Werner Hollweg

Tenor specialising in Mozart roles

Friday 05 January 2007 01:00
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Werner Hollweg, opera singer: born Solingen, Germany 13 September 1936; died Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany 1 January 2007.

The German tenor Werner Hollweg was, for more than 20 years, a supremely stylish interpreter of Mozart's operas. The delicacy of phrasing and enunciation which made him a very fine lieder singer were equally admirable in operatic roles such as Tamino in Die Zauberflöte and Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail. Later in his career, when he had mastered the Italian style and language, he became one of the finest interpreters of characters in two other Mozart operas, the title roles of Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. He was also quite at home in 20th-century works.

Hollweg was born in Solingen in 1936. He became a bank clerk and it was not until 1958 that he began to study singing seriously, first at Detmold, then Munich and finally Lugano. He made his operatic début in 1962 with the Vienna Chamber Opera, and then joined the Bonn Opera. In 1967 he moved to Gelsenkirchen for two seasons, making guest appearances with other German opera houses including Freiberg, where in 1968 he sang Des Grieux in Hans Werner Henze's modern version of the Manon Lescaut story, Boulevard Solitude. He began too to make frequent tours as a recitalist, which continued throughout his career.

His international career started in 1969, when he sang Belmonte at the Florence Maggio Musicale, scoring a personal triumph. Later that year his Tamino at Düsseldorf was described as "virile and unpretentious"; he also sang another Mozart role, Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. In 1970 he sang the tenor part in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Osaka; the conductor was Herbert von Karajan. More performances of Belmonte followed, in the Vienna, Munich, Edinburgh and Salzburg festivals. The Salzburg production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail was so successful it was repeated four years running.

In 1974 Hollweg sang Tamino in Florence and the following year Belmonte and the title role of Idomeneo at Cologne in the Mozart cycle there directed and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. He made his Covent Garden début in February 1976 in the title role of La clemenza di Tito, which became his favourite role. In March he sang it with the Covent Garden company at La Scala, Milan; he then sang it at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna and at the Salzburg Festival; in 1977 he repeated it in Munich and at the Vienna State Opera. Hollweg's subtle interpretation of the clement Emperor endowed Titus with a far more interesting character than is usual, while the music suited his voice perfectly.

As a change in repertory, Hollweg sang Nebuchadnezzar in Britten's "church parable" The Burning Fiery Furnace. There were performances in the Votivkirche in central Vienna and also at the Baroque monastery of Melk on the banks of the Danube. In 1978 he returned to Edinburgh as Ulysses and Human Frailty in the famous (some thought infamous) production by Ponnelle of Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. The title role of Schubert's Fierabras in Perugia, Fernando in Bellini's Bianca e Fernando in Genoa, Cassandre in Spontini's Olympie, again at Perugia, were infrequent forays into the early 19th century.

In 1980 the tenor was back with Mozart, giving a superlative performance - which I attended - of Idomeneo in Zurich. His mastery of this difficult role, both musically and dramatically, was complete. Throughout the Eighties he continued to sing Idomeneo (in Venice, Helsinki and Bordeaux) as well as Titus (in Naples, Buenos Aires, Barcelona).

Turning to direction he staged The Burning Fiery Furnace in Château d'Issan at Margaux for Bordeaux Opera and in the open-air Herodes Atticus Theatre in Athens and in Zurich Cathedral for Zurich Opera.

In 1986 Cherubini's Médée, in which Hollweg sang Jason, was not a success at the Paris Opéra, but in 1989 the world premiere of York Höller's operatic version of The Master and Margarita, in which he sang Matthew Levi, was very well received in the same venue.

Having switched roles to the High Priest in Idomeneo, he made an impression in that part in Vienna and Salzburg, while Eisenstein in Strauss's Die Fledermaus at the Netherlands Festival in 1987 was followed by Barinkay in Strauss's Der Zigeunerbaron at Zurich in 1990.

Elizabeth Forbes

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