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Lyric Soprano

Elisabeth Söderström, Swedish Soprano

By February 25, 2023March 19th, 2023No Comments

Elisabeth Söderström was one of the great singers in the middle of the twentieth century. I did not write it as such, but her voice approached a dramatic soprano’s in size. She had a long and fruitful career, and she certainly excelled in Richard Strauss’s operas. This is why I have posted Söderström singing the final scene in Capriccio. This performance was done live in a concert, and the character of the Haushofmeister (the Major Domo) was cut, Some changes in wording were made to accommodate the change in the libretto. She was a marvelous singer. There are none like her today.

Capriccio: Mondscheinmusik und Letze Szene

Capriccio had its premiere at the Munich, National Theater, 1942. It was Richard Strauss’s final opera, and it is a sophisticated “conversation piece for music” (the work’s actual subtitle) centering on the age-old question of whether words or music take precedence in theater and in the arts in general. A poet and a musician submit their respective creations to a young countess and ask her to decide. Implicit in her verdict is another issue: which one of them will she take as her lover? Surrounding this triangle are other characters with various degrees of investment in the same question: the countess’s brother, an amateur actor who prefers erotic action to romantic theory; a celebrated actress; and a theater director with a strong sense of the practical (a combination of a Straussian alter ego and an affectionate caricature of the great director Max Reinhardt). The conversation moves to opera as the consummation of all the arts, and it is decided that the poet and the musician should write one together—with the day’s events as its subject. The ending is unknown: the countess must choose it. This light framework provides many opportunities for witty interactions and virtuoso musical touches. The idea of “words versus music” goes all the way back to baroque opera, and this theme had also served as the basis for a short opera by Antonio Salieri, performed in Vienna in 1786, and a whiff of nostalgia for a lost (if imaginary) era of refinement permeates Capriccio. There is little action in any conventional sense, but there is great insight and plenty of beauty. Furthermore, it is impossible to experience this opera without taking into account the circumstances of its composition and premiere in wartime Germany. Considered in this context, its seeming “triviality” assumes a poignant significance (the word “trivial” appears in the countess’s last line in the libretto, posed as a question). The opera’s steadfast insistence on the importance of aesthetics and courtly love pleads for the continued celebration of beauty itself in a violent, ugly world. While undeniably more subtle than Strauss’s earlier operas, that very subtlety becomes Capriccio’s most outstanding and powerful feature. The setting Strauss imagined his work set at a chateau near Paris, with its own private theater. (Indeed, the air of luxury is an integral aspect of the story.) The opera was originally set in the second half of the 18th century, a time when debates about the merits of various genres of music theater triggered elaborate wars of words in and around the French capital. However, the issues at hand—the role of music in opera, the need for plausible drama, the function of dance, design, and stagecraft—are not specific to that era. Richard Strauss (1864–1949) composed an impressive body of orchestral works and songs before turning to opera. After two early failures, Salome (1905) caused a theatrical sensation, and the balance of his long career was largely dedicated to the stage, with most of his works through the 1920s written in collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The idea for Capriccio originated with Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer of novels, plays, and non-fiction who had written the libretto to Strauss’s Die Schweigsame Frau (1935). Zweig’s Jewish background made further collaboration impossible, and the composer turned to his friend and colleague Clemens Krauss (1893–1954), an Austrian impresario and conductor who also led Capriccio’s premiere performance. In keeping with the general tone of Capriccio, the score is refined and more complex than it appears on first hearing. The apex of the score is the final scene, a combination of a rapturous orchestral passage (the “Moonlight Music”) followed by the countess’s monologue, widely considered a supreme example of Strauss’s many superb showcases for the soprano voice.

The artist who originated the role of the Countess was Viorica Ursuleac (March 26, 1894 – October 22,1985), a Romanian operatic soprano. Viorica Ursuleac was born the daughter of a Greek Orthodox archdeacon, in Chernivtsi, which is now in Ukraine. Following training in Vienna, she made her operatic debut in Zagreb (Agram), as Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, in 1922. The soprano then appeared at the Vienna Volksoper (1924–26), Frankfurt Opera (1926–30), Vienna State Opera (1930–35), Berlin State Opera (1935–37), and Bavarian State Opera(1937–44). She married the Austrian conductor Clemens Krauss in Frankfurt during her time there.

She was Richard Strauss’s favorite soprano, and he called her die treueste aller Treuen (“the most faithful of all the faithful”). She sang in the world premieres of four of his operas: Arabella (1933), Friedenstag (which was dedicated to Ursuleac and Krauss, 1938), Capriccio (1942), and the public dress-rehearsal of Die Liebe der Danae (1944).

