Friday, August 21, 2009

Danke Hildegard Behrens

When each of us estimate the value, the worth of another human being, we do so by several criteria. There is the value this person has to the world at large, then to the more specific "world" they inhabited, and then - more personally - the value they had to us as an individual. Though I never met this woman in person, Hildegard Behrens remains one of the most important people in my life. She has been since I was a teenager and first opened that EMI recording of her as Salome back at the start of her career and of my obsession. To say that her death has had some effect on me would be an understatement. But it is her larger-than-life personality, her artistry, the integration of everything she was and had which she shaped into one of the greatest, most challenging, thrilling artists to have graced the stage in the past century - it is these things I choose to concentrate on, to celebrate and to remember.

I remember that very first time hearing her Salome, placing those black vinyl discs onto my father's turntable and dropping the needle. The next two hours (including picking up, turning over and changing records) our living room had become the ancient Judean court of Herod and his household. The fact our house was surrounded by cedars and cypress trees giving off their scent on that warm afternoon, only added to the sense of occasion, the mystery and the allure. By its end, my entire body was covered in gooseflesh, my heart was pumping wildly and I could almost feel the blood coursing through my veins. Who was this woman?

Over the ensuing decades, I became transported by "this woman's" performances and recordings every chance I could. When she brought her Brunhilde to the Met - I remember watching the telecasts, every night, eschewing invitations from friends to watch so I could make sure my VCR was loaded with tapes enough to not miss a beat. Few evenings in life had thrilled me, had moved me, or enthralled as did those four nights in front of my television set in my little DC basement apartment.

Elektra, Elettra, Marie, Leonore, Senta, Isolde, Tosca . . . Tosca? Yes, Tosca. Though audiences seemed divided (and wildly so) on Behrens as this most Italianate of characters, Behrens remains one of my favorite Toscas. Every note, every gesture, those amazing, beautiful, liquid eyes (which would, in a few more years make the world weep as Wotan bid farewell to his daughter), the violence - wild yet fully feminine, and the most spectacular leap any diva made from a parapet, thrilled me as Tosca should. I recall the first time seeing that leap of hers - I'd never seen a Tosca jump UP from the parapet, and Behrens' Roman diva - for a moment, made me think she was willing her ascension to heaven for that meeting with Scarpia and God . . . and then the violent plunge down to earth. Brava, diva!

Not everything went swimmingly for this great lady, and I recall how, when the Met presented its new Elektra, Behrens was found wanting. A "disaster," claimed many - saying she left the house in shame, never to return. Ha! Behrens was to make one of the greatest of triumphant returns any singer had to that august company - and do so in the same role and production. I recall listening to the Saturday broadcast, and the roar that went up as the lights came back, nearly obliterated my speakers. When it was telecast, I realized I was probably watching THE video I would review and obsess over the most for the rest of my life - or at least a good part of it. Few performances of anything I've witnessed have been as emotionally raw, as heartstoppingly beautiful and terrifying - and as cathartic as "Hildegard Becomes Elektra."

A year or so after the actual event, a friend dropped in to watch this with me one hot summer night, and he used a phrase I've grown to love: "Paolo," he said, "she's singing like there's no tomorrow!" That phrase describes this lady to the teeth: singing like there's no tomorrow!

Recently I watched the now legendary Met Ring and could only sit in wonder and awe, just as I had in my youth. Perhaps more so. The entire thing moved me, but nothing more than Behrens' Brunhilde. I waivered back and forth between which I loved more, her Walkure or Gotterdammerung, and realized: I don't have to choose. Having said that, however, I can think of no more tender, beautiful moment in all of opera than Wotan's Farewell, and here, Behrens, not singing a note - turned this scene into a visual duet as James Morris - remarkable as Wotan - bade farewell to his beloved child. Though far from home, I watched this scene last night via the miracle of the internet - and its poignancy, its genius from composer and artists alike - shattered me in that way that only the greatest works of art can do.

There is so much more to say about this great lady, so many memories flood my mind and make my heart race, but they don't need to be said - they've been felt. They've been felt down to my marrow. She will always be with us and her legacy shall ever speak for itself.

Thank you, Hildegard, for the abundant joy you brought to my life. Your loss is so difficult to take, but your life and light they will continue to burn, to warm, provoke and thrill. "Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott"

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