Defending the 12th century since the 14th; blogging since the 21st.

Catholicism, Conservatism, the Middle Ages, Opera, and Historical and Literary Objets d'Art blogged by a suburban dad who teaches law and writes stuff.

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Who was Cacciaguida? See Dante's PARADISO, Cantos XV, XVI, & XVII.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006
Astrid Varnay,1918-2006

As Brunnhilde

A very good obituary here. I really didn't think Nilsson would go before Varnay.

Compared to Nilsson, Varnay was, for me, a mystery to be solved. I had seen Nilsson in person: twice as the WALKURE Brunnhilde, in two different productions at the Met, and in other roles. But Varnay: she was far away (due to -- what else? -- a quarrel with the Met's then-manager, Rudolf Bing), yet there was her name in the Met annals, the volumes covering those tantalizing years just before I started going to the Met myself.

As many Wagner sopranos do, Varnay indulged a long after-career as a character mezzo-soprano, and in that capacity she returned to the Met in 1974, as Kostelnicka in Janacek's JENUFA. It wasn't an opera I knew or especially liked, but that wasn't the point: the point was that I was sitting in a Met seat, there, and on stage was Astrid Varnay, there -- the Astrid Varnay, the one who was such a sensation in the '50s, blowing away audiences at DIE WALKURE, regardless of whether she was singing Brunnhilde or Sieglinde, or in TANNHAUSER, whether she was singing Elisabeth or Venus.

What's most fun about such after-careers is when a diva like Varnay takes on a major secondary role in an opera in which she used to be famous for the lead. In the '50s, Varnay owned the role of Strauss's Elektra. I was born too late to see her in that role -- but I saw her as Klytemnestra, Elektra's loathed and creeking mother: a major secondary role if ever there was one, with the awesomest entrance in all of opera. When she emerged from the doorway of Agamemnon's collapsing palace and aimed her stick at Elektra -- "Was willst du? Seht doch, dort! so seht doch das!..." -- some in the audience went wild, seeing again the Elektra of their youth. (A bit rough on that day's excellent Elektra, the late Ursula Schroeder-Feinen, but she got the big ovation she deserved at the end.)

Despite her foreign name and her retirement to Munich, Varnay was actually American. Her family came over from Sweden when she was little. They endured the Depression, but they were also in the right place at the right time for young Astrid to make her unexpected and unrehearesed Met debut as Sieglinde in DIE WALKURE on December 6, 1941. A few days after that triumph, she was again called on at the last minute, this time for Brunnhilde, the other, and harder, soprano lead in the same opera. Her operatic divinity was thereby assured. Though thanks to Bing's bunglery Varnay spent most of her career after 1954 in Germany, she was almost (maybe not quite!) as American as that other Wagner soprano of the 1940s, the "St. Louis Woman," Helen Traubel.

Prayers for Mme. Varnay. And for Ingrid Bjoner, who also died yesterday: a Swedish Wagnerian soprano of lesser power than Nilsson or Varnay, but nonetheless one of the valuable many without whom the show could not go on.

Nur Todgeweihten
taugt mein Anblick;
wer mich erschaut
der scheidet vom Lebenslicht.
Auf der Walstatt allein
erschein' ich Edlen:
wer mich gewahrt,
zur Wal kor ich ihn mir.