The critics loved to mock her – but in my eyes, Hildegard Behrens was no less than sublime

Hildegard Behrens is dead – only two years older than I am, and felled by an aneurysm in Japan, far from her Vienna woods. She is the reason I gave up going to performances of the Ring. I don’t want anyone else’s Brünnhilde to blur my memory of her doing it with the Vienna State Opera in April 1996. In her obituaries over the last fortnight, there has been a great deal said about her intelligence, her insight, her occasionally dodgy vocal quality – all of it true, but somehow missing the mark. She was sublime. What that means is that she was occasionally ridiculous. Her Tosca was ridiculous – on video, that is. You can’t – sorry, couldn’t – get what Behrens was doing if you weren’t seeing her live in an opera house, and sometimes not even then. It was partly a matter of the scale of her performance, which you’re not going to get if you’re poking a video camera down her throat. You’re not going to get it at the Met either, because the Met is just too vast. I don’t know what premonition sent me to Vienna that spring, but I am so glad I scraped together enough money for a good hotel and the occasional sachertorte mit schlag. Hildegard Behrens changed forever my understanding of the art of singing opera.

I had always been a stickler for perfect intonation, floating tone slicing its way through the orchestral texture by force of sheer purity, even in the most dramatic of operas. I thought Joan Sutherland had it pretty right, as she shaped ineffable ornaments like a craftsman cutting diamonds, each grace note perfectly in tune. You mightn’t have been able to distinguish Sutherland’s words in any language, but you never misunderstood the emotional colour of what she sang. She could add plangency that was heartbreaking, without straying from the middle of the note. Behrens was the opposite, a kamikaze pilot of a singer. Hers was an unadorned scream of a voice. As it rocketed through the winding and unwinding, leaping and bounding orchestral motifs, it was electrifying. Sometimes it burned up on re-entry; sometimes it crashed in a succession of hoarse gasps. At times like those, Behrens was ridiculed and even humiliated in the music press. By the time I went to see her perform in Vienna, she was losing her nerve. What was worse, because of the way she used her voice, it had begun to shred.

I found myself in the middle of the third row for all four operas. Donald Runnicles was conducting The Ring at the Vienna State Opera for the first time. When Behrens came on stage as Brünnhilde, I was momentarily aware that she was small and physically unimpressive, and rather too vain about the honey-blonde curls – her own – that bounced over her shoulders. What I wasn’t prepared for was the white-hot intensity of her concentration. She struck a pose at the beginning of each musical phrase, and then, keeping her body utterly motionless, launched her voice. There was no fiddling with her spear. No butch posturing. She was so far inside the music that if her costume had fallen off, she would not have reacted.

The opera house surrounded her singing as a frame surrounds a picture; as each motif was completed, it hung in the mind as if it had been drawn in light. Then she changed her position, and the process began again. As phrase built on phrase, I felt as if I had never heard that familiar music before. I learned then that pretty is enjoyable – but sublime exists on another level, beyond comfort, somewhere at the edge of the world.

Behrens had sung Brünnhilde to James Morris’s Wotan many times before, notably when she made her debut in the role at the Met in 1990. Runnicles’s unsentimental insistence on strict tempo suited her much better than had James Levine’s traditional schmalz and schwärmerei. On Runnicles’s firm orchestral armature, she erected a performance so shattering that, in act three of Die Walküre, even Morris was moved to a point where his voice turned gruff. From my seat in the third row, I could see him struggling with the lump in his throat.

After the performance, the word went out that Behrens was exhausted and terrified of singing in Götterdämmerung. The friends I was with went back to London, but I hung on, hoping against hope that she would put herself through it again. After a Siegfried in which Brünnhilde was sung by a soprano who is now singing all over the place, but whose fussy performance served to demonstrate how unutterably superior Behrens was, I ran up and down the opera house asking the attendants if they thought Behrens would sing in Götterdämmerung. They said: «This is her opera house. We will take care of her. She will sing.» And she did.

There is no chance that I will see a Brünnhilde so utterly destroyed, so uncompromisingly tragic ever again. I would have thought it impossible to show such a depth of devastation and helplessness in music, but Behrens did it. How she did it – whether by her utter absorption, her rapt earnestness or her lack of self-consciousness – I shall never know. Never to have seen her do it would be never to have understood how a preposterous musical drama, with absurdly affected DIY verse for a libretto, could be transmuted into the highest of high art.



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