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By Joel Kasow

PARIS, 12 DECEMBER 2012 — Two extraordinary singers left us this week: Lisa della Casa and Galina Vishnevskaya. I was fortunate to have heard them both in their prime, the former at the Metropolitan Opera in three of her signature roles, Elvira, the Countess and the Marschallin as well as Eva and Saffi. I never heard Vishnevskaya in opera, but her recitals, accompanied by her adoring husband, Mstislav Rostropovich, were memorable events. Della Casa’s Mozart roles were sung with an elegance difficult to match, with long lines that left audiences gasping, and then there was that exceptional presence. She was a beautiful woman, but her portrayals were grounded in more than just her physical and vocal beauty — she lived her roles while never failing to sing with clarity beyond measure. Her Elvira, unlike the viragos or harridans that seem to be the norm today in terms of characterization, was always noble, her Marschallin was sung with simplicity, but thorough understanding of the character. Recordings don’t always capture the special silvery quality of her voice, but one of my favorites is Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder, the first commercial recording, conducted by Karl Böhm. It was the recording I grew up on and few have matched it since. Her Elvira can be sampled with Josef Krips on Decca, with Dmitri Mitropoulous on Sony and Wilhelm Furtwängler on a DVD from the Salzburg Festival, all three with the incomparable Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni.

Galina Vishnevskaya: 25 October 1926 – 11 December 2012
Photo: Capitol Records, Inc, courtesy of EMI Classics

Galina Vishnevskaya was a far more outgoing performer, with a wide range of repertory, some of it recorded slightly too late (Lady Macbeth of the Mzensk District, the second recording of War and Peace), but the earlier recordings show us a gleaming soprano, totally fearless. Her mastery of the Russian song repertory, which her stature as a performer allowed her to champion throughout the world, has been extensively documented. My memories of her recitals at Carnegie Hall, with operatic arias inserted here and there in the program, include a most extraordinary Rostropovich at the piano, always deferential, showing off the soprano in the same way as a male dancer shows off his ballerina in a pas de deux. I interviewed her for Culturekiosque several years ago when the Opéra de Lyon in France presented the world premiere of Marcel Landowski’s Galina, alas an uninteresting opera about a fascinating woman as we know from her autobiography, Galina.  

Nan Merriman: 28 April 1920 - 22 July 2012

Let us also mention mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman, who for some strange reason did not even merit an obituary in the New York Times. She retired from performing and stayed out of the public eye. But in her period of glory from Toscanini’s push until her retirement, she left sufficient evidence of an exceptional talent, whether as Mozart’s Dorabella or Verdi’s Meg Page or as a recitalist (a wonderful CD on Testament) or singer of Mahler, especially Das Lied van der Erde (recorded twice with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, once under Edouard van Beinium and later, in stereo, with Eugen Jochum).

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque. He has been opera critic for Opera (U.K.) and Opera News (U.S.A.) for over thirty years and was elected to the International Music Critics Association (UNESCO) in 1996. Mr. Kasow last wrote on the Met Ring Cycle aired on PBS Television in the United States.

Headline image: Lisa della Casa: 2 February 1919 – 10 December 2012
Lisa della Casa as Salomé
© DR  

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Interview: Galina Vishnevskaya

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