Elizabeth Fretwell

Sadler's Wells prima donna


Elizabeth Fretwell, opera singer, born Melbourne, Victoria 13 August 1920; OBE 1977; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Sydney, New South Wales 5 June 2006.

Elizabeth Fretwell was a tall, handsome Australian soprano who came to came to London in her mid- thirties and became for 14 years the reigning prima donna of Sadler's Wells Opera (now English National Opera).

In Australia she was known as Betty Fretwell, and that was the name under which she made her Sadler's Wells début in October 1955 as First Lady in The Magic Flute, but after a tremendous success as Violetta in La traviata the following February she became and, in Britain at least, remained Elizabeth. She had a large, lustrous voice, backed by a solid technique and fine musicianship and was an excellent actress. She was married to the Australian baritone Robert Simmons.

Betty Fretwell was born in Melbourne in 1920. At first she studied to be a dancer, but she grew too tall and took private singing lessons in stead. After becoming a finalist in the Sun Aria contest in 1947, she joined the opera school run by the National Theatre Movement in Melbourne. Between 1950 and 1954 she sang a variety of roles, including Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Elsa in Lohengrin and the title role of Tosca. Then she came to Europe, and, after singing the title role of Aida and Musetta in La bohème with the Dublin Grand Opera, she joined Sadler's Wells.

After Violetta her next role was Madame Butterfly, which she sang very movingly, though she did not exactly look the part. She was more dramatically believable as Leonora in Beethoven's Fidelio, and made a convincing young man.

In 1957 she created Blanche Stroeve in John Gardner's opera The Moon and Sixpence, based on Somerset Maugham's novel about John Strickland, a Gauguinesque artist who escapes to Tahiti. Blanche kills herself when she realises that Strickland cares only for his painting. Nineteen fifty-eight marked the centenary of the birth of Puccini, and Fretwell sang Anna in his first opera, Le villi, for BBC Radio.

Her next two roles for Sadler's Wells were Senta in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and Tatyana in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. Though on the face of it these two heroines are very different in character, they both suffer from an obsessive love, and Fretwell was excellent in both parts.

In 1959 Sadler's Wells paid an advance visit to the London Coliseum to present Lehar's operetta The Land of Smiles, with Charles Craig in the Tauber-role of Sou-Chong and Fretwell as Lisa. Though not as popular as The Merry Widow, The Land of Smiles was greatly appreciated by the Coliseum audiences.

For Fretwell the Sixties began with one of her very best roles, Ariadne in Richard Strauss's Ariadne on Naxos, staged at Sadler's Wells in 1961. The music lay perfectly for her voice and in the great duet with Bacchus at the end of the opera she was able to produce a flood of thrilling and beautiful tone. Her next role, Minnie in Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, was even more congenial, and Fretwell scored another triumph with the gun-toting Girl who reads the Bible to the Californian gold-miners and cheats at poker to save her lover's life.

A quite different, but equally successful role that Fretwell sang for the English Opera Group in Edinburgh and London, was Miss Jessel, the Governess in Britten's The Turn of the Screw.

In 1963 Fretwell returned to Australia to sing two roles with the Elizabethan Trust Opera company, Leonore in Fidelio and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. She was back in Britain by the autumn and embarked on another Britten opera, Peter Grimes, in which she sang Ellen Orford. After a tour of the UK the company visited West Germany, playing at Munster, Frankfurt, Munich, West Berlin and Kassel. It was May 1964 before Peter Grimes reached Sadler's Wells, by which time Fretwell had made Ellen one of her finest characterisations. She also sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni for Scottish Opera that spring.

In November she made her Covent Garden début as Aida, in place of an indisposed soprano. Though Fretwell's Aida was well received, in April 1965 she had a greater success at Covent Garden when she sang Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro. She had sung the title role of Suor Angelica in the Trittico at Sadler's Wells during her first season, but Giorgetta, the passionate wife of the Seine barge-owner, was a better role for her and she made the most of it.

Returning to Scottish Opera in 1966, Fretwell sang Sieglinde in Die Walküre as part of a Ring cycle that was being given out of order. The following year she took the role of Freia in Das Rheingold.

Fretwell's last new role at Sadler's Wells was Queen Elizabeth I in Britten's Gloriana in 1967. In 1968 the company moved to the Coliseum and she sang Musetta in La bohème there, before returning to Australia, this time for good.

After singing Alice in Verdi's Falstaff and Marina in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov in Melbourne for the Elizabethan Trust, in 1970 she she took on Leonora in Verdi's La forza del destino in Adelaide for Australian Opera.

The new Sydney Opera House opened in 1973, and during the first few seasons she sang Giorgetta, Tosca, Aida and the Kostelnicka in Janácek's Jenufa. She also took part in the premiere of Lenz, a one-acter by the Canberra-born Larry Sitsky, based on Buchner's novella.

Elizabeth Forbes

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