Obituary: Ljuba Welitsch

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After Donna Anna, in the person of the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch, exploded on to Covent Garden stage on 20 September 1947 during the visit of the Vienna State Opera to London, Don Giovanni never seemed quite the same again to any in the audience that night. When, two days later, she sang the title role of Salome, conducted by Clemens Krauss, the impact was even more shattering. Welitsch not only looked young and glamorous with her gorgeous red hair, but she sounded like a beautiful teenager, while her brilliant, powerful voice rose effortlessly above the orchestra in the final monologue.

The following year she sang as a guest artist with Covent Garden's recently formed resident company, returning frequently until 1953. By then her voice had deteriorated to a shadow of its former glory. Welitsch was only 40, but a throat operation, and the unstinting generosity of tone which she always lavished on her audiences, had taken their inevitable toll.

Ljuba Welitsch was born in Borisovo. She studied Philosophy at Sofia University before beginning to train her voice, first in the Sofia Conservatory, then in Vienna at the Music Academy with Theo Lierhammer. In 1936 she made her debut in a small part in Louise with the National Opera, Sofia, and in 1937 was engaged at Graz, where she remained for four years, singing Nedda and Sophie; Cherubino, Susanna and Fiordiligi; Puccini's Manon, Mimi, Musetta and Butterfly. In 1941 she moved to Hamburg and two years later to Munich. Meanwhile she made guest appearances in Berlin and Vienna, where her performance of the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos caught the attention of Richard Strauss. He suggested that she sing Salome, at a performance in honour of his 80th birthday in 1944, conducted by the composer himself.

After the Second World War she became a member of the Vienna State Opera, making her memorable visit to Covent Garden in 1947 and adding several roles to her repertory, including Desdemona, Aida and the Trovatore Leonora; Chrysothemis (Elektra); Lisa (The Queen of Spades), Tatyana, Jenufa and Minnie (The Girl of the Golden West).

With Covent Garden Opera she sang Aida, Lisa, Salome in the notorious production directed by Peter Brook and designed by Salvador Dali, which caused a major sensation; and two Puccini roles, both of which were perfectly suited to her vocal and dramatic gifts: Musetta and Tosca. With Glyndebourne Opera at the Edinburgh Festival (1948-49) she sang Donna Anna and Amelia (Un ballo in maschera).

Welitsch made her Metropolitan debut in l949 as Salome and sang there for four seasons in her usual repertory, being specially admired as Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus. Though her voice lost its strength and lustre after the throat operation, she continued to sing in Vienna, mainly in character roles, until the end of the 1950s.

She then became an actress, appearing in films and on television. In 1972 she returned to the Metropolitan for 127 performances of the Duchess of Crakenthorp (a non-singing role) in La Fille du regiment, regularly stealing the show with the tremendous force of her personality, despite the presence of Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in the cast.

Her three commercial recordings of the final scene from Salome (two made in Vienna, one in New York) remain unrivalled for their vividness and erotic impact: she can also be heard in two complete versions of Salome, pirated from the Metropolitan, as well as a complete Don Giovanni and a recital disc with selections from her favourite roles in opera and operetta. Perhaps the best of these are Lisa's two arias from The Queen of Spades which, although sung in German, give a very fine impression of her dramatic power in Tchaikovsky's opera.

Elizabeth Forbes

Ljuba Welitschkowa (Ljuba Welitsch), opera singer: born Borisovo 10 July 1913; twice married (marriages dissolved); died 31 August 1996.