Julia Varady’s career is so varied that it is impossible to speak of one’s encounter with her artistry. One could speak of Varady, the Mozart soprano. I guess most people discovered her in Böhm’s recordings of Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito, in which her crystalline yet flexible soprano was impossible to overlook. Although her neverending struggle with Italian language wouldn’t allow her true dramatic command in these recordings, there was an underlying energy that prevents one from calling those performances bland.
Her recordings in the roles of the Countess in Nozze di Figaro and Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni for Colin Davis, Kubelik and Karajan show a stylish and almost vocally immaculate singer, but there is always something paradoxical – the voice lacks the smoothness one expects to find in a lyric soprano in this repertoire, but a strong discipline, unfailing musicianship and technical abandon ultimately convince the listener that hers is the voice for these parts.
I somehow believe that her success in Mozart prima donna roles led her to the German lyric repertoire – and her recording of the title role in Sawallisch’s Arabella somehow exposed the notion that maybe Varady’s voice did not exactly fit this choice of roles. Listening to her Arabella with the checklist of an Arabella’s requirements, one must concede that she meets every demand made on her, but the floating creaminess every great Arabella features. One reviewer even called her voice too “vinegary” for the role. I don’t remember any record of anything like a Marschallin or an Agathe, for example.
My next encounter with Varady found her as a jugendlich dramatisch soprano. This time her undeniable skills failed to impress me as before. Her Sieglinde (for Sawallisch) seems lost around register break, her Kaiserin (in Solti’s CDs) sounded basically shrill to my ears – only her touching vulnerable Senta (again for Sawallisch) stroke me as a success beyond dispute.
I would finally meet Varady in her lirico spinto incarnation. It may sound exaggerated, but I believe it was only then she finaly found her locus. There is always the problem of her exotic Italian pronunciation – but here the finely focused quality of her voice, the strong chest notes, the edge necessary to cut the orchestra all work in her favour. Her Verdi heroines have nothing matronly about them and one finally feels that her vivid dramatic temper is free from the self-contained poise required by Mozart and Strauss.
I write all this while listening to a broadcast of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino from 1986. The role takes her to her limits in the long scene with Padre Guardiano, but even then she sounds in her element. Her Leonora is a young, passionate and tormented heroine exactly as described in the libretto. Her La Vergine degli angeli is heavenly, her Pace, pace mio Dio has the necessary spiritual anguish and the closing scene is just perfect.
I am not a fan of this opera (I would cut the roles of Preziosilla and Melitone, to start with) and cannot compare Giuseppe Sinopoli’s conducting with a choice of other conductors – he certainly does beautiful things with the Bayerische Staatsorchester. I can recall a more energetic approach from Muti and a more theatrical atmosphere in Levine, but this live performance could never be called unconvincing. Marjana Lipovsek is in great voice as Preziosilla, but the rest of the cast is unfortunately below standard, including Kurt Moll’s utterly foreign Guardiano. Veriano Luchetti’s tenor sounds tight and hard-pressed and Wolfgang Brendel’s handsome baritone is never really comfortable with the writing of the part of Carlo. But this is Varady’s show and she alone is worth the detour.