Die Bühne bleibt eine Zeit lang leer. Der Salon liegt im Dunkeln. Mondlicht auf der Terrasse. Die Gräfin tritt auf, in grosser Abendtoilette und tritt hinaus auf die Terrasse. Orchester-Zwischenspiel. Nach einiger Zeit tritt der Haushofmeister auf und entzündet die Lichter im Salon. Der Salon ist alsbald hell

Und ich? Den Schluss der Oper soll ich bestimmen, soll -wählen – entscheiden? Sind es die Worte, die mein Herz bewegen, oder sind es die Töne, die stärker sprechen –

Sie nimmt das Sonett zur Hand, setzt sich an die Harfe und beginnt, sich selbst begleitend, das Sonett zu singen

Kein andres, das mir so im Herzen loht,
Nein Schöne, nichts auf dieser ganzen Erde,
Kein andres, das ich so wie dich begehrte,
Und käm’ von Venus mir ein Angebot.
Dein Auge beut mir himmlisch-süsse Not,
Und wenn ein Aufschlag alle Qual vermehrte,
Ein andrer Wonne mir und Lust gewährte,
Zwei Schläge sind dann Leben oder Tod.

sich unterbrechend

Vergebliches Müh’n, die beiden zu trennen. In eins verschmolzen sind Worte und Töne – zu einem Neuen verbunden.Geheimnis der Stunde. Eine Kunst durch die andere erlöst!

Und trüg’ ich’s fünfmalhunderttausend Jahre,
Erhielte ausser dir ‘ du Wunderbare,
Kein andres Wesen über mich Gewalt.
Durch neue Adern müsst’ mein Blut ich giessen,
In meinen, voll von dir zum Überfliessen,
Fänd’ neue Liebe weder Raum noch Halt.

Sie erhebt sich und geht leidenschaftlich bewegt auf die
andere Seite der Bühn

Ihre Liebe schlägt mir entgegen, zart gewoben aus Versen und Klängen. Soll ich dieses Gewebe zerreissen? Bin ich nicht selbst in ihm schon verschlungen? Entscheiden für einen? Für Flamand, die grosse Seele mit den schönen Augen – Für Olivier, den starken Geist,den leidenschaftlichen Mann?

Sie sieht sich plötzlich im Spiegel

Nun, liebe Madeleine, was sagt dein Herz? Du wirst geliebt und kannst dich nicht schenken. Du fandest es süss, schwach zu sein, -Du wolltest mit der Liebe paktieren, nun stehst du selbst in Flammenund kannst dich nicht retten! Wählst du den einen – verlierst du den andern! Verliert man nicht immer, wenn man gewinnt?

Zu ihrem Spiegelbild

Ein wenig ironisch blickst du zurück? Ich will eine Antwort und nicht deinen prüfenden. Blick! Du schweigst? – O, Madeleine Madeleine!
Willst du zwischen zwei Feuern verbrennen? Du Spiegelbild der verliebten Madeleine, kannst du mir raten, kannst du mir helfen den Schluss zu finden für ihre Oper? Gibt es einen, der nicht trivial ist? –

The stage remains empty for a time. The room lies in darkness. Moonlight on the terrace. The Countess enters in evening dress and goes outside to the terrace. Orchestral interlude. After a while, the MajorDomo enters to light the candles.

And I? The ending of the opera…I must determine it, I must choose… decide? Is it the words that move my heart, or is it the music that speaks more strongly?

She takes the copy of the sonnet, sits at the harp and accompanies herself as she sings the sonnet.

Nothing else flames so in my heart,
no, my grace, nothing is there on earth’s whole face,
nothing else that I could sigh for as for you
Even if Venus herself were to send me an invitation.

What heavenly sweet pain your gentle eye bestows;
and if a glance should heighten all that pain…
the next restore my fondest hope and bliss entire;
two glances signify then life … or death.

interrupting herself

Fruitless effort to separate the two. Words and Music are fused into one … bound in a new synthesis. Secret of the hour… one art redeemed by the other!

And, though I lived five hundred thousand years
except you, you miracle, there could not be
another creature hold sway over me.

Through fresh veins I must needs let flow my blood,
my own with you are filled to overflowing,
and new love then could find not room nor pause.

She rises and moves movingly to the other side of the stage

Their love enfolds me, tenderly woven out of verses and sounds. Shall I destroy this fabric? Am I myself not already woven into it? Decide for one? For Flamand, the great spirit with the beautiful eyes –
for Olivier, the powerful mind, the passionate man?

She rises and looks suddenly into the mirror

Now, dear Madeleine, what says your heart? You are loved, but whom do you love now?You found it sweet not to know… you sought to make a pact with love, and now you yourself are in flames and cannot save yourself!In choosing the one you will lose the other! Does one not always lose, when one wins?

