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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

EDWARD DOWNES: LOTTE LEHMANN IN RECITAL...DIE WALKURE...THE BIRTH OF OPERA

Edward wrote these pieces for The Boston Evening Transcript.

LOTTE LEHMANN IN RECITAL
October 30, 1939

It is only artists of the stature of Lehmann who are able to supply that something new we demand simply by giving a great performance of a simple composition. And she does it, not by making poor defenseless Schubert stand on his head, nor by doing something startling and sensational with Brahms. She does it by penetrating to the very core of the composer's thought. What stands reveled to us then is not a clever idea that Lehmann had, but Schubert or Brahms himself in all the freshness of primal inspiration.

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EDWARD DOWNES ON LOTTE LEHMANN AND RICHARD STRAUSS, speaking to CP in 1995:

The first thing that comes to mind about Lehmann is that she was the only singer I ever met who seemed to be exactly the same off stage as she was on stage. She always sounded spontaneous on stage, whether it was "Abseulicher!" or some casual remark or action, it always sounded totally echt...there...present...spontaneous. As if somehow it just happens that way at this moment. And that was very powerful. It was powerful enough so that it extended to her physical actions aside from singing. Particularly in Tannhauser, one quite short moment was the very end of Elisabeth's role, after 'allmeagtige jungfrau', when Wolfram comes on and says "May I escort you back to the castle" or whatever. She doesn't answer with words but is supposed to gesture that the place she is going is not "over there" but "up there". It's a somewhat pretentious stage direction. But there are only a few bars from that to her exit, and a relatively short distance backstage, where you saw her in profile, she made an exit in a diagonal, not singing, no gestures, just walking,
and it was one of the most vivid moments I remember in opera. This moment was always magical. You never know how much is an accumulation of what went on in
the opera before, and how much is the gift of the artist, but she always had that.

Very close to the end of her career, when I was briefly a music critic for the Boston Transcript, Lehmann came to Boston to give a recital. It must have been one of the morning musicales. I hadn't seen her in quite a long time. Sine it had been a morning concert, I did not need to rush to write my piece, and I knew her somewhat, not well, but I knew her well enough that I had been to her house for lunch. She was a warm and gracious woman. I decided to go and see her after the performance. I knew it was long enough that she would probably not remember me, but I had dined with her and her family a few times at the Salzburg Festival, and in New York I knew her well enough so that she asked me one time why I thought the Met didn't give her more performances. My only answer was that they have this idea that for Italian operas it should be Italian singers and so on. I didn't really know the answer. In any case I knew her well enough for her to have asked my opinion. But many years had gone by. Now in Boston after the recital she was sitting at a table chatting with people and shaking hands and autographing things and she saw me come in, and somehow I knew she recognized me, but as not sure from where. But she gestured and half got out of her seat and said to me "Sie hab nicht ewig lange gesehen!" which was very tactful and friendly, but it was even with the little social fib implied, still a spontaneous and honest reaction. I think she was characteristic of everything she died. Lehmann herself mentioned in a talk she gave that when speaking to Richard Strauss he complimented her and she replied, you are too kind, Aber Herr Meister, ich schwimme...meaning I'm 'swimming' or cheating in your music. Strauss according to her replied, Ja, aber sie schwimme so schoen! Apparently she knew him quite well--she was after all the first Composer in the revised Ariadne and the first Farberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She said to me, "I sang that opera quite a lot for ten years and I never figured out what as gong on!"

Richard struass was a very fine conductor. His third act of Tristan was the greatest I ever heard. heard him conduct it in Munich, in 1931. He conducted the first two acts well enough, but in the third act he took fire. You entered a different world with him. Quite extraordinary. Everything had an intensity that was tremendously focused, but it had a kind of feverish quality to it, which is part of the score. Tristan here is supposed to verge on madness, delirium, and it all combined of course with Strauss's style of conducting, which was very small. Small beats, small gestures. Very contained. It grabbed you by the throat. Strauss was a great conductor in everything. I remember being told that to hear his Cosi fan tutte in the Cuivillies Theatre was out of this world. Fidelio, French opera, Italian opera, Tristan. He was superlative in an astonishingly wide repertoire.

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OPERA
February 3, 1940

Opera was founded on a mistake. A group of Florentine noblemen and dilettantes got together to revive the classical Greek tragedy. They were extremely proud of their success of their revival, but what they actually had done was to invent the modern opera. The first prophesies of the death of opera followed quickly after its birth, when composers began to use rousing tunes for their own sake. The reason: rousing tunes had never been used by Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides! And thereafter regularly, every time of opera superseded each other, with the Baroque, the Rococo, the Classical, the romantic, the realistic, the impressionistic opera, every time there was a change, somebody wrote that opera died.

DIE WALKURE
April 1, 1940

Our mind still ringing with the magic of Wagner's "Magic Fire Music", and our heart full of thanksgiving to Erich Leinsdorf for having given us an integral and uncut Walkure, we were progressing slowly towards an exit of the Boston Opera House last Saturday afternoon when a loud and obviously bored voice exclaimed behind us to her matinee companion: "Did you EVER hear such a long opera in your LIFE? Really, you know I don't mind so much at night, but in the afternoon it all seems to take so much TIME!" Which of course IS pretty dreadful, ISN'T it? Unfortunately, Die Walkure just is long, and even if we were to slash it as mercilessly as does the Paris Opera, the good lady would still have to miss her tea.

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NOTE FROM CP:

Edward is being mean spirited here, nothing like himself in person, but this sells newspapers.

The Walkure performance that seemed so long was broadcast. I have it on CD.
It is thrilling. I'm no Wagnerian but I wouldn't miss a note.
The cast on that April afternoon in Boston:

Brunnhilde Marjorie Lawrence
Sieglinde Lotte Lehmann
Siegmund Lauritz Melchior
Wotan Julius Huehn
Hunding Emmanuel List
Fricka Kerstin Thorborg

Erich Leinsdorf conducts

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