Schwanewilms. Schwane-who?

Last week I received the Chicago Lyric Opera 09/10 season brochure. I was browsing it to see if any operas, productions, or singers caught my eye. I was pleased to discover the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms will be performing the Nozze Countess in Feb/Mar of ’10.

It reminded me that this artist has largely made Europe her playing field, with spotty gigs in Asia and the states. And, I believed this would be her American debut in a staged production. [Correction: She made her American debut in 2001, as Marie in a fully staged Wozzeck at Santa Fe Opera.] Last December she made her NY Phil debut as Chrysothemis, one of her signature roles, in concert performances of Elektra. (Lorin Maazel conducted.)

Elsa, La Scala ‘07, Photo: Marco Brescia

Elsa, La Scala ‘07, Photo: Marco Brescia

In August 2003, I first heard of and encountered the soprano myself. I had the pleasure of seeing her as Elettra in Peter Sellar’s ‘Anti-War’ production of Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Glyndebourne Festival.

Recalling the experience of the day-trip to Glyndebourne, from my post in London is so pleasurable, with all the desired connections and good fortune throughout: serendipitously catching a lift from the train station through the countryside from a Glyndebourne staff member; being 1 of 3 or so men out of hundreds NOT in a tux (I knew this fashion precedent before going, but took the risk anyways, and was amused by the looks-that-kill judgment of many dolled-up opera-goers); enjoying a shared picnic in the grassy pasture with a cute, older couple who extended a random and welcome invitation to join them; the experience of the beauty of the bucolic setting (bleating lambs included) and “campus”; and, of course taking in the high-points of the performance itself.

I remember reading in her program bio that in ’02 she had been named Singer of the Year by the prestigious German magazine, Opernwelt. These sorts of kudos made me take notice that this was a singer to watch.

Photo: Javier Del Real

Photo: Javier Del Real

Schwanewilm’s Elettra that night was full of vitriol. She did not hold back vocally, spitting acid and vinegar, in a more typically Wagnerian manner than Mozartian. It became clear why she has become a specialist of german romantic soprano rep. Her voice recalls the more dramatic side of the viennese style, most associated with Leonie Rysanek. She often errs on the sharp side of notes/phrase (again, aka Rysanek), but certainly didn’t hold back vocally that night. Her “plain clothes” costuming (I recall it appearing not unlike an Alexis Carrington power suit) dimmed her dramatic light a bit. Superficially, she looks like she could be a sister of Karita Mattila, who shares the same fach as she. For me, the metal in her timbre and way in which she used her voice like a sword, nudges her ever so into kunst diva status (“art”-diva), versus stimme diva (“voice”-diva). I look forward to her taking on the Empress in Die Frau. It seems perfectly suited to her.

Arabella @ Frankfurt '09, Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Arabella @ Frankfurt '09, Photo by Monika Rittershaus

This opera seria, Idomeneo was always my favorite Mozart opera. I suppose my tendency to seek out and root for the underdog was at play in cultivating this preference (ie: not part of the perfect, but played Mozart-da Ponte trinity). But, also the beautiful and crisp Gardiner recording drew me in when it was released in ’91, and the Levine recording has provided much pleasure too over the years.

Although an unforgettable experience overall, in hindsight I actually wish I had made it instead to the re-mounting of the now famed production of Handel’s Theodora (first mounted in ’96, and then again in ’03), with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw. The entire gesamtkunstwerk-of-sorts of that production (incl. director, cast, conception, etc.) was deemed perfect by many. And, who could have known that less than 5 years later Hunt-Lieberson would be gone. Fortunately, I at least had the pleasure of bumping into Peter Sellars (Theodora director) on the way out of the bathroom (on the eve of Idomeneo), and experienced Hunt-Lieberson’s high art elsewhere.

But, I’m thankful that this production of Idomeneo introduced me to the art of Schwanewilms. Also potent and appropriately virile in that production was the Idamante of Magdalena Kozena.

Enjoy her Act 1 Lohengrin Elsa here:

And, her Schreker Die Gezeichneten excerpt here (shades of Cyndi Lauper and Roxette?):

The “recordings” section of her website has a wealth of free samples as well.

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2 comments so far

  1. Simon Jones on

    Fascinating read, thank you. Certainly an under-exposed singer in the US.

    I believe Ms Schwanewilms has done productions of Wozzeck in Santa Fe and Fidelio in Dallas as well as making her staged role debut as Marschallin in Chicago a couple of seasons ago. I may be wrong though.

  2. jumping clapping man on

    Thanks for the informative correction Simon. I’m surprised those performances got in under my radar, especially as I’m always fixing to get to the Santa Fe Opera for any good reason.

    Her American debut was indeed as Marie in Santa Fe (2001), and her Dallas Leonore was in 2002. The Chicago Marshallin was in 2006.


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