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Birgit Nilsson

Her name is inseparable from that of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss, of both of whom she was one of the most eminent interpreters of the last century. Thanks to her phenomenal vocal powers, the career of this great Swedish dramatic soprano was exceptionally long: she sang Isolde on stage, when she was over 60 years old. A country girl, with a forceful personality and a savage sense of humour, she once declared that she started singing before she learned to talk, by imitating her mother who had a nice voice. Birgit Nilsson wasn't an actress, but her voice has such an exceptional power that it naturally has an imposing stage presence. The vigour of her temperament, the clarity of her attacks, the stupefying ease with which she tackles the high notes, a vocal strength that is also capable of the most infinitesimal pianissimo nuances,  have all contributed to her unequalled glory. Between 1957 and 1970 she reigned in Bayreuth, singing Isolde (her favourite), Sieglinde, Elsa, and to be sure, Brünnhilde in productions of Wieland Wagner which completely modernised Wagnerian stage design, by giving it the new breath of life that it needed.

Thanks to her vocal talents, Birgit Nilsson was also the peerless performer of great dramatic roles like Elektra, Salomé and Die Frau Ohne Schatten (Strauss), Tosca (Puccini) and Aïda (Verdi). She was also a splendid Leonore, the staggering lead in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. But the almost-superhuman strength and magnetism of her voice fit especially well to the character of Turandot from Puccini's opera of the same name.

The intrinsic character of this voice should not, however, obscure the way that Nilsson personified her characters, thanks to her great intelligence and her innate sense for giving a very close rendition of the roles she played, matched with a perfect understanding of the composers that she sang with great nobility and style.

Music lovers the world over are spoiled for choice today, as yesterday, thanks to the famous discographic recordings from DECCA as well as the very numerous live takes which will forever preserve this phonogenic voice of voices, which had the good fortune of being recorded in all of its major roles, with the greatest supervisors and under high-quality technical conditions. Suffice it to cite the famous Ring (Wagner) recorded by Georg Solti between 1958 and 1965, remastered in recent years with a sound that hasn't aged one iota. But we will also find another complete Wagnerian Tetralogy recorded at Bayreuth and other indispensable studio recordings like Elektra and Salomé under the direction of the self-same Solti, without forgetting her unforgettable Isolde under the incandescent baton of  Karl Böhm at Bayreuth, or, in the studio, under Solti's direction.

In 1984, at the age of 66, Birgit Nilsson gave up singing to concentrate on teaching. She created a foundation bearing her name, to support singers, conductors, and to encourage lyrical productions.

© FH / Qobuz


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