Helge Rosvaenge (1897-1972) was a Danish tenor whose career was limited to Europe, especially Germany and Austria. Trained as a chemist at Copenhagen’s Technical University, he also took private vocal lessons. He made his debut in 1921 as Don Jose in Carmen. His brilliant spinto voice and superb high notes soon brought him to Europe’s most important houses. His voice was very flexible and he could sing both the heavy Verdi roles and Mozart with equal facility. The only Wagner role he sang on stage was Parsifal.
The best part of his career coincided with the Nazi regime in Germany and then Austria. He moved to Germany in 1933 the year Hitler assumed power. Rosvaenge’s involvement with the Nazis receives little notice on most English language sites or when it does it lurches into denial. Interestingly, the German Wikipedia article on the tenor is not shy on the subject, calling him a Nazi collaborator (German Wiki bio – English translation). He was a guest at Göring’s wedding and appeared at numerous Nazi cultural events. In 1944 Hitler placed him on the list of ‘Indispensable Artists’. After the war he was taken prisoner by the Russians. Held in Leningrad for a while, he eventually made it to Helsinki and then Stockholm. He worked as a chemist until 1948 and then successfully resumed his operatic career.
In 1951 he was awarded the Gold Ring by the Vienna Staatsoper an honor he shares only with Birgit Nilsson. He never sang at the Met nor any other American opera house. He did appear in New York in concerts at Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden in 1963 and 1964.
All the selections below are sung in German (with one exception) regardless of what their original language was. Rosvaenge’s unwillingness to relearn his roles in Italian or French limited his engagements in the later part of his career.
One of Rosvaenge’s most celebrated roles was Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio. His monologue (recorded in 1938) Gott, welch Dunkel hier which opens the second act is one of the hardest tenor arias in the entire operatic repertoire because of its punishing tessitura. Rosvaenge’s huge voice and rare ability at shading the vocal line makes his interpretation just about as good as can be found anywhere.
As mentioned above, Verdi was at the core of Rosvaenge’s repertoire. Di quella pira (recorded in 1936) from Il Trovatore is taken a little slower than usual, but the high Cs will knock your socks off. His 1938 reading of Celeste Aida from Aida is just about perfect; the high notes are brilliant and virile and the ending taken softly as Verdi wished. About the only criticism is that the last note is marked morendo (dying) indicating that Verdi wished the soft high note to fade away. This is an almost impossible demand. I’ve never heard the climatic B flat sung simultaneously pp and morendo.
Verdi’s Otello would seem perfectly suited for Rosvaenge’s spinto, verging on dramatic, tenor. But he never sang it on stage. The first act Love duet was recorded around 1942. Maria Reining sang Desdemona. Rosvaenge is joined by baritone Gerhard Hüsch in this recording of In Heiligster Stunde (Solenne in quest’ora) from Verdi’s La Forza Del Destino.
The tenor also sang the core Puccini roles. Che gelida manina from La Boheme along with Recondita armonia and E lucevvan le stelle are the standard spinto renditions of arias that are better sung by lyric tenors. They’re fine, but lack the magic that Giuseppe Di Stefano brought to them. Ch’ella mi creda from La Fanciulla Del West is better suited to Rosvaenge’s voice. This recording was made during a recital at Vienna’s Staatsoper in 1959 when the tenor was 62 years old. Nessun dorma is the only piece not sung in German. It was recorded in 1942 during the tenor’s vocal prime. Calaf in Turandot was a role ideally suited for Rosvaenge’s voice.
Here are two operetta selections. Volga song is from Franz Lehar’s 1927 Der Zarewitsch. Written for Richard Tauber, Rosvaenge has the operetta style pat and delivers a wonderfully idiomatic performance. Finally, here’s a fine performance of Das Leben des Schrenk from Künneke’s Die große Sünderin to add to the two I posted yesterday.
What should we make of Rosvaenge? Clearly a great tenor. He wasn’t a German who went along with the political flow in Nazi Germany because he was a Dane. The other great Danish tenor, Lauritz Melchior, stayed in the US during the war becoming a US citizen in 1947. It was easy for him to do this because he was a pillar of the Met where sang over 500 performances. Rosvaenge’s career was based in Germany where he had no trouble adjusting to the Nazi regime as did many other great artists. What we’re left with is a great performer who had a lot of unsavory friends.