A Belated "Leb Wohl" to Hildegard Behrens

During our vacation in Spain, the dramatic soprano Hildegard Behrens died unexpectedly from an aortic aneurysm.

Behrens wasn’t merely one of the most fearless-yet-expressive Brunnhildes — you’ll  find links to  her other roles below. But she’ll always be the “home” Brunnhilde for me.  I was in the upper reaches of the Met audience on the opening night of the Otto Schenck Goetterdammerung in 1989. In a typical “youth is wasted on the young” scenario, I had no idea at the time how fortunate I was (the cast also featured Matti Salminen at his frightening finest and Christa Ludwig in one of her last Waltrautes). I was a music major in my last year of college, but hadn’t gotten around to Wagner yet. (I was buried in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, racing to complete my senior thesis on that work somewhere near on time.) I had only listened once to the just-out-on-CD Solti Ring with some other students in preparation for the college trip that landed me in the audience that night. The friend sitting next to me (also a Wanger newbit) commented approvingly “Brunnhilde is being sung by a lady named Hildegard — that’s promising.”

This was a few years before the Met finally caved to supertitles, so that single preparatory hearing was my only guide. It was up to Hildegard Behrens to communicate the range of human experience Brunnhilde encompasses in those three heartbreaking acts. I’ve seen and heard Brunnhildes who are better, in various moments and in various ways, but the moral authority and raw vulnerability of Behrens remains unmatched for me. In Act Two I was “lost” in terms of the libretto, but riveted on her presence in the middle of the stage. It’s not just her visuals, either — it’s there on the Levine recording on DG, where the vocally friendlier studio conditions highlight her expressive phrasing and (yes, I’m saying it) beautiful, sometimes radiant voice. (Note to the Hildegard hatas: just how hoarse would YOU be at the end of a four-night Ring?)

Germaine Greer says it better:

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.

Behrens is well represented on YouTube as Tosca, Isolde, Fidelio, Elektra (and Elettra), Elisabeth (Tannhauser), the Kaiserin (from Frau), etc.

The Met has a photo gallery tribute. But let’s give the last word to James Morris’s Wotan. This clip begins as Brunnhilde is silenced forever — at least to the ears of this “unhappy immortal.”

Today’s post is by Bonnie Gibbons.