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Dramatic Soprano

Astrid Varnay, Swedish-American Dramatic Soprano

By September 1, 2023No Comments

Two of the greatest dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century were born in Sweden a century ago, within a few weeks of each other. The first to arrive was Astrid Varnay, on April 25, 1918; after her, on May 17th, came Birgit Nilsson. Both must have made an impressive noise when they first saw the light of day. It has been theorized, dubiously, that Nordic artists acquire an early knack for hollering across wide-open spaces. But Varnay was Swedish only by happenstance; her parents were itinerant Hungarian opera people, and within several years the family had made its way to the New York area. The conjunction of Varnay and Nilsson is a freak instance of once-in-a-lifetime singers appearing in the same place at the same time.

This was a great voice. These voices don’t come along very often, and it is quite amazing to listen to them today.

Verdi, Don Carlo, “O don fatale”

O don fatale! O don crudel
che in suo furor mi fece il ciel!
Tu che ci fai sì vane, altere,
ti maledico… Ti maledico,o mia beltà!

Versar, versar sol posso il pianto,
speme non ho, soffrir dovrò!
Il mio delitto è orribil tanto
che cancellar mai nol potrò!

Ti maledico! Ti maledico, o mia beltà!

O mia Regina, io t’immolai
al folle error di questo cor.
Solo in un chiostro al mondo ormai
dovrò celar il mio dolor!

Ohimè! Ohimè! O mia Regina…
O ciel! E Carlo! a morte domani…
Gran Dio! A morte andar vedrò!
Ah, un dì mi resta!
La speme mi arride, ah…!
Sia benedetto il ciel! Lo salverò!
Un dì mi resta!
Ah, sia benedetto il ciel! Ah! lo salverò!

Verdi, Don Carlo, “Oh, Fatal Gift!”

Oh, fatal gift! O terrible gift
That Heaven gave to me in its rage!
You, that make me so vain and arrogant;
I curse you… I curse you, oh my beauty!

I can only shed tears upon tears,
I have no hope, I shall suffer so!
My crime is so very horrible
That I won’t ever be able to wash it away!

I curse you! I curse you, oh my beauty!

Oh, my Queen, I have sacrificed you
For the sake of my heart’s crazed error!
Now, from the world, only in a convent
Will I be able to hide my pain!

Oh, dear! Oh, dear! Oh, my Queen…
Oh, Heaven! And Carlos! Being taken to his death tomorrow…
Oh dear Lord! I will see him being taken to his death!
Ah, I have one day left!
Yet hope is smiling at me, ah…!
Heaven be blessed, I shall save him!
I have one day left!
Ah, Heaven be blessed, I shall save him!

Wagner, Tannhäuser, “Dich teure Halle”

Dich, teure Halle, grüss’ich wieder,
froh grüss’ ich dich, geliebter Raum!
In dir erwachen seine Lieder
und wecken mich aus düstrem Traum.
Da er aus dir geschieden,
wie öd’ erschienst du mir!
Aus mir entfloh der Frieden,
die Freude zog aus dir.
Wie jetzt mein Busen hoch sich hebet,
so scheinst du jetzt mir stolz und hehr.
Der mich und dich so neu belebet,
nicht länger weilt er ferne mehr,
Sei mir gegrüsst! Sei mir gegrüsst!
Du teure Halle, sei mir gegrüsst!

Wagner, Tannhäuser, “You, dear hall”

You, dear hall, do I greet again
I greet you joyfully, beloved room!
In you his songs awake
And wake me from a dusky dream.
When he departed from you
How dull you seemed to me!
Peace flew out of me
And joy went out of you.
And now my bosom is raised high
As you now seem to me proud and noble
He who brings you and me to life
Is no longer wandering far away
And now my bosom is raised high
As you now seem to me proud and noble
He who brings you and me to life
Is no longer wandering far away
I greet you, I greet you!
You, dear hall, I greet you!
I greet you!
You, dear hall, I greet you!

