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Verlag fur moderne Kunst, 2018

Born on May 17th 1918, soprano Birgit Nilsson died on Christmas Day, 2005. The powerful impact of her voice still reverberates, however, in the memory of those who experienced the sheer excitement of hearing her live in roles now labelled as 'The Nilsson Repertoire': Isolde, Brunnhilde, Elektra, Salome and Turandot. Fortunately for those of us who did not have this privilege, September will mark the first commercial release of a 31-CD set of live recordings by Sony. Meanwhile, the Birgit Nilsson Foundation celebrates the singer's centenary by publishing this weighty 712-page book encased in a Swedish-blue box with the title Birgit Nilsson 100: An Homage engraved in gold. A sumptuous and rich treasure!

Rather than a biography, we are presented with a generously illustrated collection of essays by intimate friends, illustrious colleagues and ardent admirers, from singers such as Astrid Varnay and Marilyn Home to critics like Rupert Christiansen, who wrote after experiencing her Elektra in 1975: "My musical life [will] never be the same again." Nilsson's trenchant humour, her unwavering professionalism and the unsurpassed power and beauty of her voice are celebrated throughout the whole volume, which reads as a genuine expression of love and gratitude for a great artist.

Leafing through 320 pages of visual documents, most of them previously unreleased, we find 'La Nilsson' performing the roles for which she is most fondly remembered on international stages. These photos, however, are not the classic production stills. More intimate, shot from backstage, they are 'all about emotion,' particularly when the Met's long-time freelance photographer Beth Bergman was behind the camera. Rehearsal scenes, curtain calls, master classes, friendly reunions and even holiday snapshots from private archives are included--and I love the scene at Acapulco Beach with Carlos Kleiber! These pictures reveal a warm, unpretentious woman with a radiant smile and a commanding presence.

A collection of 'Articles of Appreciation' published between 1964 and 2002 offer insightful reflections on her voice and her technique. In the latter of two articles for the Saturday Review (1966 and 1980) for example, Irving Kolodin asked Nilsson after a Wagner-Strauss concert in New York in 1979 if she was producing her voice more "forward" than usual. "That's a difficult question to answer," she replied, almost embarrassed. "But it is true ... A young German musician, a fan of mine, dared to tell me I was sounding darker and darker. I realized that it came from singing all the heavy German repertoire roles over and over. So I went to work, and now you can hear the result." This adds credibility to her tongue-in-cheek statement that she used to warm up her voice with the fearsome Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute.

We also learn from J. B. Steane, author of the chapter dedicated to Nilsson in the volume Singers of the Century (1996), that she insisted the singers at her Covent Garden masterclasses "slenderize" the voice, concentrate the tone, and aim at an equal intensity in each note, "like a violin." This, Steane observes, corresponds very closely with the sound-picture of her singing 'in the flesh.'

Remembering Birgit Nilsson s unique voice, Speight Jenkins writes: "One particularly incredible performance I attended took place in Montreal at the World's Fair of 1967, when the great mezzosoprano Regina Resnik as Klytemnestra joined Nilsson and Rysanek. I don't believe anyone there has forgotten the performance." The Sony set released in the fall will include that Montreal Elektra. Meanwhile, as for other Canadian content, the volume offers photos of the soprano on stage with Jon Vickers as Leonora (La Scala, 1960; Met 1966), Isolde (Orange, 1973; Met 1974) and Sieglinde (Met, 1975). "To sing with Birgit," as Vickers is quoted in the Met Guild Luncheon Journal (1994),"was to sing with the Rock of Gibraltar. If you sang a good phrase, she returned it in abundance." Tenor Ben Heppner was also recognized by the great soprano who heard him at the Met National Council Auditions in 1988 and awarded him the first 'Birgit Nilsson Award' in America. --Sylvia L'Ecuyer
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Author:L'Ecuyer, Sylvia
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2018
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