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Tilte

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 10 March 1998 - Leonie Rysanek died in Vienna, 7 March 1998, after a long illness, which nonetheless did not prevent her from appearing at the gala opening of the San Francisco Opera as recently as September 1997 or being appointed director of the Vienna Festival.

Born in 1926, she was a unique artist, almost from the start as we can hear in recordings from the start of her career available in EMI's Référence series, whether a recital album or Act 3 of Die Walküre from the 1951 Bayreuth Festival where her Sieglinde is already memorable. Rysanek's voice was always noted for its gleaming top, but her special qualities as a performer are not always apparent on disc where the visceral quality she brought to all her performances was not as tangible as in the opera house. It is almost forty years since I first heard her live in 1959, at a concert performance of Verdi's Macbeth with New York's long-forgotten Little Orchestra Society conducted by Thomas Scherman. The rest of the cast was nothing special, but who will ever forget the (unwritten) high D flat that capped the finale to Act 1 or the intensity she brought, even in concert, to one of her greatest roles. Later that year, she sang Lady Macbeth at the Metropolitan when Rudolf Bing unceremoniously fired Maria Callas. Again, the same furore, so that RCA instantaneously arranged to record the work, a veritable rarity at that time, and the recording remains at the top of the list for anyone seeking to find the essence of middle-period Verdi.

Other memories include a performance of The Flying Dutchman, with George London in the title role and Thomas Schippers conducting, in which the audience remained in its seats during an entire intermission - in those days we had the opera in its three-act version - to applaud, because never in my life, for I was one of those who stayed to applaud, have I felt such electricity generated, from the moment Rysanek opened her mouth with the simple Johoho that starts Senta's Ballad through the lengthy duet with the Dutchman. Nor should we forget to mention that George London possessed a certain animal energy and presence that perhaps today only Bryn Terfel begins to call to mind. But at that unforgettable performance, the emanation was electric, the charge was sexual, an experience unequalled to this day in my experience.

And then there was the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten during the opening weeks of the new Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, where Rysanek shared the stage with Christa Ludwig, Irene Dalis, James King and Walter Berry while Karl Böhm conducted a series of memorable performances that converted many to the Straussian fold. And once subjugated by the power Rysanek brought to her monologues, there was the geschrei in the last act. But a whole book could be written about the various ways in which Rysanek could shriek, the cry in Die Walküre another unforgettable moment. Even Elsa in Rysanek's performance became a more positive figure than is usually the case, while her Chrysothemis was a worthy partner to Birgit Nilsson and Regina Resnik. In later years Rysanek sang mezzo roles such as Herodias or Klytemnestra with the same total engagement that marked her every appearance.

Who can forget the soprano's appearances in the Italian repertory: a Tosca partnered by Gabriel Bacquier in which she almost chewed the scenery, or the gutsiest Desdemona I ever saw, or an Elisabetta in Don Carlo where the intensity made up for the occasional vocal defect.

There is much more, for everyone has his own list of memorable Rysanek performances, but this is just a simple thank you to one of the major artists of our time, who made every appearance something special so that one forgave the occasional performance where the voice was not in the best of conditions in gratitude for the overwhelming number of evenings that can still be counted among the extraordinary experiences of a lifetime.

For anyone unfamiliar with the artist, I would recommend the following performances on disc, limiting myself to the commercial recordings:

Beethoven : Fidelio, with Ferenc Fricsay, conductor (DGG)
Wagner : Die Walküre, Act 3 with Herbert von Karajan, conductor (EMI) or complete opera with Karl Böhm, conductor (Philips)
Verdi : Macbeth (RCA)
Verdi : Otello, with Jon Vickers, tenor and Tito Gobbi, baritone (RCA)
R. Strauss : Die Frau ohne Schatten, 1954 recording with Karl Böhm, conductor (Decca)
Wagner : Der Fliegende Holländer, with George London and Antal Dorati (RCA)


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