The joys of hearing Leonie Rysanek - in any role

There are a few artists about whom I have always found it difficult to write objectively and Leonie Rysanek probably tops that list. Few artists in my experience have managed to be as exciting and compelling in such a variety of roles. Though this extraordinary Viennese soprano's career began in 1949, it shows no tangible signs of abating. She is a full-fledged, old-fashioned (in the very best sense of the word) opera diva, whose every appearance is awaited with excitement, and whose performances are greeted with ovations of unprecedented volume and duration.

Her most recent visit to these shores found her singing at the Metropolitan Opera and in Carnegie Hall with the Opera Orchestra of New York. At the former, she sang the final Sieglindes (in Wagner's ``Die Walk"ure'') of her Met career - a role she has effectively made her own since she first sang it at the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. At Carnegie, she offered her latest, and possibly greatest, role - that of Kostelnicka in Janacek's ``Jenufa.''

Miss Rysanek, who is now 61, made the Met her American artistic home after her debut there in 1959 as Lady Macbeth in the company's first-ever performance of Verdi's ``Macbeth.'' Three other Met-premi`ere roles, numerous new productions, and a stunning 25th-anniversary gala concert in '84 must be listed among her career landmarks here.

The voice itself has always been hard to describe. It has the amplitude and generosity of tone needed both to soar over a full Wagner or Strauss orchestra. The top notes have a blazing thrust, and an opalescent beauty and shimmer that, once heard, are never forgotten. The middle of the voice was considered problematic in her earlier years, but today it is steady and weighty, and she uses the bottom part of the instrument with force.

What was most remarkable at the last of her two Sieglindes was just how fresh and free she sounded. Her commitment to any and all roles is legendary, and it goes without saying that this Sieglinde was delivered with all the accustomed intense abandon, so that she was able to retire the role here in peak form - from high notes to low, from loud notes to soft - all projected with the fervor and communicative potency of a true legendary performer. The final ovations lasted 30 minutes.

Around her was a cast that included two uneven holdovers from last season and two newcomers. In the latter category, veteran bass-baritone Theo Adam may no longer command the ideal steadiness of voice for the role of Wotan, but his superb declamation, and his imposing rich histrionic presence, made him the best Wotan this production has seen to date. Also, Waltraud Meier proved to be an impassioned noble Fricka.

In saner times, the Met would have insisted Rysanek offer her Kostelnicka on its stage. But the house says it cannot sell ``Jenufa,'' because the last time it presented the opera (with an utterly substandard, no-star cast) nobody came. And yet the Carnegie Hall ``Jenufa'' was perhaps the hottest ticket in the classical music scene this season. A packed hall resonated with the excitement of an ``event.''

And no wonder. Concertgoers seemed to be well aware of Miss Rysanek's electrifying performances as Kostelnicka in San Francisco two seasons back. And the singer of the title role on that occasion and this, Gabriela Benackova, has fast become a New York favorite, even though the Met has not found suitable roles for her to sing there. Also, Wieslaw Ochman was on hand to repeat his San Francisco triumph as Laca.

Neither singer disappointed. Miss Benackova possesses a ravishingly round, sumptuous soprano, which she seems to produce without effort. The candor and simplicity of her Jenufa were at all times touching, and her scenes with Rysanek were vocal and dramatic feasts.

Yet this was clearly Rysanek's show. With no costume, no props, no stage lighting, just five square feet of imaginary stage, she became the imperious, harrowing Kostelnicka, who murders the illegitimate daughter of her stepdaughter Jenufa to save her own reputation. We see each and every mood as it crosses her face, we are shown the tortuous logic she uses to justify her horrid crime, and we finally watch this terrifying figure crumble under the weight of her guilt. The voice was again rich, fresh, free-ringing at the top, and full of overtones in all registers. It was a stupendous performance, and the ovations at the end of both the second and third acts were legendary.

It was also the finest hour for Opera Orchestra director Eve Queler. She held the tricky Janacek score together with skill and found lyricism where others find angularity and harshness. But even more important, she allowed Miss Rysanek the chance to bring this role to New York, and with such an outstanding Jenufa at her side.

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