Friday, April 08, 2011

Gueden, Jurinac And Della Casa

There are singers of the past I regret I missed.

Three of them—sopranos Hilde Gueden, Sena Jurinac and Lisa Della Casa—appear in the photograph above. The photograph was taken at the Salzburg Festival in 1960.

That year, Salzburg’s new state-of-the-art Festpielhaus was inaugurated with great fanfare amid worldwide interest. Opening night saw a new and elaborate production of Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosencavalier” with Gueden singing Sophie, Jurinac singing Octavian and Della Casa singing the Marschallin. The conductor was Herbert Von Karajan.

In the last century, more soprano reputations have been made in “Der Rosencavalier” than any other opera. Such was certainly the case with Gueden, Jurinac and Della Casa, all three of whom found their earliest acclaim in roles from Strauss’s 1911 evocation of The Age Of Maria Theresia.

Gueden (1917-1988), a native of Vienna, sang only one “Rosencavalier” role her entire career, contenting herself with Sophie. Gueden’s first Sophie was sung in Italy during the war, under the baton of Tullio Serafin. The role made her famous. Gueden was to return to Germany after the war carrying the status of a certified international star (Gueden, half-Jewish, had been forced to leave Hitler’s Germany). Gueden retained Sophie in her repertory until late in her career, never “moving up” to the Marschallin, unlike so many other sopranos.

Jurinac (born 1920), of Croatian/Viennese descent, became a member of the Wiener Staatsoper ensemble in 1944. Her debut was to be delayed, considerably, because the Staatsoper was destroyed by Allied bombs on Jurinac’s third day in Vienna. Staatsoper performances were not to resume until the war had concluded.

Jurinac’s first performance in “Rosencavalier” came in 1946, and it came in Vienna. She sang her first Octavian, to unprecedented acclaim, with the Staatsoper while it occupied Theater An Der Wien.

Jurinac kept Octavian in her repertory for almost twenty years. During this period, she also sang a handful of performances of Sophie. Late in her career, Jurinac became a celebrated Marschallin. Jurinac gave her farewell performance in 1982 in Vienna, singing the Marschallin one last time at the Staatsoper.

Della Casa (born 1919), from Switzerland, sang Sophie early in her career. She was soon to add Octavian to her repertory, and later she added the Marschallin, the “Rosencavalier” role for which Della Casa was most celebrated.

A famous film was made of the 1960 Salzburg “Rosencavalier” production, but the filmed performance involved only one of the three sopranos in the photograph: Jurinac. Della Casa was replaced by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for the filmed performance, and Gueden was replaced by Anneliese Rothenberger.

Della Casa was livid when she learned that Schwarzkopf would replace her for the filmed performance. Della Casa, believing she had been wronged, permanently thereafter struck Salzburg from the list of venues at which she would appear.

Ironically, when Schwarzkopf made a belated Metropolitan Opera debut in 1964 as the Marschallin, Della Casa appeared as Schwarzkopf’s Octavian. Relations between the two artists during rehearsals and performances in New York, it was reported, were amicable.

Gueden and Della Casa were not known as amicable persons during their performing careers.

Gueden, especially, was widely disliked by those with whom she worked. There was a mettlesome quality in Gueden’s personality that made her one part charming and gemutlich, and one part obstreperous and unyielding. Gueden’s odd combination of soft tissue and hard steel apparently worked to her advantage onstage—the two dissimilar qualities lent her performances tension, and helped to make her performances interesting—but such qualities did not make Gueden many friends in private life.

On a personal level, Gueden and Della Casa intensely disliked each other.

During Georg Solti’s first studio recording of a complete opera for Decca, a recording of Strauss’s “Arabella” made in Vienna in May and June 1957, Gueden’s and Della Casa’s childish antics drove Solti to despair. He almost abandoned the project (and was to hate his “Arabella” recording for the rest of his life).

The producer of the recording, John Culshaw, has written how Gueden and Della Casa carried on like third graders during the lengthy recording sessions, bickering with each other over the most trivial matters—the two women actually resorted to shoving each other during the sessions—and relentlessly complaining about the other to anyone who might listen.

Gueden and Della Casa were almost fired from the project on account of their behavior. Neither Solti nor Culshaw worked with either singer ever again—and both singers were soon to find that their services as recording artists were no longer much in demand once the “Arabella” sessions concluded. (According to Culshaw, practically everyone involved in the recording sessions resolved never again to work with Gueden and Della Casa; George London, who sang Mandryka for the recording, was thereafter to refer to Gueden and Della Casa as “a couple of ball-busting bitches”.)

Jurinac, in contrast, was loved on a personal level by almost everyone who worked with her. It is hard to find anyone who offers anything but praise for Jurinac as a person.

Gueden, Jurinac and Della Casa all possessed one common trait: envy over the fact that Schwarzkopf enjoyed a much higher career profile than they (as well as the higher fees that came with that higher profile).

It was quite natural that all three singers regarded Schwarzkopf with suspicion. For them, Schwarzkopf was the elephant in the room—Schwarzkopf's career was of such overwhelming brilliance that it eclipsed the careers of her Central European contemporaries. It was then and it is now hard to assess the careers of any of the three sopranos without bringing Schwarzkopf into the equation.

All three, at one time or another, were to criticize Schwarzkopf publicly, and sometimes brutally—and the criticisms were often directed both at Schwarzkopf as an artist and Schwarzkopf as a person.

Of the three, the most direct rival of Schwarzkopf was Della Casa, whose repertory was most similar to the repertory of Schwarzkopf.

Della Casa’s and Schwarzkopf’s repertories overlapped significantly. Both singers recorded many of the same roles at much the same time, a circumstance made possible because Della Casa recorded for Decca while Schwarzkopf recorded for EMI. A natural rivalry of sorts emerged.

Invariably, Schwarzkopf came out on top.

I cannot think of a single instance in which, in the same role, Della Casa’s recorded version trumps Schwarzkopf’s recorded version. Schwarzkopf always operated on multiple levels, an inherent part of Schwarzkopf’s incomparable genius, while Della Casa was very much a “surface” artist.

Jurinac and Schwarzkopf, on the other hand, were to share a common misfortune that was to trouble both singers for decades: in the very early 1960s, Karajan, without notice and without explanation, coldly and abruptly dropped both singers from the list of artists with whom he would work.

Neither singer ever forgave the slight.

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