Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Lyric soprano celebrated for her exquisite interpretations of Mozart and Strauss


Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, soprano: born Jarotschin, Germany 9 December 1915; DBE 1992; married 1953 Walter Legge (died 1979); died Schruns, Austria 3 August 2006.

Although Elisabeth Schwarzkopf retired from the opera stage in 1972 and from the concert platform three years later, she leaves a treasure trove of recordings to testify to her pre-eminence in both fields. Those who never heard the soprano in the theatre or the concert hall can discover for themselves how wonderfully she could sing Mozart's Countess Almaviva or Donna Elvira, Richard Strauss's Countess Madeleine or the Marschallin, how superbly she could deliver a song by Hugo Wolf. Those of us lucky enough to have witnessed her operatic triumphs or to have attended her lieder recitals cherish our memories as well as our discs.

Born in 1915 in Jarotschin, then in eastern Germany (but to become the Polish town of Jarocin after the First World War), Schwarzkopf attended the Berlin Academy of Music. She also studied with Lula Mysz-Gmeiner and then, when her voice, hitherto a mezzo, rose to become a soprano, with Maria Ivogün. She made her début in 1938 at the Berlin Städtische Oper as a Flower Maiden in Parsifal and then sang coloratura roles such as Oscar in Un ballo in maschera, Adele in Die Fledermaus, Musetta in La Bohème and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. When she moved to the Vienna State Opera in 1942, it was as Zerbinetta that she made her Viennese début.

For a while she continued in the coloratura repertory, with Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviolia and Constanze in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail among her most successful parts; by 1947, when she first appeared at the Salzburg Festival, as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, she had become a lyric soprano.

Nineteen forty-seven was the year that she first sang at Covent Garden, during the Vienna State Opera's visit to London, as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni and Marzelline in Fidelio. The following year she returned to Covent Garden as a member of the resident company and during the next three seasons she sang a great number and variety of roles there, all in English.

For many London opera-goers she was their first Pamina in The Magic Flute, their first Violetta in La Traviata, Mimi in La Bohème, Gilda in Rigoletto and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. She also sang Massenet's Manon and Puccini's Butterfly, parts which were not ideally suited to her temperament, although she performed them, as she did everything, in immaculate style. A more sympathetic role, both temperamentally and musically, was Eva in Die Meistersinger, which she sang in 1951 at the first post-war festival at Bayreuth.

Meanwhile, since 1948 she had been singing regularly at La Scala, Milan, where her roles included Marguerite in Faust, Debussy's Mélisande, Wagner's Elsa and Elisabeth, and her first attempt at the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She created Anne Trulove in The Rake's Progress when Stravinsky's opera was premiered during the 1951 Venice Biennale.

She also took part in the first performance of Orff's Trionfo d'Afrodite at La Scala in 1953, the year of her marriage to Walter Legge, chief producer at HMV/Columbia Records (when she took British citizenship). Legge, who died in 1979, has been accused of exerting a Svengali-like influence over his wife; she certainly depended a great deal on his advice, mainly excellent, both in her choice of roles and in their interpretation.

Under the direction of Legge, Schwarzkopf made a series of complete opera recordings in the 1950s and 1960s that reflect every facet of her artistry. Among the finest are the three Mozart/Da Ponte comedies, Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos, in which she sings the title role quite superbly, and Verdi's Falstaff. She also recorded some operas, such as Hänsel und Gretel, Der Barbier von Bagdad and Orff's Die Kluge, not in her usual repertory. Liù in Turandot, with Maria Callas in the title role, and two versions of the Verdi Requiem, conducted respectively by Victor de Sabata and Carlo Maria Giulini, are not wholly successful, but Hanna Glawari in Die Lustige Witwe and her other operetta records are an enchantment.

Schwarzkopf, now at the zenith of her career, made her American début in 1955 at San Francisco as the Marschallin. Though she also sang Alice Ford in Falstaff, Marenka in The Bartered Bride and Countess Madeleine in Capriccio there, she had already begun to concentrate her repertory on a handful of roles: Mozart's Donna Elvira, Countess Almaviva and Fiodiligi in Così fan tutte, and also the Marschallin, which she sang at La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, Chicago, the Paris Opéra and the Metropolitan, New York, where she made her début in the role in 1964.

Schwarzkopf's Mozart heroines were subtly differentiated. Her Donna Elvira was genuinely passionate in her declarations of love and outrage, but allowed a suspicion that she enjoyed her subjection to Don Giovanni; as the Countess, she expressed her feelings no less sincerely, though she gave the impression of a young woman basically certain of her power to retain her husband's affections. Fiordiligi, the most exquisitely sung of her Mozart roles, was also the most superficial in emotional involvement.

There was nothing superficial about her complete identification with the Marschallin. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, a beautiful woman and, like the Strauss character, no longer in the first flush of youth, was wholly believable as Marie Thérèse, who gives up her much younger lover to a girl his own age. If her renunciation was ultimately less moving than some other interpretations, it was because the singer could display every art except that of concealing art.

Sometimes, in an emergency, she was able to achieve the semblance of spontaneity. Once in Vienna, when The Marriage of Figaro was hurriedly substituted for Der Rosenkavalier, Schwarzkopf's Countess appeared to make up words and music as she went along: it was quite marvellous. On another occasion, in London, she gave a recital, replacing at very short notice the indisposed baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, which was a complete revelation in its freedom from emotional constraint.

As a recitalist she excelled in the songs of Hugo Wolf and Strauss; too mannered in her approach to convey the essential simplicity of Schubert, nevertheless she phrased his songs in exemplary fashion. After taking her stage farewell in Brussels as the Marschallin and making her final concert tour, she gave highly successful master classes in Europe and America. Then she retired. Her voice, her artistry live on in her recordings and in a 1961 film of Der Rosenkavalier.

Elizabeth Forbes

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