Lisa Della Casa: Soprano who distinguished herself with her Richard Strauss interpretations

 

Ravishingly beautiful, with a limpid, silver-toned voice, the Swiss soprano Lisa Della Casa was greatly admired as a Mozart singer, as the Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni; but it was in the operas of Richard Strauss that she excelled. Having begun her career in Switzerland during the Second World War, she burst on to the international scene in 1947 at the Salzburg Festival as Zdenka in Arabella. Three years later she sang her first Arabella, the character with whom she became so closely identified.

Della Casa's other Strauss roles included Annina, Sophie, Oktavian and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, the Countess Madeleine in Capriccio, Chrysothomis in Elektra and Salome. Engaged for more than 20 years at the Vienna State Opera, she sang at the Metropolitan in New York for 15 consecutive seasons. At Covent Garden she appeared only as Arabella – the performance on 10 February 1965 was her 100th in the role – and the Marschallin, but she had previously sung at Glyndebourne and also appeared at the Edinburgh Festival.

Lisa Della Casa was born in Burgdorf, near Berne. Her father, a doctor, was Italian-Swiss while her mother came from Bavaria. At 15 she went to Zurich to study with Margarethe Haeser, her only teacher, and made her debut in 1941 at Solothurn-Biel as Madama Butterfly. In 1943 she was engaged at the Zurich City Theatre as First Boy in Die Zauberflöte, followed by Annina in Der Rosenkavalier; her roles also included Mimi in La Bohème, Sophie, and Nedda in Pagliacci.

In the audience at a performance of Pagliacci was Dragan Debeljevic, a young Serb who had escaped from Yugoslavia to Switzerland just before the end of the war. Briefly interned, he was then allowed to continue his studies in Zurich. On his first evening there he went to the opera and fell madly in love with Nedda. It turned out that they lived near one another in the city, and four years later, in 1949, between rehearsals, they were married. Debeljevic became his wife's manager, accompanying her everywhere.

Della Casa also sang Zdenka in Zurich, with the great soprano Maria Cebotari guesting as Arabella. It was Cebotari who recommended the unknown young soprano to the Salzburg administration. After her success as Zdenka at Salzburg in 1947, Della Casa was engaged at the Vienna State Opera, where her early roles included Nedda, Zerlina in Auber's Fra Divolo, the Queen of Night in Die Zauberflöte and Gilda in Rigoletto. She continued to appear in Zurich, where she created the Young Woman in Burkhard's Die Schwarze Sprinne, and sang her first Ariadne and her first Arabella.

Returning annually to Salzburg from 1948-60, in 1950 she acquired a fourth role in Die Zauberflöte, learning the First Lady in a few hours in an emergency. In 1951 she made her British debut at Glyndebourne, singing the Countess Almaviva. Her beauty and youthful appearance (she was 32) won hearts, while her stylish singing was much admired. The following year she sang Marzelline and Sophie at La Scala with equal success.

Also in 1952, Della Casa appeared at Bayreuth for the first and only time, making an enchanting Eva in Die Meistersinger; she introduced her Arabella to Munich, and to Vienna in a new production at the Theater an der Wien; and she appeared at the Edinburgh Festival with the Hamburg State Opera, singing Marzelline, Sophie and Pamina. The year 1953 was even more eventful: having created the three female roles in Einem's Der Prozess at Salzburg, in September she made her London debut on the first night of a visit to Covent Garden by the Bavarian State Opera.

No one in the audience for that performance of Arabella is likely to forget the occasion. Della Casa had by then explored and integrated every facet of the character; every word, every note every gesture was perfectly placed. In later years her interpretation of Arabella become more mannered, but at that time it was impossible to imagine the role more exquisitely sung or more touchingly acted. The slight reserve noticeable in all her performances was exactly right for Arabella. Finally, in November of that momentous year, she made her US debut at the Metropolitan as the Countess Almaviva.

During 15 seasons at the Met Della Casa sang Mimi, Butterfly, Eva, Elsa in Lohengrin, Donna Elvira, Saffi in The Gypsy Baron (in English), and several of her Strauss roles: Ariadne, Arabella (also in English), the Marschallin and, in 1964-65, Oktavian as well. She also appeared at San Francisco from 1958 to 1961, and in Chicago.

Meanwhile, in 1955, the rebuilt Vienna State Opera opened with a series of gala performances. Della Casa sang Donna Anna, but did not find it a congenial role and soon reverted to Elvira. The Austrian soprano Maria Reining was scheduled to sing the Marshallin, but after two performances withdrew Della Casa took over, singing her first Marschallin.

Della Casa, always a welcome guest in Munich, sang Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare there in 1955 and conquered another, rather unlikely Strauss role, Salome, in 1961. Looking gorgeous, she did the dance herself (unusual then), shedding her veils to reveal a kind of sequined swimsuit. She sang with surprising power and portrayed exactly the teenager Strauss required but so seldom obtained. Della Casa returned to Covent Garden in 1965 to sing Arabella in the Royal Opera production, and in 1968 as the Marschallin. On both occasions she was in fine voice and kept the mannerisms under control. She still appeared rather young for the Marschallin but had deepened her interpretation considerably.

She also sang the Marschallin at Salzburg in 1968, at the opening of the new Festspielhaus. In June 1973 she sang it for the last time in Vienna, and in September celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut in Zurich with the same role.

The following year she retired. At the age of 55 Della Casa retained her voice, her beauty and her figure, but she was a perfectionist, and preferred to leave before any flaws crept in. As she said to me 20 years later when I interviewed her at the castle on the shores of the Bodensee where she lived with her husband and daughter: "In opera everything must be perfect!"

Elizabeth Forbes

Lisa Della Casa, opera singer: born Burgdorf, Switzerland 2 February 1919; married 1949 Dragan Debeljevic (one daughter); died Münsterlingen, Switzerland 10 December 2012.

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