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IN MEMORIAM: HILDEGARD BEHRENS

By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 27 AUGUST 2009 - A latecomer to Opera, Hildegard Behrens (1937 - 2009) threw herself into demanding roles with bravado, intensity and true, raw talent. The German soprano was one of those unclassifiable singers who made her mark within a wide-ranging repertoire that narrowed down as her career progressed. Behrens did not begin studying voice until she had finished her academic studies and became a lawyer (was it Bernstein or von Karajan who remarked that she was probably the only singer capable of negotiating her own contracts?). She began her career in the second-tier German houses singing Mozart. Von Karajan put her on the international map when he engaged her to sing Salomé at Salzburg. Behrens then began to take on the heavy Wagnerian roles which some listeners might claim destroyed her voice, but she never claimed to be a clarion Wagnerian in the Flagstad/Nilsson mold. It was her inflammatory presence on the operatic stage that distinguished her, making her Brünnhilde unforgettable, her Fidelio one to rival Leonie Rysanek. Among the many honors that came her way, one of the most significant was the Lotte Lehmann Ring bequeathed by Leonie Rysanek. The ring had been given to Lehmann by the Vienna Opera in 1955, returned to the Opera by the singer with a letter to be opened upon her death. She specified that the ring was to be given to the soprano designated unanimously by the artists' union and thereafter to be passed on to the artist named by the holder in her will..

Behrens leaves a considerable recorded legacy of which the most significant performances are her recordings of Fidelio with Karl Böhm (Orfeo) - not the studio recording with Solti - Wozzeck with Claudio Abbado (DGG), Salomé with von Karajan (EMI), and Die Frau ohne Schatten with Solti (Decca). Both her recordings of the Ring Cycle are marred by unworthy partners, though the DVD of her Metropolitan Opera performances will certainly appeal to traditionalists. The Wozzeck is also available on DVD while intrepid explorers might want to look for the recording of Magnard's Guercoeur with José van Dam and Michel Plasson (EMI).

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.com. Please click here to access his archive of CD and DVD reviews.



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