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8.111347 - STRAUSS, R.: 4 Last Songs / Capriccio: Final Scene / Arabella (excerpts) (Della Casa) (1952-1954)

Great Singers • Lisa della Casa
R. STRAUSS (1864–1949): Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs)
Arias and Scenes from Arabella, Capriccio and Ariadne auf Naxos


The Swiss soprano Lisa della Casa was internationally recognised throughout her professional career as one of the finest Strauss and Mozart sopranos of her generation. Her recordings provide eloquent testimony of her vocal beauty, her innate sense of musical style and her deeply felt operatic interpretations.

Lisa della Casa was born in the Swiss canton of Burgdorf in 1919 into a family of Italian, Swiss and German extraction: her father was a doctor. She began to study singing when she was fifteen years old at the Zurich Conservatory with Margarete Haeser, her only vocal teacher. She made her operatic début in the title rôle of Madama Butterfly at the Municipal Theatre of Solothurn-Biel in 1941. Two years later, already active as an actress and a concert singer, she joined the ensemble of the Zurich Opera House. She remained with this company until 1950, her parts including Mimì (La Bohème), and the Queen of the Night (Die Zaublerflöte), as well Serena (Porgy and Bess) and the Young Woman in the world première of Paul Burkhard’s Die schwarze Spinne. In 1946 she sang Zdenka in Richard Strauss’s opera Arabella opposite the soprano Maria Cebotari in the title rôle. Impressed, Cebotari recommended her to the Salzburg Festival, where she repeated the same rôle in 1947, this time opposite Maria Reining and Hans Hotter. After hearing her performance, Richard Strauss himself prophetically commented, ‘That girl will be the Arabella some day!’ In the same year she married the Yugoslav writer Dragan Debeljevic and made her début at the Vienna State Opera as Gilda in Rigoletto. She quickly became a member of this distinguished company, where her early rôles included Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Nedda in Pagliacci, as well as Mimì and Butterfly.

She appeared at La Scala, Milan, for the first time in 1949 as Sophie and Marzelline in Fidelio, earning the praise and admiration of the company’s music director, Victor de Sabata. She sang the Countess (Capriccio) at Salzburg in 1950 and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne in 1951, the year in which she appeared in the title rôle of Arabella for the first time, with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She repeated this rôle with great success when this company visited Covent Garden in 1953 (a recording of a broadcast from the run of this production has been published). During the previous year, 1952, she had received the honorary title of Kammersängerin of Austria, and had sung Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival, but chose not to return there, citing her dislike of operatic intrigue. She returned to the Salzburg Festival on the other hand regularly: her rôles there included Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (1953), Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos (1954–55), Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni (1956), Chrysothemis in Elektra (1957), Pamina in Die Zaubeflöte (1959), the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (1960, for the opening of the large Festspielhaus) and the Countess in Figaro (1960). Between 1953 and 1968 she sang regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her rôles included Mozart’s Countess, Donna Elvira, Eva, Butterfly, and Arabella, as well as Elsa (Lohengrin) and Saffi (Der Zigeunerbaron) (given in English). She sang the Marschallin for the first time in 1955 on the occasion of the re-opening of the Vienna State Opera: she had thus sung all the three major female parts in this opera.

During the 1960s Della Casa extended her repertoire to parts such as the title rôles in Strauss’s Salome, which she sang in Munich in 1961, and Puccini’s Tosca, before returning to her signature rôles in Mozart and Strauss operas. She retained her flexibility and professionalism throughout her career: when her former colleagure in Vienna, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, sang the Marschallin for the first time in New York in 1964, Della Casa was happy to return to the rôle of Octavian. As the 1960s drew to a close her voice began to decline, and her appearances became fewer. After a performance of Arabella at Salzburg in 1974 she unexpectedly announced her retirement. She settled with her husband in a magnificent castle in Switzerland, where she celebrated her ninetieth birthday at the beginning of 2009.

Lisa della Casa possessed all the attributes required to excel in her chosen repertoire. Possessing great personal beauty, she looked superb on the operatic stage, which she commanded naturally and with great charisma. At the same time her voice was ideally suited to Strauss’s rhapsodic vocal writing, which she was able to realise absolutely, and without any hint of effort. In the words of the distinguished critic, John Steane: ‘Della Casa remains one of the best of all sopranos in Richard Strauss. Her voice has that touch of spring and silver that Strauss loved and wrote for; her tone will float and soar.’

The English record company Decca, which through its European chief Moritz Rosengarten (based in Switzerland) was always especially well informed about Austrian musical success, was quick to sign up della Casa to record for it. As early as 1952 it had engaged her to sing two of the highlights from Arabella, the ecstatic duet from Act I in which Arabella and her younger sister Zdenka sing of their respective amatory hopes (track [12]), and the sublime final love duet between Arabella and her ‘right one’ Mandryka, after various misunderstandings had come between them (track [14]). On these recordings Della Casa sang with colleagues from the Vienna State Opera, the high soprano Hilde Gueden and the baritone Alfred Poell, with Rudolf Moralt, a key figure in Viennese musical life at this time, conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. A year later, in 1953, Decca invited her to return to its Viennese studios to make the first commercial recording of one of Strauss’s most sublime works, his Four Last Songs, composed in 1948 when Strauss was 84. Set to elegiac poems by Hermann Hesse and Joseph von Eichendorff, these songs look forward to death as a natural phenomenon, and with a reluctant acceptance of the inevitable (tracks [1]–[4]). Conducting on this occasion was Karl Böhm, a close associate of Strauss and the dedicatee of his opera Daphne. For many this recording is one of the finest ever to have been committed to disc of this masterpiece. In the spring of 1954 Della Casa recorded another set of key excerpts from the Strauss operatic oeuvre for Decca. On this occasion the conductor was Heinrich Hollreiser, who led more post-war performances at the Vienna State Opera than any other conductor to date. The centre-piece of these sessions was Della Casa’s incomparable account of the closing scene from Strauss’s final opera Capriccio, which regrettably she did not record complete in the studio, thus greatly enhancing the value of this recording. In this climactic scene the Countess tries to decide upon which is more important in opera, the music or the words: she asks her mirror to decide for her, but of course it cannot. The major-domo announces that ‘Dinner is served’, as the opera ends (tracks [6]–[11]). Unlike the Countess in Capriccio, the mythical Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos is less certain of her position and sings Es gibt ein Reich as an expression of her dismay at being marooned on the island of Naxos and separated from any lover (track [5]). To complement the extracts from Arabella recorded earlier in 1952, Decca invited della Casa to sing the beautiful love duet from the second act of the opera, in which Arabella and Mandryka first realise that life has irrevocably changed for them as a result of their encounter (track [12]). On this occasion, another great Viennese baritone, Paul Schoeffler, took the part of Mandryka. This was not to be by any means Lisa della Casa’s last assignment for Decca in relation to this rôle. In 1957 she was to record the complete opera for Decca with the then young Hungarian maestro Georg Solti at the helm with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, standing in for Böhm. This recording captured for posterity her peerless interpretation of the title rôle, and helped to launch Solti on his international career.

David Patmore

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