Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Zerbinetta and baritone Karl Schmitt-Walter as the Harlequin in a new production of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne Auf Naxos” in Berlin in 1940.
The 1940 “Ariadne Auf Naxos” production marked the first time in her budding career that the young Schwarzkopf was cast in an important role in a new production at what was then known as Deutschen Opernhaus Berlin.
It was not, however, her first joint appearance with Schmitt-Walter.
Two years earlier, immediately upon graduation from music school, Schwarzkopf had sung the shepherd boy in a Deutschen Opernhaus Berlin performance of “Tannhauser” in which Schmitt-Walter—the world’s leading Wolfram of the 1930s and 1940s—had appeared in his signature role. That “Tannhauser” performance was one of Schwarzkopf’s very first assignments as the newest member of what was at the time Germany’s leading opera company.
Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter were to work together in countless European theaters and concert halls for the next two decades. Their professional association was not to end until 1958.
Exactly twenty years after the May 17, 1938, Berlin “Tannhauser” performance, Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter worked together one final time. The venue was a London recording studio. On March 28, 1958, they put finishing touches on the legendary EMI recording of Strauss’s “Capriccio”, a project planned and produced by EMI executive Walter Legge, who had become Schwarzkopf’s husband in 1953. The EMI “Capriccio” recording captured what may be Schwarzkopf’s single greatest performance for the gramophone.
Schwarzkopf and Schmitt-Walter had first worked together in the recording studio in 1941, when they had recorded excerpts (in German) from Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme”. The 1941 “Boheme” excerpts were recorded in Berlin; Schwarzkopf sang Musetta and Schmitt-Walter sang Marcello. The rare “Boheme” excerpts were most recently available on the Preiser label.
I know no one who witnessed Schmitt-Walter onstage.
I knew one person—he is now deceased—who witnessed Schwarzkopf in the theater (Schwarzkopf retired from the stage in 1971).
The person who had witnessed Schwarzkopf in the theater was a friend of my parents. He had been a music-loving Professor Of English at the University Of Minnesota—and in the 1950s and 1960s he had attended several Schwarzkopf performances, most in Europe.
He insisted, until the day he died, that Schwarzkopf was the greatest artist he had encountered in a lifetime of opera attendance.
The 1940 photograph of Schwarzkopf’s Zerbinetta—a role Schwarzkopf quickly dropped—itself is proof that Schwarzkopf, at age twenty-five, was already an artist of supreme assurance, in total command of her gifts, a master of “presentation”.