Obituary: Leonie Rysanek

WHEN THE Bayreuth Festival re-opened in 1951 after the Second World War, the role of Sieglinde in Die Walkure was sung by a 24-year- old Viennese soprano, Leonie Rysanek. Everyone in the audience, myself included, was totally captivated - perhaps stunned is a better world - by the singer, whose glorious voice was matched by an attractive appearance and great dramatic ability.

At that time Rysanek had been singing professionally for only two years: her career lasted for another astonishing four and a half decades, and though her voice and repertory naturally changed, the quality of her singing and acting never lapsed from the high standard of those early years. In Vienna, Munich, Berlin, San Francisco and New York, she sang a huge variety of roles, mainly German, but Italian as well: unfortunately she did not often appear in London, but Covent Garden heard her as Chrysothemis in Elektra, as Sieglinde, Tosca and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier.

Leonie Rysanek was born in Vienna of a musical family and her earliest ambition was to be a singing actress. She studied at the Vienna Conservatory with the baritone Alfred Jerger, and Rudolf Grossmann, whom she married in 1950. Meanwhile she made her concert debut in 1948 and her operatic debut in 1949 at Innsbruck as Agathe in Der Freischutz.

In 1950 she moved to Saarbrucken, and two years later, after her triumphant appearance at Bayreuth, to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Here the long love affair between the soprano and the operas of Richard Strauss began. Her repertory included Arabella, Ariadne, the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, the title role of Die Agyptische Helena, Salome, Chrysothemis and later Elektra, as well as Danae in Die Liebe der Danae, which she sang with the Munich company at Covent Garden in 1953. The following year she returned to sing Chrysothemis with the resident company, and also sang that role at La Scala.

In 1954 Rysanek joined the Vienna State Opera, singing many of her Strauss roles there, as well as Wagner and Verdi. She made her US debut in 1956 at San Francisco as Senla in Der fliegende Hollander, followed over the next four years by Sieglinde, Aida, Turandot, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, Elisabeth in Tannhauser and Lady Macbeth, the role in which she made an unscheduled debut at the Metropolitan in 1959, when Maria Callas cancelled her appearance in Verdi's opera.

New York instantly took the soprano in its heart, and she returned there year after year. Her roles included Fidelio, the Marshallin, Salome, Elizabeth de Valois in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Tosca and many others.

Rysanek returned to Bayreuth after many years' absence in 1982 to sing Kundry in the centenary performers of Parsifal. During the 1980s and 1990s she took on a whole new repertory of mezzo roles, including the Kostelnicka in Jenufa, Herodias in Salome, Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kabanicha in Katya Kabanova.

However, the most successful of these later roles were Klytemnestra in Elektra and the Countess in The Queen of Spades. These may have been primarily dramatic triumphs, but the vocal achievements, particularly as Klytemnestra, were also amazing.

Rysanek gave her farewell performance at the Met on 2 January 1996 as the Countess. On 25 August she took her farewell from the operative stage at Salzburg as Klytemnestra, singing the role, as she had always sung every role, as beautifully and as meaningfully as she could.

Leonie Rysanek made many fine recordings. The Strauss discs manage to catch the incredible way in which her voice could soar up into the stratosphere, as Helen, Chrysothemis, Ariadne and, most notably of all, as the Empress. Her Senta, Sieglinde and Elsa are well represented, while in the Italian repertory, she excels as Aida, Desdemona in Otello and as Lady Macbeth, probably her best Italian role.

Leonie Rysanek, operatic soprano: born Vienna 14 November 1926; married 1950 Rudolf Grossmann (marriage dissolved), 1968 Ernst Gausmann; died Vienna 7 March 1998.

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