The festival's archives, though, help tell the tale. The fateful 1947 Arabella (with della Casa as Zdenka, under Böhm, on which occasion Strauss made the famous comment on her prospects in the title role), the 1954 Ariadne auf Naxos (again under Böhm), the 1957 Elektra (with della Casa as Chrysothemis, under Mitropoulos), and not least the audio record of that 1960 Rosenkavalier (under Karajan -- the actual Festspielhaus-opening performance of July 26 has been preserved) join the studio Four Last Songs, Capriccio finale, and Ariadne excerpts and the Munich telecast of Arabella (with della Casa as Arabella, under Keilberth), and a number of less easily obtainable live recordings to show the full scope of della Casa's Straussian glory.
Her silvery voice -- ever both warm and cool in its shimmering vibrato -- and outstanding breath control were matched to a precise and natural musicality and an unaffected, ever-composed manner in phrase and person. But it was her seemingly effortless responsiveness to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's subtle and variegated moods that made her great, almost unsurpassably so in all the roles above. One hears it, I think, in most remarkable form in the second half of Act I (from the Marschallin's monologue through the end) in that 1960 Rosenkavalier, but that's quite long and difficult to post. So, then...
She was born 90 years ago today (February 2, 1919) in Burgdorf (Switzerland), where she appeared in her father's (non-musical) stagings and in Swiss films before making her operatic debut. She still lives in Switzerland, in a castle by Lake Constance. On this birthday occasion, German TV offered a documentary on her life and career. This is the first part of the film (available, thanks to a conscientious YouTube uploader, in its entirety online):
(The remaining parts are here: 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.)
Although it is in unsubtitled German, the film is worth seeing for anyone with an interest in della Casa: the footage old and new, from her movies, operas, and interviews, would be interesting even without the words. Listening along, however, there's more of interest... One learns, for example, that there was something of Arabella in her, in the unusual story of her marriage to her second husband.
Of course, della Casa didn't just sing Strauss: she was outstanding in Mozart -- a pillar of those postwar Vienna ensemble casts of legend (hear, for example, her Countess in Erich Kleiber's Decca recording of Figaro) -- and sang a fair number of roles we don't now associate with her. In fact this, despite the unfortunately low-volume upload, is pretty amazing:
Still -- and even though its success is due in no small part to Anneliese Rothenberger (who, in the documentary, has a nice story of singing with della Casa in these two parts) -- I can't help but end with this video clip:
Happy 90th birthday to this great singer.
UPDATE (12/09): Here is that 1960 Rosenkavalier excerpt mentioned above.
UPDATE (9/12): And now it's in embedded form