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The radiant voice of a great dramatic soprano and stage presence
on 11 September 2014
The Swedish-American singer, Astrid Varnay, 1918-2006, was the quintessential dramatic soprano who, in the mid-20th century, was the favoured Wagnerian soprano alongside Martha Mödl, 1912-2001, and her almost exact contemporary, Birgit Nilsson, 1918-2005. Varnay’s voice had a remarkable range of expressiveness that she wedded to the text and music with great subtlety and dramatic understanding. She was ideally suited to Wagner’s flawed heroines with their moving dignity and recklessness.
In this 10 CD set the singer is heard in her familiar Wagnerian roles of Sieglinde, Brünnhilde [in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdammerung], Elsa, Ortrud [perhaps her greatest role alongside Brünnhilde}, Elisabeth, Isolde, Senta and Kundry, as well as in Strauss’ Electra, Salome and Der Rosenkavalier, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s Macbeth, Aida, Il Travatore, Don Carlo, A Masked Ball and The Force of Destiny, Ponchielli’s La Giaconda, Massenet’s Thaïs, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Halévy’s La Juive. She are also performances of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Beethoven’s Ah perfido, op. 65.
In many recordings, Varnay is heard with her mentor, coach and, latterly, husband, the conductor, Hermann Weigert, 1890-1955, whom she met in 1937 through Flagstad, who was also a mentor to the younger singer. Many of the Wagnerian excerpts are taken from live performances at Bayreuth [under Knappertsbusch (1951 and 1955), Karajan (1951), Jochum (1953), Keilberth (1955 and 1956), von Matačić (1959) and Maazel (1960)] and the Met [under Leinsdorf (1941 and 1943), Fritz Tiedry (1954) and Kempe (1955)]. She is also heard as the Marschallin in Reiner’s live 1953 Met performance of Der Rosenkavelier. In total, she gave 200 performances at the Met and performed at Bayreuth for 17 years. On all stages, Varnay sang 776 performances in the major Wagner roles.
The artists that she appears with are a roll call of the greatest contemporary singers, including Nilsson, Ramon Vinay, Hotter, Greindl, Sigurd Björling, Set Svanholm, Kipnis, Melchior, Windgassen, Bernd Aldenhoff, Hertha Töpper, Niedlinger, Grümmer, London, Uhde and van Mill in Wagnerian operas, as well as Metternich, Risë Stevens and Rysanek.
The singer was greatly influenced by Flagstad and made her unplanned debut at the Met in 1941 singing Sieglinde in Die Walküre opposite Lauritz Melchior as Siegmund, when Lotte Lehmann fell ill. When Helen Traubel was indisposed six days later, she also took on the role of Brünnhilde. Remarkably, excerpts from her debut in Die Walküre are included in this set and, whilst the sound leaves much to be desired, her voice and impact do not.
Varnay was one of the first singers to pay attention to the dramatic aspects of opera and she was the ideal singer to work with Wieland Wagner in his revolutionary Bayreuth productions of the early 1950s. Her dramatic prowess was also unsurpassed in Elektra and Salome.
Not included in this set are the roles that Varnay turned to after the mid-1960s, including Kostlenicka in Janacek's Jenufa, Klytemnestra in Elektra, Herodias in Salome, the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the Countess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana – all roles that demanded expression of a complex psychological character. In these CDs, of course, it is the artist’s voice that holds sway.
In the 1950s, her early exposure to Wagner’s extreme demands, her Met debut came when she was just 23, caused Varnay to develop a significant vibrato that was unfavourably compared to Nilsson’s intensity and purity of tone. For some listeners this is more of a problem than for me. The voice and the character that Varnay inhabits is heard to its very best in the Act III excerpts from Siegfried, in her portrayal of evil incarnate as Ortude and Salome, and in Leonore’s explosive Abscheulicher. The artist’s subtlety, phrasing and control and beautifully displayed in the Wesendonck Lieder where she is sensitively supported by Leopold Ludwig and the Symphony Orchestra of Bavarian Radio, 1955.
In 2000, Varnay published an autobiography, ‘Fifty-Five Years in Five Acts: My Life in Opera’ which puts many of the performances heard on these CDs into context. There is no leaflet and playing time of two or three of the discs are quite short but, for me, these are the only downsides.