Verdi, Il Trovatore, “D’Amor sull’ali rosee”

Timor di me ?…sicura,
presta è la mia difesa.
I suoi occhi figgonsi ad una gemma
che le fregia la mano destra.

In quest’ oscura
notte ravvolta, presso a te io son,
e tu nol sai…Gemente
aura che intorno spiri,
deh, pietosa gli arreca
i miei sospiri…

D’amor sull’ ali rosee
vanne, sospir dolente:
del prigioniero misero
conforta l’egra mente
Com’ aura di speranza
aleggia in quella stanza:
lo desta alle memorie,
ai sogni dell’amor!
Ma deh! non dirgli improvvido,
le pene del mio cor!

Verdi, Il Trovatore, “On the rosy winds of love”

Afraid of me ?…sure, ready is my defence.
His eyes are attracted by a stone
she wears on her right hand.
Wrapped in the dark
night, I am near you,
and you don’t know it…
Wailing wind,
carry to him, mercifully, my sighs…

On the rosy wings of love,
go, pained sighs:
go to alleviate the sick mind
of the wretch that lies imprisoned…
Like a breeze of hope
linger in that room:
wake him up to remembrance,
to dreams of love!
Yet do not tell him rashly
The pains in my heart.

Astrid Varnay
April 25, 1918 – September 4, 2006

Astrid Varnay had a 55-year career which began at age 23 with a last-minute debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Walküre” for an indisposed Lotte Lehmann, died in Munich on Monday. She was 88

Her voice had a remarkable range of colorings, from steely luster in climactic outbursts to dusky mellowness in lyrical phrases. She was an alluring woman and a natural actress who conveyed both tragic dignity and impetuosity. Text and music were one in Ms. Varnay’s subtle interpretations.

Her work recently came to public attention again when the Testament label released the first two installments of a complete account of Wagner’s “Ring,” recorded live at the 1955 Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Ms. Varnay, portraying Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre” and “Siegfried,” sings with shimmering intensity and keen dramatic insight.

Though opera was the family business, Ms. Varnay was a latecomer to singing. Ibolyka Astrid Maria Varnay was born in Stockholm on April 25, 1918, to Hungarian parents. At the time, her mother, Maria Javor, a noted coloratura soprano, and her father, Alexander Varnay, a tenor who became a stage director and producer, were working at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm.

In a story she loved to tell in later life, Ms. Varnay said her mother used the bottom drawer of a dressing table backstage as a makeshift crib for her infant daughter during a performance of Verdi’s “Ballo in Maschera.” The table belonged to the company’s prima donna, Flagstad, who watched over the baby.

When Astrid was 4, the Varnay family, in search of opportunities, moved to Buenos Aires and then to New York. Her father, who was working as a director at the Manhattan Opera House, died suddenly in 1924. Her mother married an Italian tenor, and the family settled in Jersey City, where Ms. Varnay was brought up.

She set her sights on becoming a pianist. But her vocal talent was overwhelming and she began serious training at 20, working privately with Hermann Weigert, a coach and assistant conductor at the Met. When she sang an audition for Edward Johnson, then the general manager of the Met, he could not believe that Ms. Varnay, a 22-year-old, had learned 13 daunting soprano roles.

When he needed a Sieglinde at the last minute for a Saturday matinee broadcast performance of “Die Walküre” on Dec. 6, 1941, he turned to Ms. Varnay, who had not even had a stage rehearsal. Cultural news that weekend was pushed aside by the events of the following day: the attack on Pearl Harbor. Still, the opera world took notice.

The New York Times review reported that the “exceedingly comely Swedish-American soprano acted with a skill and grace only possible to those with an inborn talent for the theater.”

Six days later, Helen Traubel, scheduled to sing Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre,” took ill and Ms. Varnay, in another last-minute substitution, sang the role.