Born: February 2, 1919; Died: December 10, 2012.
Lisa Della Casa, who has died aged 93, shot to fame in 1951 when she appeared as the Countess Almaviva in Glyndebourne's glamorous new production of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, directed by Carl Ebert. Though still young enough to be deemed a novice – this was her British debut – she rose gloriously to the role, but expectations that she would repeat it at the Edinburgh Festival later that summer were dashed when an inferior Glyndebourne Don Giovanni, with a different roster of female voices, was brought instead to the King's Theatre by the Festival's director Rudolf Bing.
Yet Scotland did not have to wait long to see this exquisite young Swiss soprano because in 1953 she was here to sing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier with the Hamburg State Opera on its first post-war visit to Britain. Bing by then had moved to the New York Metropolitan, where he was quick to cast her as Mozart's Countess, but those who heard her in the Strauss opera, and who are still alive to tell the tale, recall the special charm and the sustained silvery sweetness of her voice, which in later years grew with ease to the greater demands of Octavian and the Marschallin in the same work. No other singer in operatic history has so successfully tackled all three roles.
But though her Sophie was one of the Edinburgh Festival's early triumphs, she never returned to sing these bigger Strauss parts, and Rudolf Bing's Edinburgh successors similarly failed to capture her poised portrayals of Mozart's women. A list of the things she didn't sing, but could have sung, in Edinburgh now makes tantalising reading. Strauss's Four Last Songs, which she seemed born to perform, were championed by other exponents, and Arabella, that radiant operatic successor to Der Rosenkavalier, was a work in which she starred twice at Covent Garden, though never sang in Edinburgh
But at least we had– and still have – her recordings of that work, which was her opera of operas, even if we can only visualise her delicious presence in the leading role, though this critic had the good luck to see her on both occasions she sang it in London. Her ability to look like the character she was portraying, as well as voice the words to perfection, was an accomplishment rarer in those days than it is now.
Although to some extent it limited her repertoire, it meant that almost all her roles were scrupulously well chosen and rehearsed. When she worked, as she often did, with a conductor of the calibre of Karl Boehm, the results were memorable. Not even the three female parts in Gottfried von Einem's operatic version of Kafka's The Trial proved beyond her when she had Boehm as conductor at the work's Salzburg Festival premiere.
Even Wagner lay within her range, though naturally it was Elsa in Lohengrin she favoured rather than Brunnhilde in The Ring, and she had no fondness for Bayreuth as a place to sing. After appearing as Eva in Die Meistersinger there, she complained that she found the atmosphere too heavy and that enough was enough. She never went back.
How she sprang to stardom was an object lesson in quiet, calm self-assurance. Born near Berne, the Swiss capital, she spent her apprentice years with the Zurich Opera before being snapped up by Salzburg for Strauss's Capriccio, Mozart's Magic Flute and other works. Soon she was installed at the Vienna State Opera, where she spent much of the rest of her career, with Mozart and Strauss as her composers of choice and with plenty of recitals sung with all her artistry between her operatic appearances.
By 1974 – though luckily not before her Salzburg portrayal of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni had been filmed with Wilhelm Furtwangler as conductor – her career had reached its close and she was happy to retire quietly to a castle on Lake Constance with her writer husband Dragan Debeljevik, whom she had married in 1949 and with whom she had a daughter, Vesna.
The Yugoslav author's biography of Lisa Della Casa, entitled In the Shadow of her Tresses (a reference to Hugo Wolf's song from the Spanish Songbook, which she included in many of her recitals), was published in 1975. She is survived by her husband and daughter.
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