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A Life Well Sung

This year marks the centennial of the extraordinary Birgit Nilsson, whose accomplishments in opera are unequaled.
By William R. Braun
Illustration by Ego Rodriguez
 

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Illustration by Ego Rodriguez
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As Elektra to Mignon Dunn’s Klytämnestra at the Met, 1980
© Beth Bergman
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As Aida in the Met’s 1963 staging by Nathaniel Merrill
© Vernon L. Smith

CENTENNIAL CELEBRATIONS OFTEN PROVOKE the reevaluation of an artist. But the centennial of the birth of soprano Birgit Nilsson, one hundred years ago in Västra Karups, Sweden, offers a chance for a particularly deep assessment. A commemorative book and a biographical DVD have been released, and her autobiography has been reissued. By far the most important document is Sony’s new boxed set of thirty-one CDs comprising twelve complete live-opera performances by Nilsson, plus another complete role—the single scene for Brünnhilde in Siegfried—and a disc of concert performances. Studio recordings have their attractions, but artists can truly be understood only through their live performances. The Sony set, covering 1953 to 1976, shines new light on who Nilsson was as an artist.

Yes, Nilsson had a large and powerful voice. And that is the last time it need be said. There has never been enough acknowledgement that singers are musicians, and the real lesson of this set is that Nilsson was a historically fine musician. Perhaps it seems odd to begin by observing that, to the end of her career, Nilsson never faked or shirked anything. But in fact this is a rare and admirable quality (one she shared with the late-career performances of her colleague Leontyne Price and the pianist Claudio Arrau). She sang with the technique that was right for her, and she never compromised the voice that she had built. Of particular interest in the Sony set is a Rome performance of Fidelio from 1970.

BY THIS POINT Nilsson was an opera superstar who could write her own ticket. She was in her fifties, and she had been singing complete cycles of Wagner’s Ring for fifteen years. She could have sung Beethoven as proto-Wagner. But she is touchingly attuned to Classical style. She is a generous colleague in ensemble singing, entwining her voice with the golden-age soprano of Helen Donath in the trio “Gut, Söhnchen, gut” and the famous Act I quartet. In the duet passage with Rocco in the Act I finale, she understands how Beethoven was looking back to Mozart’s Pamina and Papageno rather than forward to Sieglinde and Siegmund. And at the end of the evening she still has the technique for a beautiful decrescendo on the high G of the ecstatically relieved outpouring “Florestan!” in the final duet.

There is a difference between knowing a role and knowing an opera, and Nilsson knew her operas. Nowhere is this more evident than in a Met broadcast of DieWalküre from 1969, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. Conductor and soprano give a performance of unfaltering rightness. Act II is full of sensational moments. Nilsson’s Brünnhilde is not a passive listener to Wotan’s tale; rather, her brief interjections seem to incite the story. By the end of it she is already quite alarmed (“What should your daughter do?”), with her analytical reactions turning to grave concern. Nilsson shows how important the scene is to the development of her character not just in this opera but in the Ring cycle as a whole, and she prompts the listener’s observation that it is only through becoming human that Brünnhilde will be able to experience the joy that she will feel when Siegfried awakens her. The annunciation-of-death scene later in Act II is remarkable both for the level of detail and for the unexpected but plausible and fascinating interpretation. (Surely the performances Nilsson gave as Sieglinde, resting in Siegmund’s lap listening to this scene, informed her shrewd interpretation of it.) Nilsson’s Brünnhilde here is bitter, not proud, about Valhalla. “Wotan’s daughter serves you” is melancholy, and Karajan seconds her with an orchestra that sounds tawdry and hollow. Nilsson doesn’t unleash the heroic element in her voice until Brünnhilde changes her mind and decides to become an agent of action. “Wait!” she sings, and Wagner’s instruction “in heftigsten sturme des Mitgefühles” (in the most powerful surge of empathy) demonstrates what drama through music really is. 

But it is in Act III that Nilsson and Karajan offer a performance for the ages. Brünnhilde is taking charge and making decisions at first, but once she and her father are alone onstage, the warrior girl has of necessity become a woman. Brünnhilde could wait for Wotan to begin their unavoidable final conversation, but Nilsson shows how she understands that she needs immediately to seize her one remaining chance to redeem the situation. In Nilsson’s performance, she quickly begins the negotiation herself, she understands the implications of it, and she knows that there is only plan A. Thus the famous lyrical phrase “Der diese Liebe mir in’s Herz gehaucht” is not an isolated moment of melody but the thesis of her argument. By the time she sings the debased “Wohl taugte dir,” she is pretty certain that she has already lost (and of course she is correct), but she makes her flattery pointed and insinuating. It is possible to listen to DieWalküre for thirty years, and to appreciate many details in it, without ever hearing a performance that shapes this role with such insight.

