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Music: A Happy Balance

2 minute read

French opera fans are wary of opera sung in foreign tongues: German, in particular, they think, is a language that sits uneasily in the throat. Nevertheless, when Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, 46, was lured to Paris to make a double debut—as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Paris Opéra, and as the Countess in Capriccio at the Opéra Comique—both productions were cast in the original German. In Soprano Schwarzkopf’s case, the language might also have served as a reminder of her early career as a leader of a Nazi studentbund and a wartime favorite of Nazi audiences. But if she had qualms about her Parisian reception, they were dispelled. Untranslated and long since forgiven for her past, she scored one of her handsomest triumphs.

In Rosenkavalier she was by turns amorous, petulant, rueful, forgiving, giving vibrant conviction to her understanding of the Marschallin as “the typical sensuous woman.” And with her pure soprano under fine control, she was even more impressive in Capriccio, the gentle “conversation piece for music” that stands as Strauss’s operatic testament. The triumph was doubly remarkable because Capriccio is all talk and no action, an 18th century intellectual argument over the relative merits of words and music. Said Schwarzkopf, elated but astonished at her success: “Two Italian singers and some dancers appear, the countess changes her dress —and that’s about it.”

Schwarzkopf’s introduction to the Paris opera public came late, as have most of the debuts of her career. She took no singing lessons until she was 17; then mistakenly trained as a contralto, she lost her voice and had to begin over again. After her wartime success in Germany, she did not appear on the stage until the blanket denazifications of 1946. About the same time, she was signed to a recording contract by Record Impresario Walter Legge, whom she later married. Now she is virtually alone among big-time singers in trying to divide her time equally between opera, oratorio and lieder, a happy balance, she thinks, “vocally, stylistically and emotionally.”

The Metropolitan asked Schwarzkopf to appear in a production of Engen Onegin, but she refused because it was to be in English (“You try to project the th sound over 14 violins”). Would she still be interested in the Met? Perhaps, but ”if it’s not Marschallin, then addio. It’s their loss, not mine.”

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