Melbourne. In the end, I didn't prepare, and didn't listen to it again before the performance. And you know what happened next. Hanna Glawari took on a different significance for me and I'd all but forgotten I had Elisabeth singing it too. She recorded Hanna twice: it's the earlier one I have, from 1953. I love her sense of style, and her sense of humour. Her Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus is more wonderful still. Die Fledermaus holds a very special place in my heart. It's been a while since I've heard this one, too - or indeed any of my several Fledermice - but I still feel like I know every inch of it. I can't call Elisabeth my favourite Rosalinde - that has to be Lucia - but I do think that of all the Rosalindes I've heard, she more than anybody sounds the part. I adore the Viennese sparkle which she brings to her singing. Spontaneity is not a word which springs to mind when speaking of Elisabeth but nevertheless it's what I hear in this performance: something bright and lively - if subtly so - which I find terribly attractive. She makes me laugh as Rosalinde. Not all sopranos in comedy manage that.
It was Elisabeth's 90th birthday last month. So, a belated Herzlichen Glückwünsch zum Geburtstag to Walter Legge's better half, to the beautiful Elisabeth. Hoch soll sie leben.