Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) was one of opera’s miracles. If you heard her during her prime, which roughly coincided with the first decade or so of her 22 years at the Met, you heard a unique voice. At its fullest, it was a Jovian thunderbolt. No technical challenge was too much for her. Vocally, she could do anything required by the score and at the highest artistic level. The only soprano voice I ever heard in performance who was in her class was Zinka Milanov, who was an artist of a totally different type. I first heard her in a recital Columbus, Ohio during the winter of 1962-63. She appeared with a pianist in a big stone barn of a hall that I think was called War Memorial Auditorium. I can’t find a trace of it on the internet. After all these years I may have the name wrong. Nilsson’s voice was so big that it might have undone the building’s structural integrity causing it to vanish at the conclusion of her performance. I had never heard anything like the sound she produced. A fictional account of that recital moved to Chicago is in my novel Doing Nothing. You can get to it by going here: Birgit Nilsson Recital (From Doing Nothing) | Neil Kurtzman (medicine-opera.com)
She was, of course, best known as a Wagnerian soprano, with a lot of Strauss as well. She was equally renowned for her performance of one Italian opera – the title role of Puccini’s Turandot. This was her favorite role as it made her the most money per time onstage of any in her repertoire. Of her 222 appearances at the Met, 52 were as Puccini’s mankiller.
But Nilsson sang many other Italian operas. She sang Aida with the Met 22 times. She also appeared in Un Ballo in Maschera and Tosca with the company. I thought it would be interesting to assemble a few excerpts of her singing Italian operas other than Puccini’s last one.
First, ‘Ma dall’arido stelo divulsa’ is from Act 2 of Ballo. It is one of Verdi’s greatest soprano arias. This recording made in 1956 and is sung in German. It is peak Nilsson. This rendition may not be the most Italianate of interpretations, but it would be worth a special trip to hear live. Morrò, ma prima in grazia is from the opera’s third act. The singing here requires sensitivity and pathos from the artist portraying a mother who wants to see her son one last time before her death. The aria is again sung in German.
O patria mia from the Nile Scene of Aida is from a Stockholm performance and thus is sung in Swedish. There’s a lot of voice here, but it’s still within the Verdi compass. There’s a little trouble finding the right pitch on the high note near the end, but she does get there.
Abigaile in Verdi’s Nabucco is a role perfectly suited to Nilsson’s voice. She has all the steel the part needs and can navigate the few softer notes. ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ is in the second act. Nilsson’s recording includes the introduction and cabaletta.
Another formidable Verdi soprano role is Lady Macbeth.‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ is from the first act. Lady, as Verdi called her, is determined to get her husband to Scotland’s throne regardless of anything that may impede her. ‘La luce langue’ is from Macbeth’s second act. Lady is still in a murderous mien, though she will have disintegrated by the time Act 4 arrives.
Pace, pace mio Dio, from the last scene of La Forza Del Destino is firmly in the middle of Milanov territory. If Nilsson is not up to that standard, nobody is for this role. Nevertheless, she about as good as anyone else can be.
Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo is a mezzo role. The part’s most famous number ‘O don fatale’ can be sung by a soprano with a secure middle and lower register.
Finally, two Puccini excerpts not from Turandot. As mentioned above Nilsson sang Tosca at the Met. Vissi d’Arte gets a sumptuous reading that displays Nilsson’s extraordinary dynamic range and equally extraordinary breath control. Nilsson sang Minnie in La Fanciulla Del West, but never in New York. The part needs a spinto soprano verging on the dramatic. It’s a warmup for Turandot. Here’s the wonderful Poker scene that ends the second act. The baritone is Andrea Mongelli; his “Buona notte” as he departs after having been cheated has just the right amount of angry snarl. Baritones too often deliver this line as if they were leaving a croquet match.
A long time will pass before we see and hear Nilsson’s equal. We may have to invoke the 2nd law of thermodynamics to get the time scale right.