Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was one of the vocal marvels of the 20th century. No recording, and she made many, can come close to the impact she made in performance. A voice of limitless power and reserve, she could be heard over the loudest orchestral din. Yet she could modulate her tone to whatever the score demanded. Her debut as Isolde at the Met in 1959 made the front page of the New York Times. While best known for her Wagner roles, her most frequent part was as Turandot in Puccini’s opera. She said that Isolde made her famous, but that Turandot made her rich. When she died, her demise was announced by the king of her native Sweden. Her portrait will be the new 500 krone note. She was, quite simply, a miracle. She was also famous for her brilliant humor. She the photo below of her response to Herbert von Karajan’s dingy lighting. He directed as well as conducted the Met’s 1967 production of Die Walküre.
Amazon has a 10 CD collection subtitle The Voice of a Century. It sells for about $17. The recordings were all made between 1949 and 1960. Some were made in performance while about half come from studio recordings. There are no liner notes. Only basic information is on the backs of the cardboard sleeves. Five of the discs are devoted to Wagner, two to Verdi, and one to Puccini. Nilsson’s Puccini roles were Minnie in Fanciulla and Turandot.
While most of this material is readily available, it’s nice to have it all together at a bargain price. Es Gibt Ein Reich from Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos was recorded (in Swedish) in 1949 during a performance at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm. This was well before she had achieved an international reputation. But as you can hear, she was already at peak form. Hojotoho! Hojotoho! from Die Walküre is taken from a Covent garden performance in 1957. Hans Hotter is Wotan. Or Sai Chi L’onore from Don Giovanni is usually a challenge for most sopranos. Nilsson send the aria into orbit – astounding. Finally, Nilsson’s money aria – In Questa Reggia from the 1959 studio recording with Jussi Björling. The opera, of course, is Turandot.
How does her volume compare with Tebaldi who I have heard live?
When it came to volume, nobody was her equal. But she was also an artist. A phenomenon.
I heard the comment that when the Met stage door was open they could hear her in Jersey!