11 December 2012

Lisa Della Casa, 93, Nonpareil Interpreter of Mozart and Strauss Heroines, Has Died

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Exquisite dignity: Della Casa as

Bergdorf, Switzerland, February 2, 1919 — Münsterlingen, Switzerland, December 10, 2012

Lisa Della Casa was an artist of extraordinary gifts — a woman whose cool, serene loveliness was reflected in, and enhanced by, the luminous poise of her singing. Her allure was breathtaking: the impact of Della Casa's exquisite dignity and glorious voice made her a nonpareil interpreter of the heroines of Mozart and Richard Strauss during the 1950s and '60s, the years of her greatest international success. Although she was often referred to as "the most beautiful woman in opera" — and there are few, if any, who would have denied her that title — Della Casa was considerably more than that. Her performances were sharpened by rare intelligence and acuity. In her best roles — Countess Almaviva, Arabella, Donna Elvira, the Countess in Capriccio — Della Casa achieved such small miracles of subtlety that it was impossible to tell the difference between the artist at work and the character she was playing.

Della Casa was born in Switzerland, the daughter of a Bavarian mother and an Italian–Swiss father, a physician who was a gifted amateur singer. In a 1963 OPERA NEWS interview, Della Casa told Gerald Fitzgerald that her ambition to be an opera star began at eight, when she heard German soprano Else Schulz sing Salome in Zurich. She started studying voice at fifteen, working in Zurich and in Bern with Margarete Haeser, who was to remain her only teacher, and made her professional debut in 1941, as Cio-Cio-San (in German) at the Theater Biel-Solothurn in Switzerland. Two years later, Della Casa joined the ensemble at Zurich Opera, where she made her debut at the First Genie in Die Zauberflöte. Della Casa sang an astonishing range of roles during her first four years under contract in Zurich, where her early assignments covered coloratura parts (Mozart's Queen of the Night, Frau Fluth) and mezzo roles (Dorabella, Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, Annina in Der Rosenkavalier), as well as the lyric Mozart and Strauss roles that would remain in her core repertory throughout her career, such as Sophie, Pamina and Donna Elvira. She was even cast as Clara in Zurich Opera's Porgy and Bess, singing "Summertime" in blackface. 

Della Casa received an enormous professional boost in 1946, when she was cast as Zdenka to the Arabella of Romanian soprano Maria Cebotari, an important star in postwar Europe who had been hired as a guest in Zurich. Della Casa sang so well that the composer himself, who was present at the Zurich Arabella rehearsals, predicted, "One day [Della Casa] will be the Arabella." When Cebotari was in Vienna a few months later, she heard that the Salzburg Festival was looking for a Zdenka and recommended her young Swiss colleague. As Della Casa recalled in a 1995 OPERA NEWS interview, "In Vienna, they asked 'Who is Della Casa? We don't know any Della Casa.' But Cebotari said, 'I'll put my hand in the fire for her.'" Della Casa was engaged without an audition and made her Salzburg debut in 1947, with Karl Böhm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, whose members applauded the soprano at her first rehearsal. In October, Della Casa was engaged by the Vienna State Opera and made her debut as Nedda in a performance that took place at the Volksoper, one of the company's temporary homes after the State Opera House's destruction during World War II. Although Della Casa continued to sing in Zurich for the next several seasons, the centers of her artistic life became Vienna, where she was a beloved artist for the better part of three decades, and Salzburg.

Within the next few seasons, Della Casa made debuts at the Paris Opera, Glyndebourne, La Scala, the Bayreuth Festival, Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, where she bowed as Countess Almaviva in 1953. Della Casa sang 174 performances in New York and on tour during her fifteen seasons on the Met roster. The soprano admitted that she was not particularly happy at the Met, where her repertoire was generally confined to her Mozart and Strauss specialties and short on the Italian parts she craved, such as Mimì, the role of her San Francisco Opera debut in 1958. Her most frequent Met roles were Countess Almaviva, Donna Elvira — a low-lying part she disliked, claiming that it was more tiring to sing than Salome — and Wagner's Eva. She memorably took on Arabella and Ariadne in New York, as well as the Marschallin, although Della Casa's best-remembered Rosenkavaliers for the company are probably her eight 1964 performances as Octavian to the Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf — one of her few genuine rivals in the Mozart–Strauss repertory — during the German soprano's debut season. Della Casa also sang Saffi in a 1959 English-language production of Johann Strauss's Der Zigeunerbaron at the Met, staged by actor Cyril Ritchard, an artist whose charm she admired more than his directing talent. Della Casa's favorite stage directors were Herbert Graf, with whom she worked on several Met projects, including her first Arabella in English, and Rudolf Hartmann, who collaborated memorably with Della Casa in Salzburg, London and Munich, where he was intendant of the Bavarian State Opera, one of the soprano's preferred theaters. 

Della Casa was justly proud of her association with the great conductors of her era. Furtwängler conducted her as Marzelline in Fidelio at Salzburg; Solti paced her Arabella at Covent Garden; Mitropoulous was in the pit for her first Chrysothemis. Böhm's work with her included her first Salome, in 1961, as well as the three leading female roles in the world premiere of Gottfried von Einem's Der Prozess, which Della Casa created at Salzburg in 1953. Dazzled by her beauty, Herbert von Karajan offered Della Casa Venus in Tannhäuser, which she refused. He later engaged her for Sophie, Marzelline and the Marschallin. Erich and Carlos Kleiber, Joseph Keilberth, Rudolf Kempe, Clemens Krauss, Thomas Schippers, Erich Leinsdorf, Eugene Ormandy, Fritz Busch, Pierre Monteux and Hans Knappertsbusch all collaborated with Della Casa in the opera house or the recording studio.

After a brief, unhappy early marriage, Della Casa wed Dragan Debeljevic, a handsome Yugoslav journalist and musician, in 1949. In 1970, after the Debeljevics' twenty-year-old daughter, Vesna, suffered a life-threatening aneurysm, Della Casa began to curtail her professional appearances. She stopped singing before the end of the decade, choosing to spend her time at Schloss Gottlieben, the castle on the shores of Switzerland's Lake Constance that she and her husband had purchased in 1950. 

For all of her unearthly loveliness of face, voice and figure, Della Casa was a woman of great practicality and shrewdness and little or no sentimentality. During a contract negotiation with Karajan, the maestro called her "a very tough Swiss businesswoman." She retired when her voice was still in excellent shape — and when she had several seasons' worth of pending contracts. There were no valedictory tours or gala farewells, despite her status as a Kammersängerin in both Vienna and Munich. Della Casa stepped off the opera stage in 1973 with the same quiet, unhurried grace that marked her entire career. When she sang her last Arabella at the Wiener Staatsoper — a theater she had served for twenty-six seasons without interruption — Della Casa chose not to deliver Arabella's line of farewell, "Dann fahr ich fort von euch auf Nimmerwiedersehn" (Then I shall leave you, never to see you again), to the bass singing Lamoral but instead sang the words straight out to the audience in the auditorium. It was a great artist's singularly elegant, economical way of saying goodbye to the public that adored her. spacer 


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