Obituary: Lucia Popp
Thursday 18 November 1993
ONE OF the most gifted, attractive and intelligent singers of her generation, Lucia Popp delighted audiences in Europe and the United States for the past 30 years.
Progressing from coloratura soprano roles such as the Queen of Night in Die Zauberflote, Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos and Oscar in Un ballo in maschera (in which she made her Covent Garden debut), she became an equally fine interpreter of lyrical roles, in particular Mozart's Susanna, Pamina and Ilia, Aennchen in Der Freischutz, Marzelline in Fidelio and Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. As her vocal range developed yet further, she took on heavier roles, including Eva in Die Meistersinger, to which her charming and youthful appearance, as well as her silver-toned voice, was perfectly suited.
Lucia Popp was born at Uhorska Ves in Slovakia. She studied medicine at Bratislava University for two terms, then turned to drama and finally to singing. After making her debut in 1963 at Bratislava as the Queen of Night, she sang Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. The talent of the 24-year-old soprano was immediately noticed and she was engaged at the Vienna State Opera. She also sang First Boy in Die Zauberflote at Salzburg that year. Her early roles in Vienna included Karolka in Jenufa, Marzelline and Adele in Die Fledermaus.
After her Covent Garden debut in 1966, Popp moved in the following year to the City Opera in Cologne, where she was able to study a wider repertory, in particular the Mozart roles for which she was becoming well-known. She made her New York debut at the Metropolitan in 1967 as the Queen of Night, returning later for Pamina (she gave up the Queen of Night in 1971) and Sophie. This latter role she also sang in Vienna. Munich, Paris, Salzburg (where one critic described her portrayal of the young girl as a 'delicious piece of Nymphenburg porcelain'), in London and many other cities.
At Cologne her roles included Gluck's Eurydice, Adina in L'elisir d'amore, Zerlina, Susanna and Ilia, which she sang in a Mozart cycle of seven operas, from Idomeneo to La Clemenza di Tito, conducted by John Pritchard and Gyorgy Fischer, her first husband. At Covent Garden, as well as Oscar and Sophie, she sang Despina in Cosi fan Tutte and Gilda in Rigoletto, as well as her first Aennchen, for which she received tremendous praise. Her light-hearted account of a role difficult to make dramatically viable, and the sweet sincerity of her singing, won all hearts. In 1976 she took over at short notice as Ilia in English National Opera's Idomeneo at the Coliseum, singing the part in Italian and scoring a great personal success. Two years later she again came to ENO's rescue, in Gala '78, when she sang the beautiful 'Song of the Moon' from Rusalka in Czech, replacing another soprano, who had had an accident.
After leaving Cologne in 1978, Popp appeared most often in Vienna and Munich, where she continued to explore the Richard Strauss repertory. After singing Zdenka in Arabella with success, she turned to the title-role, winning even greater praise. Later she also sang Arabella at Covent Garden. In a similar progression she moved from Sophie to the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. As the Marschallin she offered an affecting portrait of a great lady, a woman who is determined to maintain her own high standard of behaviour whatever the provocation, who hides her distress beneath her impeccable good manners. In Munich she also sang some lighter roles, Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, Musetta in La Boheme, Frau Fluth in Die Lustigen Weiber von Windsor, and Margiana in Der Barbier von Bagdad. In Vienna, moving on from Adele, she made a vivacious Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, and a spunky Marenka in The Bartered Bride. However, it was at Covent Garden in February 1982 that she sang her first Eva in Die Meistersinger, when her performance was greatly admired.
Eva became one of Lucia Popp's finest interpretations, vying with the Marschallin for popularity. Her still youthfully attractive appearance, together with a new vocal strength and maturity, which made her third-act outburst to Hans Sachs such an overwhelming experience, gave her complete and very unusual credibility in the role. The silver tones were becoming golden, as she demonstrated at Salzburg in 1986, singing Countess Almaviva, and in 1987, Countess Madeleine in Capriccio, another fine Strauss portrayal. Two years later she again came to the rescue of a British opera company, taking over the Marschallin at Covent Garden from the indisposed Felicity Lott.
Popp was also a fine recitalist and concert singer. Her interpretations of the songs of Richard Strauss were especially rewarding. She made a large number of recordings at all stages of her career. She recorded the Queen of Night for Otto Klemperer and Pamina for Bernard Haitink. Most of her later Mozart roles are available on disc, as well as many of her Strauss performances, including Daphne and Christine in Intermezzo - a particularly enjoyable recording. She also made fine versions of Janacek's Jenufa and The Cunning Little Vixen.
Popp's last opera performances, as Vitellia in La Clemenza di Tito in Zurich last March, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt, will be released as a recording next Spring. She gave her last song recital in Vienna two months ago.
I last heard Popp two years ago. In January 1991 she sang the title- role of Daphne at Geneva and, although this was a concert performance, she was perfectly able to convey Daphne's other-worldliness, her affinity with nature rather than human beings, while her voice could still spin out the long Straussian phrases as smoothly as silk. In September the same year she sang Elsa in Lohengrin at Zurich, in a production by Robert Wilson that emphasised the static quality of Wagner's opera. However, Lucia Popp again distilled the essence of the role, Elsa's spiritual quality and innocence, through vocal means alone; her singing was, as always, elegant, beautifully phrased, but by no means lacking in passion or heart.
I shall remember both these performances as well as many earlier ones, in London, Munich, and Salzburg, with pleasure and gratitude to a superb artist.
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