Monday, February 02, 2009

Lisa della Casa at 90

The standard tag line for soprano Lisa della Casa -- that she was the supreme Arabella -- has been, too often, a polite form of dismissal, a concession to boost the received opinion that Walter Legge's record-company-backed wife was best in more significant Strauss parts, particularly the Marschallin. In fact Schwarzkopf used her clout to seize that part in Paul Czinner's film of the 1960 Salzburg Rosenkavalier, which della Casa had premiered for the opening of the new house in July. della Casa refused to sing at Salzburg long afterwards.

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...

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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.

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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


  1. How right you are about this great singer. To my taste she was supreme in Strauss because she had a unique combination of qualities: musicianship allied to an exquisitely beautiful voice; ability to act; grace, good taste, strong intelligence, and beauty. I do wish there were more DVDs of her performances available--I have her Elvira, but that is all except for the Youtube snippets.

    Frank Brownlow

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Lisa Della Casa has been my favorite soprano for 45 years. I love many others, but I keep going back to her. Frank Brownlow got it exactly right—though I think she was also supreme in Mozart. To me, she was not just THE Arabella, she was THE Countess. I would only add a comment about the purity of her delivery. No matter the part, she let the music shine through. Just listen—among many, many examples—to her Letter Duet from The Marriage of Figaro, especially with Roberta Peters (now sadly out of print). Happy birthday indeed.

    John Nielsen

  3. Having now seen the documentary, and listened again to my collection of her recordings, I'm struck by her easy naturalness. There's a sheer personal integrity there that illuminates the singing--such a rare quality allied to such gifts. And John Nielsen is right about the Mozart, too. The big surprise of the documentary is that once she was home, the last thing she wanted to do was sing.

  4. I so agree with Mr Brownlow and your blog comments about the great Lisa Della Casa.

    I have recently created on Facebook, THE LISA DELLA CASA FAN CLUB (not to be confused with FB's rip off of same under the name Lisa Della Casa Music Band, which they want to be the 'official site' on this sublime artist of whose very existence i doubt they had any inkling until i created the LISA DELLA CASA FAN CLUB).

    I hope you don't mind that i placed 2 links from your blog here onto the FAN CLUB site on FB, nor that i quoted the whole bit about Mr and Mrs Schwarzkopf's (or should it be Legge's) ill-treatment of LDC concerning Salzburg's 1960 DER ROSENKAVALIER, with which opinions you expressed i totally agree. I said as much in the English Wikipedia article, by the way.

    Thank you so much for this blog. I hope the LDC fans on FB will come here and see the wonderful, elegant blog you have created here.

    I not only saw the film, i put it on dvd and i watch it very often (for the first month almost every day for the sheer pleasure it gives me young, to see that she is still beautiful at almost 90, and to be sure i was understanding the German and, in particular, the Swiss-German spoken by LDC and her family.

    I invite you to visit THE LISA DELLA CASA FAN CLUB site, and to join if you see fit (I would be honoured), and to feel free to add anything at all.

    To John Nielsen: Many remastered recordings have come to the fore since LDC's 90th birthday. I am getting them mostly on and, but on other sites as well. I was surprised and wowed by her performance of Donna Anna on one of the older recordings (in German, i believe) which i found on It's just as magnificent as you might expect, as her Donna Elvira, much more famous.

    WunderlichMedien, the makers of the wonderful documentary film LISA DELLA CASA: LIEBE EINER DIVA has told us that they haven't yet found a sponsor to permit their commercialising the film.

    I viewed (and copied) it on April 5, 2010 on 3SAT in Germany and will certainly announce any re-broadcasts on the LDC FAN CLUB pages. You are all most welcome!

    Thank you (all) for keeping this sublime artist and her work alive by your devotion and your input.

  5. The big 'find' here for me is Della Casa as Mimi. The singing and the characterisation are both delectable.

    Julian Hellaby

  6. Dear all,

    it is a great pleasure to see this many posts concerning the great artist Lisa Della Casa. I am writing you on behalf of the "Lisa Della Casa Gesellschaft" that will soon be called the "Internationaler Lisa Della Casa Freundeskreis".

    Through our personal relationship to the artist we have created the movie "Liebe einer Diva" togther with WunderlichMedien, produced a book and an exhibition.

    This exhibition will now move to the Vienna State Opera and we hope to show the film for the first time in Austria in combination with the exhibition. Later this month we will have negotiations to organize an "Hommage to Lisa Della Casa" during the same time period (December 2013-January 2014)

    I have read with great interest the Facebook site of Mrs Berry and would love to get in contact with you personally to discuss a further involvement. Please let me know how we can get in contact with you!

    Yours sincerely,

    Tobias Faltermeier
    Vice-President and Project Manager


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.