Elizabeth Connell: Mezzo and soprano acclaimed for her Verdi and Wagner interpretations

 

The opera singer Elizabeth Connell enjoyed 10 successful years as a mezzo before becoming a soprano and enjoying over two decades more of international acclaim.

The tremendous intensity and fierce attack that characterised her mezzo roles such as Elisabeth in Verdi's Don Carlos and Eglantine in Weber's Euryanthe were equally admirable later as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo and the title role of Strauss's Elektra, or Senta in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer and Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio. She appeared at Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Salzburg and other opera houses all over Europe, the Americas and Australia.

Elizabeth Connell was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in 1946; her father was English, her mother Irish. She studied at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, winning a scholarship to study at the London Opera Centre with Otakar Kraus. He agreed that she was a mezzo, but forecast rightly that she would eventually become a dramatic soprano. In 1972, her last year at the Opera Centre, she sang Maura in Vaughan-Williams' Riders to the Sea, scoring a notable success. Later that year she made her professional debut at the Wexford Festival, singing Varvara in Janàcek's Kat'a Kabanová, which was also well received.

She next spent two years with Australian Opera, making her debut in Sydney as Venus in Wagner's Tannhäuser, followed by the Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa, which became a favourite role. In 1975 she was engaged by English National Opera, making a spectacular debut at the Coliseum as Princess Eboli in Don Carlos. During the next five years at ENO she sang a wide variety of mezzo roles, among them Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore, Maria Balkonskaya in Prokofiev's War and Peace, Herodias in Strauss's Salome, Eglantine in Euryanthe and Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algerì.

During those years two other events of great importance in Connell's career took place: in 1976 she made her Covent Garden debut as Viclinda in Verdi's I Lombardi and in 1977 she returned to Australia to sing her first Lady Macbeth. Back at ENO she sang two roles usually taken by a soprano, Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre and Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni. In 1980 she made her Bayreuth debut as a tremendously dramatic Ortrud in Lohengrin, followed in 1981, by Brangaene in Tristan und Isolde, Kundry in Parsifal at the Holland Festival and by her debut at La Scala as Ortrud.

Connell became a soprano in 1983. Her teacher Otakar Kraus who had predicted the change of voice, had died in 1980 and she prepared herself alone, cancelling all her engagements as a mezzo, not speaking as well as not singing, then gradually easing herself into the soprano repertory. Her first appearances in the higher range were at La Scala, as Corine in Cherubini's Anacréon, followed by Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte and then Julia in Spontini's La Vestale, which went particularly well. At the 1983 Salzburg Festival she contributed an electrifying account of Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo.

Her next new role was Bellini's Norma, which she sang in Geneva with much success in 1984, before going to Naples for Lady Macbeth, which became one of her finest interpretations: during the next decade she sang it in Munich, Rome, Paris, New York, London, Hamburg, Bonn, Cologne and Sydney. In an interview in 1988 for OPERA just before she sang the role at Covent Garden, she acknowledged the importance of Lady Macbeth in her career. "It's about the only role I've carried through into my soprano repertoire," she said. "I suppose that now I sing it in a brighter tone than I did before". Now she included the high D flat at the end of the Sleepwalking Scene.

Meanwhile, in 1985, Connell made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Vitellia and sang Leonora in Il trovatore at Covent Garden, followed by Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, another of her key roles, which she repeated in San Francisco, San Diego, New York, Geneva and Sydney. She took on another Wagner role, Senta in Der fliegende Holländer, first in Trieste, then for her Paris Opéra debut in 1987.

In Sydney she sang the title role of Cherubini's Medée, in the French version with spoken dialogue, which gave her the opportunity to act as well as sing. She repeated the role in concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. She also acquired two new Richard Strauss roles: the title role of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1988 in Toronto and later in Sydney, and Chrysothemis in Elektra at the 1989 Salzburg Festival.

Throughout the 1990s Connell continued to acquire new roles, many of which were either in early Verdi operas or in Wagner music dramas. In the first category she sang Odabella, the passionate heroine of Attila, at San Francisco in 1991, repeating it in Geneva, at Covent Garden and in Buenos Aires, always to tremendous acclaim; she sang Abigaille, the even more passionate villainess of Nabucco, at Orange in 1994. In the second category, she tackled Isolde in a concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall in 1993.

Between 1995 and 2001 Connell sang Brünnhilde in all three of the Ring operas in which the character appears: Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. A role even more to her liking at this point in her career was Strauss's Elektra, which she sang at San Francisco in 1997 and in 2002 in Madrid with the Berlin State Opera, when she won tremendous applause, as she did the same year at Covent Garden when she stood in for an ailing soprano.

In 2004, 10 years after the release of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders from Robben Island, Connell sang Leonore in a performance of Fidelio by Cape Town Opera in the prison courtyard. This was a great honour for her, and a most moving occasion.

In 2008 she sang Gertrud at Covent Garden. During the run there was an emergency when the soprano due to sing the title role of Puccini's Turandot was taken ill, and Connell sang instead. Her voice was no longer in pristine condition, but the high notes flashed out magnificently.

Despite the lung cancer from which she died, Connell continued singing until nearly the end, usually at a concert in aid of other singers. I last heard her at the end of November 2011 in Hastings. The voice may not have had the force or brilliance of her earlier years, but the attack and intensity were as magnificent as ever.

Elizabeth Connell, opera singer: born Port Elizabeth, South Africa 22 October 1946; died London 18 February 2012.

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