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Nilsson in rehearsal, above, as Brünnhilde for the Met’s 1967 Die Walküre, with conductor/director Herbert von Karajan and baritone Thomas Stewart (Wotan)
© Henry Grossman

AS IT HAPPENS, Nilsson was fiercely intelligent offstage. She knew that few people in the world at any moment could sing Isolde, Brünnhilde and Elektra in large houses, and that this was worth a lot. More interesting is that she found the intelligence (not always immediately apparent) in so many of the characters she played. There are two performances of Elektra in the Sony set, one from the Vienna State Opera’s guest engagement at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967, the other from the Met in 1971. In the Montreal performance, the scene with Klytämnestra is an astute psychological study. Nilsson’s Elektra plays it close to the vest, never giving away all that she knows. Asked by her mother if she has a remedy for nightmares, Elektra answers a question with a question: “Do you dream, mother?” In Nilsson’s reading it is like the dawn of Freudian analysis in one line. She asks the question “When will my brother return?” in mock innocence, as if she didn’t know the emotional cataclysm it will unleash. Clearly this Elektra has spent her self-imposed time away from her family in deep thought, not in brooding. Even the superficial character Salome gets a persuasive reading from Nilsson in a Met broadcast from 1965: she finds exactly the moment where Salome decides on her plan of action. Something similar happens in the Rome Fidelio. During the grave-digging duet in Act II, Leonora changes from a woman determined to rescue her imprisoned husband into a woman determined to rescue all of humanity in the single line “Whoever this man is, I will save him.” It is the overriding message of the entire opera, and the soprano charges the line with special fervor.  

But Nilsson was even able to perform this interpretive feat in the far longer and more complex role of Isolde. There are three performances of TristanundIsolde in the Sony box (from Bayreuth in 1957, Vienna in 1967 and Orange in 1973), and there are fascinating differences among them, but in Orange, Nilsson is matchless in the way she demonstrates that the whole opera hinges on Isolde’s final solo in Act II. She has sorted out Wagner’s convoluted language, in which the two lovers often speak of themselves in the third person, and she makes us see that Tristan is speaking to her in code. “Would you go into that powerful dark land from which my mother sent me forward?” he asks her, obliquely (because they are speaking in the presence of others), wanting to know if she will die, and die with him. With Isolde’s solo in Nilsson’s performance comes the realization that this is in fact the last conversation these two characters will ever have. Late in Act III, they will both be alive and in each other’s presence for only another thirty seconds or so, unable to say anything more than each other’s names.

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Nilsson in Munich, during a Fidelio engagement, 1968
© Beth Bergman

NILSSON'S UNWAVERING FIDELITY to her vocal technique was on display to an international television audience as late as 1983, when she swept all before her with an appearance at the Met’s centennial gala. At age sixty-five, she had already given up singing performances of complete operas, but she walked away with the show in her masterful rendering of Isolde’s nearly ten-minute Act I narration. Her belief that there was only one correct path for her voice is perhaps why she didn’t take the route of her soprano colleagues Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay and Regina Res-nik, launching second careers in the lower-lying mother roles of Janácˇek and Strauss. (All three of these artists are heard in the Sony set.) But Nilsson’s technique was eminently adaptable to the roles she sang. In our day, singers are too often judged suitable or unsuitable for a role by the visual effect they make on a movie screen. Nilsson portrayed her characters in sound, and that is a neglected aspect of what opera is meant to do. In a 1954 performance of Lohengrin from Bayreuth, Elsa’s purity is amply portrayed in a flood of flawless tone; in a 1957 Bayreuth Walküre, Sieglinde’s long-awaited freedom at the end of Act I is manifest in Nilsson’s sheer joy in using her voice.

If anything is underrepresented in the Sony set, it is Nilsson’s sense of humor. Stories of her practical jokes and wicked ripostes abound. Some of them are even true. I caught a bit of this when I interviewed her after her retirement. She mentioned how much she enjoyed cooking for her husband. I asked her what she liked to make. She proudly replied “Salmon à la Nilsson,” and over the transatlantic phone line I heard “Salmonella Nilsson.” When I wondered aloud if people asked for that very often, she protested, “No, it’s very good.” We sorted this out in mutual amusement, but I was reminded of it with her performance of the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten (from Munich, 1976). It was the last new role she added to her repertoire, and in her autobiography she mentions that she extended her career longer than she had planned because she enjoyed playing this part so much. She loved the idea that people found it funny to see the great Valkyrie banging around in the kitchen and mistreating her lumpy but loving husband. But ultimately humor was merely one more arrow in a very full quiver. She knew that if everything was loud, nothing was loud, because it was all the same. Nilsson the musician had a dozen other ways to overwhelm the listener. spacer 

William R. Braun is a writer and pianist. 



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