Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

La Nilsson

Reading La Nilsson, the at-long-last translated autobiography of the loudest human being on the planet in the second half of the twentieth century. It's a highly intelligent book (no surprise! she was always a brainy lady) and often amusing (ditto). She never mentions certain issues of interest to Americans - such as the five years or so she did not set foot in the U.S. due to a "disagreement" with the IRS - indeed she never seems aware of her besetting vice, a petty pinching of pennies, which obviously led to that half-million-dollar misunderstanding. (How well I remember standing all night on line at the Met for standing room to her Return performance! She opened the concert with "Dich teure Halle," and on the words "geliebter Raum," she drew them out in a spontaneous (okay, rehearsed) ritard: "Beloved room" - well, the new Met was designed with her voice in mind, was it not? - and it was as if she had leaned out and kissed every one of us on the cheek.)

One of her typical stories: The Wiener Staatsoper said it could no longer afford her rising salary, but they loved her and she loved Vienna - they would give her a ceremonial gold plate to symbolize their appreciation. Next year, again a plate. Third year, again a plate, though she had heard them grumble that the price of gold was up. This time she pulled out her little jeweler's eyeglass (don't all divas travel with one? No?) and inspected it: sure enough, gold-plated silver. She wrote the Intendant: "I hope my voice will continue to be gold and not gold-plate." He had the grace to blush.

She never (hardly ever) says anything unkind about another singer, and she worships several of them (especially Swedes: Bjoerling, Svanholm, Gedda), and she admires many lesser-known conductors while sticking pins of varying length into famous ones like Bohm, Solti, Bernstein - and there is no love at all lost with Karajan. Bernstein once said, "Birgit, you sing that so much better now that I've showed you how to do it." Assuming he was joking, she replied, "Yes, I'm so grateful - I can't get jobs on my good looks forever." Only when she'd finished speaking did she realize he had been serious.

She admires the stage directors of her time, deplores the current trends (don't we all?), hates singing teachers heartily (an old grudge - but what on earth could singing teachers DO with a voice like that?), and rips John Culshaw a new one or two. She's still angry at him about the Solti Ring - he boasted to everyone that you could hear the triangle and every violin in the orchestra, and when she suggested the voices were getting short shrift, he said, testily, "This is an orchestra of 100 prima donnas - they all want to be heard as much as you do." She did not reply, as she wanted to, that no one buys a record for the triangle player; they buy for the soprano as often as not. She adds that she never liked the sound of her voice on the vinyl disks of that Ring, but balances were much adjusted when it was released on CD - and then she liked it far more. This was a revelation to me, as I too never liked the quality of her voice on the London vinyl (the Leinsdorf Walk├╝re is much finer; better cast too) - but the first time I heard the CDs, I leaped out of my seat: "THAT'S what Nilsson sounded like in person!" I screamed to the party assembled. (Full of people who had never heard her.)

But the voice itself - now there's a problem. I never really cottoned to the voice itself. Huge, yes; brilliantly controlled; intelligently produced; a singing actress of no mean accomplishment as well as a superb musician. And loud. The loudest voice I ever heard. (Farrell second, Julia Juon third, Sutherland tie for third.)

But it was a harsh voice. In the book, people are always marveling at its beauty (she says), and beauty was never a quality I found in it. True, I only heard her after she had turned 50 (one of her last Turandots; four Isoldes, Tosca, the three Brunnhildes, a few Elektras, the Dyer's Wife, Sieglinde, a bunch of concerts). So I have set myself to seek out her younger recordings: on youtube, a wonderful Ozean du Ungeheuer from 1964, pirates of her Elettra in Idomeneo from 1951 and an Aida from Cleveland in 1964. It is an immediately recognizable voice. And some of the later sharpness was not yet present (she boasts of perfect pitch in the book, but notes that Vienna pitch was always higher than New York pitch or Stockholm pitch).

Still: Harsh is the word I would use for the sound. Even when she floats lovely pianissimi in that '64 Aida, they are not sensuous pianissimi (as Price's were, or Arroyo's, or Tucci's, or even Milanov's): they are ice-skating on the Nile, as W.J. Henderson would say. I never feel in touch with the character of Aida when Nilsson sings it. Similarly her Mozart and Puccini (other than the Turandot of Act II). It was not the ideal voice for a lover - for me, Crespin in Wagnerian roles, Te Kanawa or Zylis-Gara in Mozart, a cross between Tebaldi and Freni in Verdi and Puccini. Nilsson's is just not the sound of love. She is a superb scornful Isolde or vengeful Brunnhilde or icy Turandot, but she does not make love, vocally. Flagstad, another Nordic singer, is also not sensuous, but the sound is warm and its beauty striking - one can believe in love from such a voice. Not from Nilsson's.

But what an extraordinary voice! What an extraordinary woman! What wonderful stories she tells!

Not least, the tales of how she slowly came to understand her voice and how to use it. She wasn't the sort of woman to let such things be casual - she thought about it every step of the way, and she can write about it intelligently - not a gift every singer has.

So I recommend the book, and you can hear the recordings and come to your own conclusion.

If you ever hear another voice like Nilsson's, let me know. But you won't have to - wherever it is, I'll be able to hear it.

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