With the opening of the Met’s 2014-15 season in September (negotiations between management and unions permitting), I will once again take as my point of departure Metropolitan productions and then offer a retrospective glance at historical performances of the opera in question. During the summer interval OperaPost will focus on the Met roster as it was affected by World War II. I begin with Tiana Lemnitz, a singer based in Germany, whose debut at the Met was anticipated but did not happen either before or after the conflagration. The subjects of subsequent posts will be the French dramatic soprano, Germaine Lubin, and the Italian mezzo, Ebe Stignani, both of whom would certainly have come to the Met in due course had it not been for the looming international conflict.
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Tiana Lemnitz was born in Metz (then Germany) in 1897 and died in Berlin in 1994. We find a reference to the soprano in the Metropolitan Opera Archives in a letter from Edward Ziegler, assistant to the then Met general manager Edward Johnson, of June 1936. Ziegler had heard Lemnitz at Covent Garden, in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. He wrote, “[Lemnitz as Octavian] was excellent and gave a very spirited performance. The voice is warm and sure, somewhat opaque in the lower register, but full and vibrant in the upper. I am told she makes a fine Eva [in Die Meistersinger] however, it is impossible for us to have her this year, though she has promised me to ask for leave of absence [from her home theatre] for the season 1937/8.” Lemnitz did not keep her promise. But then, by 1937, very few German leading artists would or could come to the United States. She was again invited in the 1950s and again declined, although she did sing in Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón early in the decade. What part Lemnitz’s Nazi sympathies and fervent allegiance to the Third Reich, if any, played in her eschewing of the Met, is difficult to ascertain. Lotte Lehmann recounts the episode of her “one and only fainting spell in my life.” She was at Covent Garden for Rosenkavalier in May 1938, the same opera Ziegler had seen in the same theatre two years earlier, when she was “surrounded by an absolutely new cast. They came from Berlin and were all Nazis, especially Miss Lemnitz … she of the angelic floating voice was Octavian. I remember that my voice was getting hoarse from inner tension, and instead of disregarding it, she told me: ‘If you cannot go on, I shall sing for you’—and that did it! I could not bring out one tone, and left the stage and the curtain had to fall.”
Lemnitz became well known to record collectors with the release of Sir Thomas Beecham’s late-1930s recording of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. Her Pamina stood out in a stellar cast. Soft, shimmering high notes of ineffable purity were the soprano’s trademark. But there was much more to her voice and art, most notably the ability to expand a phrase or a note on endless breath for maximum emotional effect. Pamina’s aria, “Ach, ich fühl’s,” is a test that exposes the tiniest defects in a singer’s technique; for Lemnitz it is a vehicle that demonstrates her mastery. She lingers slightly on notes that other sopranos are only too eager to release. She relishes the difficult fioriture on the word “Herzen.”
Among her records, Agathe’s “Leise, leise” from Weber’s Der Freischütz, became the standard against which all other versions of the aria are measured.
Verdi occupied a strong position in Lemnitz’s repertoire. Here she sings the Act I duet from Otello with Torsten Ralf. Listen again to her command of expressive rubato, the subtle lengthening and diminishing of the note values. Then, there is her unforgettable timbre, sometimes light, sometimes dark. Her partner is as attentive to the text as she. Few have essayed the heroic role of Otello with the solid, sweet mezzo-piano Ralf deploys at the end of the duet. Ralf, the first major European artist to make his Met debut at war’s end, sang Lohengrin in the first opening night broadcast in the company’s history.