Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the renowned German-born soprano and one of the most intelligent and dazzling artists of her time, died today at her home in western Austria. She was 90.
Her death was reported by Austrian state television, The Associated Press said.
To her many admirers, Miss Schwarzkopf was a peerless interpreter of Strauss’s Marschallin, Mozart’s Donna Elvira, and other operatic roles. But her luster was tainted in her later years by revelations that she had lied about the extent of her association with the Nazis during World War II.
For a singer of such unquestionable stature, Miss Schwarzkopf’s work was controversial. In her prime, she possessed a radiant lyric soprano voice, impressive technical agility and exceptional understanding of style. From the 1950’s until the 1970’s, she was for many listeners the high priestess of the lieder recital, a sublime artist who brought textual nuance, interpretive subtlety and elegant musicianship to her work.
But others found her interpretations calculated, mannered and arch (the “Prussian perfectionist,” one critic called her), and complained that in trying to sing with textual vitality, Miss Schwarzkopf resorted to crooning and half-spoken dramatic effects.
Connoisseurs and critics could be surprisingly divided about her basic vocal gifts. Will Crutchfield, reviewing some live recordings of Miss Schwarzkopf in recital, wrote in The New York Times in 1990: “It was always clear that she had a superior voice (a smooth, glamorous lyric soprano) and superior technical command.” Yet Peter G. Davis, writing in The Times in 1981, stated that her extraordinary career was “a triumph of intelligence and willpower over what was basically an unremarkable voice.”
The consensus, however, is that in roles like the Marschallin and other Strauss heroines (the title role of “Ariadne auf Naxos,” the countess in “Capriccio”), Mozart’s Fiordiligi and Countess Almaviva, and Wagner’s Eva and Elsa, she could sing incomparably, with shimmering tone and richness, and charismatic presence.
She was an uncommonly beautiful woman, with light hair and deep-set gray eyes, despite a visible gap between her two front teeth that she never bothered to correct. For a time in her younger years she pursued a career as a film actress and might have succeeded had she continued.
A hard-working, self-challenging singer, she performed 74 roles in 53 operas, including Anne Trulove in the world premiere of Stravinsky “Rake’s Progress” in 1951. Her lieder repertory included hundreds of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mozart and Strauss, and she was a pioneering champion of the songs of Hugo Wolf, which she sang with insight and affecting beauty.
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