Rita Gorr: Mezzo celebrated for her dramatic abilities


The Belgian mezzo Rita Gorr, whose operatic career lasted an astonishing 58 years, was one of the great singers of the second half of the 20th century.

Flemish in origin, she was equally at home stylistically in French, Italian or German music. One of the best among her earlier roles was Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, in which she expressed the character's great love and despair in the final act with tremendous strength. Similarly as Princess Eboli in Don Carlos, probably the finest of her Verdi roles, she projected a torrent of emotions both vocally and temperamentally that was quite overwhelming. An excellent Wagner interpreter, she made a good Fricka in The Ring and a most attractive Venus in Tannhäuser, but the sheer evil of her Ortrud in Lohengrin was on quite another plane.

She was born Marguerite Gernaert in Zelzaete, near Ghent, in 1926. She studied in Ghent and then at the Brussels Conservatory, making her professional debut in 1949 as Fricka in Die Walküre at Antwerp. Engaged for three years at Strasbourg, she sang Gluck's Orphée, which became a favourite role, Amneris in Aida, Saint-Saëns' Dalila, Charlotte, the title role of Massenet's Herodiade and, in an emergency to replace an ailing singer, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde. In 1952 she won the Lausanne International Singing Competition and as a result was offered a contract in Paris, making her first appearance at the Opéra-Comique as Charlotte and at the Opéra as Magdelene in Die Meistersinger.

Gorr continued to sing in Paris throughout her career. During the 1950s her roles included Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande, Dalila, Venus, Bizet's Carmen, Herodias in Strauss's Salome and Mère Marie in the French premiere of Poulenc's Dialogue des Carmélites (1957). This last-named was the first time I heard Rita Gorr in the flesh – she had already made several records – and I was impressed by her strong, keenly focussed voice as well as her acting ability. The following year I heard her again, as Fricka at Bayreuth, where she later sang Ortrud. Having first appeared at La Scala, Milan in 1958 as Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, she returned in 1960 for Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal.

Gorr made her Covent Garden début as Amneris in 1959; during the next decade she also sang Eboli, the title role of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, Fricka, Ortrud and two more Verdi roles, Ulrica in Un ballo in maschera and Azucena in Il trovatore. They were all amazing interpretations. Naturally, Gorr was sometimes in better voice than on other occasions, but her acute dramatic sense never failed her.

Amneris was also her début role at the Metropolitan in New York in 1962. During four seasons she also sang Santuzza, Eboli, Azucena and Dalila. She sang Dalila in Chicago as well, to replace another mezzo who did not know the part in French. In 1966 she returned to the Paris Opéra for Brangäne and Margared in Lalo's Le roi d'Ys.

Gorr continued singing her familiar repertory into the 1970s and early '80s. She then started to take on a few character roles such as Kabanich in Janácek's Káta Kabanová, Filipievna in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and Taven in Gounod's Mireille. In 1992 she reappeared in Dialogues des Carmélites, this time as Madame de Croisy, the old Prioress; this was a great success and she repeated the role in Seattle and for Netherlands Opera. Gorr made her final stage appearances in 2007 at Antwerp and Ghent, as the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades.

Marguerite Gernaert (Rita Gorr), opera singer: born Zelzaete, Belgium 18 February 1926;died 22 January 2012

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