DVD and Album Reviews: ‘Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own’ and Re-Releases

July 16, 2018 Last Updated: July 18, 2018

This year marks the 100th birthday of Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005), who died at age 87. To honor the legendary soprano considered the finest Wagnerian of her generation, directors  Thomas Voigt and Wolfgang Wunderlich have created an excellent video biography on a Unitel Editions DVD, titled “Birgit Nilsson: A League of Her Own.” There have also been re-releases of some of her recordings.

The DVD contains testimonials and remembrances from singers and conductors who worked with Nilsson, including Christa Ludwig, Marilyn Horne, Plácido Domingo, and James Levine.

Later singers, such as Jonas Kaufmann, also describe her artistry, as does Nina Stemme, who studied with Nilsson and is this year’s winner of the Birgit Nilsson Prize; the first winner was Domingo. An example of Nilsson’s humor is that she said of Domingo, who has sung more roles than any other tenor in history, “Plácido speaks six languages but doesn’t know how to say no in any of them.”

Everyone speaks about the size of her voice and its ability to soar over every orchestra. Plus, she was faithful to the text and sang with musicality. She tells how she once flubbed some notes in an early performance and was so embarrassed that she resolved not to let it happen again.

As commentators from fans to colleagues recall, she was down-to-earth and did not put on airs. She is shown being surprised and obviously amused when she is recording the “Ride of the Valkyries” and a horse is brought onto the sound stage.

She is shown having a fond reunion with tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she engaged in a rivalry. They each tried to hold a high C in “Turandot” longer than the other. When Corelli complained to Rudolph Bing, the manager of The Metropolitan Opera, the tenor was given permission to bite her. Corelli allegedly nipped her on the neck. Afterward, Nilsson sent a telegram to Bing, saying that she had to cancel a performance because she had tenor rabies.

She had a rocky relationship with conductor Herbert von Karajan, who spent more time adjusting the lighting than rehearsing with the musicians. While modest in her demeanor, Nilsson knew her worth and demanded top dollar. When von Karajan said, “Frau Nilsson, do that again, but this time with heart. The heart is where your wallet is,” she snapped back, “Then we have at least one thing in common.”

The documentary covers Nilsson’s whole life, starting with her childhood on a modest farm in Sweden. As a young child, her father gave her an organ. In a television program decades later, the producers brought out the same instrument, and she sat down and accompanied herself in a charming song.

Many excerpts of her singing are included that show her sovereign performance of key roles, such as Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde. She was also supreme in the title role of Puccini’s “Turandot.” In a scene from Verdi’s “Macbeth,” she is riveting.

“A League of Her Own” is a fitting and entertaining testimonial of a one-of-a-kind artist.

Recordings Available Again

Nilsson’s most famous recording, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” recorded in 1966 and conducted by Karl Böhm, has been released by Deutsche Grammophon on a newly remastered CD set. Here, all the soprano’s talents come into play, and her voice is captured in all its glory. The composer’s grandson Wieland Wagner supervised the production, and the whole cast is top-flight.

Wolfgang Windgassen was the leading Tristan of that era, and the superb Christa Ludwig and Martti Talvela play Brangäne and King Marke, respectively. If you have just one recording of the opera or of Nilsson’s art, this is the top choice.

Also released is a disc of highlights from Verdi’s “Aida” (on Decca). Again, Nilsson sounds fine and gives a moving performance. However, in this instance, the rest of the cast, especially tenor Luigi Ottolini, is not up to her standard, except for baritone Louis Quilico. The disc also includes Nilsson’s 1973 Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder.

A preferable recording of “Aida” is the one she did for EMI with Franco Corelli and Grace Bumbry. My favorite of her Italian recordings is her “Turandot” with fellow Swede Jussi Bjorling.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.