To her reflection in the mirror

You look back at me ironically? I want an answer and not your questioning look! You do not answer? O, Madeleine, Madeleine! Do you want to be consumed between two fires? You mirrored image of Madeleine in love, can you advise me, can you help me to find the ending… the ending for their opera? Is there one that is not trivial?

Elisabeth Söderström

Söderström’s father was a tenor manqué who instead went into business and her mother was a Russian-born pianist who had escaped from St Petersburg during the 1917 Revolution; the singer recalled how in her childhood the family home was filled with music. Her initial intention was to become an actress, but on rejection by the Stockholm Academy of Dramatic Arts she turned to singing, studying with Adelaide von Skilondz, a leading coloratura soprano of the St Petersburg Imperial Opera and the Berlin Court Opera (who advised her to avoid singing Verdi and Wagner) and at the Royal Swedish Academy of Music in Stockholm. While still a student there she appeared as a Shepherdess / The Queen of Spades and became known for success in trouser roles, using experience from watching her boyfriends.

In 1947 Söderström made her operatic stage debut at the Drottningholm Court Theatre as Bastienne / Bastien und Bastienne (Mozart), followed by another appearance the following year in Grétry’s Le Tableau parlant. She joined the Royal Swedish Opera in 1949, remaining a member of this company until 1980 while also spending substantial periods of time abroad. Amongst the many roles which she sang with the RSO and elsewhere were: Pamina / Die Zauberflöte; Susanna and the Countess / Le nozze di Figaro; Sophie, Octavian and the Marschallin / Der Rosenkavalier; Nero / L’incoronazione di Poppea; Mélisande / Pélleas et Mélisande; Ellen / Peter Grimes; Violetta / La traviata; the four soprano roles in Les Contes d’Hoffmann; Regina / Mathis der Maler; the title roles in Louise, Jenůfa and Kát’a Kabanová, and Emilia Marty / The Makropulos Case; Tatyana / Eugene Onegin; Mimì / La Bohème and Euridice / Orfeo ed Euridice. She also sang in a number of first performances of modern operas.

At the Salzburg Festival Söderström first appeared in 1955 as Ighino / Palestrina and in 1957 she made the first of many appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival as the Composer / Ariadne auf Naxos, followed by Octavian and Susanna (1959), Elisabeth Zimmer / Elegy for Young Lovers (Henze) (1961), the Countess / Capriccio (1963), Frau Storch / Intermezzo (1974) and Leonore / Fidelio (1979). Her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York came in 1959 as Susanna; Söderström sang there regularly until 1964 when she based herself in Sweden for the sake of her children’s schooling. Other Met roles at this time included Marguerite / Faust, Sophie (both from 1959), Adina / L’elisir d’amore, Musetta / La Bohème (from 1960), Rosalinde / Die Fledermaus (1962) and the Composer (1964). Later, between 1983 and 1987, she returned to the Met to sing the Marschallin, Ellen, and the Countess (Figaro).

Söderström had first appeared at the Royal Opera House, London in 1960 with the Royal Swedish Opera as Daisy Doody / Aniara (Blomdahl) and made her debut with the Covent Garden Opera in 1967 as the Countess (Figaro). In 1969 she sang Fiordiligi / Così fan tutte, with Charles Mackerras conducting, which resulted in a close working relationship. This was followed at the end of 1969 by possibly her greatest Covent Garden role, Debussy’s Mélisande with Pierre Boulez conducting, an interpretation of unparalleled intensity.
Her career entered a strong second phase marked by a close identification with the operas of Janáček: she sang Jenůfa at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974 and in 1982 made her Australian debut at the Adelaide Festival as Emilia Marty, which she also sang with the Welsh National Opera. Söderström also created the parts of Amanda/Clitoria / Le Grande Macabre (Ligeti) at Stockholm in 1978 and of Juliana Bordereau / The Aspern Papers (Argento) at Dallas in 1988.

Poulenc’s La Voix humaine saw Söderström’s final performances at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992. She served as artistic director of the Drottningholm Festival (1993–1996) and, although having formally retired in 1997, made her very final appearance at the Met as the Countess / The Queen of Spades in 1999, by which time her eyesight was weakening. She also directed, gave master-classes and sat on singing competition juries. Söderström received numerous honours, including giving her name to a Eurostar locomotive in 1997. She sang frequently in concert and was an accomplished recitalist: one partner, Vladimir Ashkenazy, aptly described her as ‘the sunshine of my generation’.

Söderström was indeed one of the most distinguished singers of her generation, combining a vibrant voice, great emotional identification with all she sang, and a personality of exceptional kindness and humour. Her recordings of the major Janáček operas with Mackerras conducting remain particularly powerful, as does her Mélisande with Boulez. As one critic described her Glyndebourne Capriccio Countess in 1964: ‘Her singing was superfinely moulded in line and radiant in tone, yet always richly expressive as well as ravishing.’