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Subject: Re: "Ungrateful roles" and why
From: Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Maxwell Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 3 Dec 2016 14:29:07 -0800
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Jon, when I was a voice student at the SF Conservatory many years ago, there was a running joke wherein people would ask, with a mysterious look on their face, “Say, has anyone heard the mezzo in the Beethoven 9th?”

Daniel, I certainly get your point about the difference in the effect of the Amme in “Frau ohne Schatten” when a singer like Varnay can actually be successful in mastery of the challenge of the notes.  But there is, I think, some intentional “scream and snarl” in the role.  During a rehearsal of the Nurse’s last outburst for the world premier, Bella Paalen, the mezzo/contralto singing the Amme, asked Strauss if he had arranged the score purposely in such a way that she would have to scream herself to death and all but ruin her voice.  Strauss laughed “Of course.  That was precisely my intention.  The Empress should rise here like a fountain of gold and it’s the Nurse’s job to prepare for this.”

It’s a strange role.  The first one I saw was Irene Dalis at the Met and she was impressive but one also clearly heard the struggle in parts.  Christa Ludwig toyed with doing the role for years after she stopped singing the Dyer’s Wife, but never actually did it.  Karl Böhm cautioned her away saying “you’d do a good Empress before you’d be a convincing Amme.”  One of the more interesting and ambivalent interpretations (but isn’t every interpretation of this role loaded with ambivalence?) was Anja Silja’s.  She created a youthful, androgynous, almost gamin-like being in a pantsuit, very different.  Recently, I was really impressed with Micaela Schuster at the Royal Opera a couple of years ago (magnificently conducted by Bychkov with the Emperor beautifully sung by the lamented Botha).  At times, Schuster sounded to me like a bigger, rougher Tatiana Troyanos.

I didn’t get to see Varnay in that role (I did see her splendid Herodias and Klytemnestra).  The time I was supposed to, she cancelled for some reason and we got Ruth Hesse who had very easy high B-flats but I found her overall interpretation as vague and mushy as her diction.

Re: Gutrune, Scott’s posting echoes a great deal of the curiosity I’ve had over the years about this peculiar role.  Not much singing, but it needs a real voice for some of the few important moments she has.  One of the more interesting takes on the role is a current one:  Melissa Citro.  She’s done it for the Zambello productions both in San Francisco and DC and she’ll do the next SF round.  She starts out as a self-indulgent opportunist who takes on character and substance in the course of the opera.  A thin, unimpressive voice in San Francisco that had taken on body, color and size by the time of the DC Ring such as to be unrecognizable.  

When the San Francisco Lehnhof production debuted in 1985, the Gutrune (Kathryn Boleyn) and Gunther (Michael Devlin) were clearly portrayed as having an incestuous relationship, creating something of a weak and decadent shadow of Siegmund and Sieglinde.  Her acting was more memorable than her singing, lascivious looks at Gunther in Act 1 and clearly regarding the Brünnhilde and Siegfried thing as an opportunity for her and her brother to acquire some trophy “beards.”  When she saw Gunther stabbed by Hagen, she crouched over in terror, grabbed what was left of her fur wrap, clutched it to her abdomen and bolted the hell out of there.  Polar opposite of Zambello having Gutrune be part of bringing in the new world order.

Max Paley
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