Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Der Götter Ende dämmert nun auf

Well, in the midst of all my recent Wagner-blogging, the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson has died at the age of 87.

Nilsson possessed one of the most remarkable voices of the entire 20th century. She was famous for the ease with which she produced enormous floods of sound and for her natural stamina. Though she sang some Verdi (Lady Macbeth, Aida) and Puccini (Minnie, and, famously, Turandot) and was a great Elektra toward the end of her career, it was the titan Wagnerian roles of Brünnhilde and Isolde in which she made her greatest mark.

Her voice was not particularly phonogenic. On CD it has the timbre of frozen steel, a strong, steady tone without much vibrato, always focused on the center of the pitch like a laser. Her diction is clear, but her singing is not always especially expressive and her voice did not seem to encompass the range of colors of some other dramatic sopranos. It was her sheer ability to get through these lengthy, difficult rules singing as freshly at the final curtain as she did in the first act that set her apart.

I am told, however, by people who heard her live, that in a large space like the Metropolitan Opera or the San Francisco Opera, her voice bloomed into a lush, rich, opulent sound. Her tone quality was consistent throughout her range, which is unusual for voices in this repertoire. She sailed with ease through music that brings other sopranos to grief, especially the awkwardly placed high C's in the third act of Wagner's Siegfried.

My fascination with Wagner began 14 years ago when, as a curious high school senior exploring the world of opera for the first time, I checked out Götterdämmerung from the county library. It was, of course, the Solti recording with Nilsson as Brünnhilde. For some reason I decided to skip right to the end and play the last track, the very end of Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene, beginning at "Flieg' heim, ihr Raben!" I've been a fan ever since. To this day I remain awestruck the way her voice cuts through the orchestra like the gleaming blade of Nothung itself, fearlessly and cleanly attacking the high notes, seeming to swell with power as the vocal line rises higher and higher.

Ruhe, du Göttin.


Jeff said...

Wow, we were just listening to her on my recording of Tristan last night. That's too bad.

Anonymous said...

She looks like a he. Are you sure she/he wasn't a queen?