In Memoriam: Anita Välkki

Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 10:18 AM

Leonie Rysanek (1926-1998), whom I revere, often explained that one of the chief reasons for the longevity of her career was that "I always had Birgit ahead of me." By this she meant that the most daunting dramatic roles (Brünnhilde, Isolde, Elektra, Turandot, for example) were so authoritatively assumed by Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005) that Rysanek seldom, if ever, performed them. This saved Rysanek’s voice and enabled her to undertake a greater variety of roles than many artists (including Nilsson).

There are never enough great dramatic sopranos in any era, including our own. So we opera lovers tend to treasure them in a particular way. A very fine one, Anita Välkki (October 25, 1926-April 27, 2011) has just died and I realize that most people have no idea who she was. This is strange, because she was a major artist, certainly behind Birgit, Leonie and perhaps Astrid Varnay (1918-2006), but nonetheless one of a very small group. She was older than Gwyneth Jones (born 1936) and Helga Dernesch (born 1939) among those who would later assume similar roles.

If you read my earlier post about Nordic opera houses or know anything of my work, you are aware that, while I am most associated with glorious Italy, I have a deep and abiding passion for Scandinavia and Finland. I love the egalitarian spirit, the sense of fairness and fair play, the fresh air, deep forests, clean water, the brilliantly direct flavors of the food (only now being discovered by the larger world), and so much more.

The Finns are distinct because, unlike the other countries, they never had a monarchy, so they treat one another as equals who live in nature and are part of it. You see it in their behavior and hear it in their voices. There is an untranslatable Finnish word, sisu, that suggests an earnest and unflagging tenacity in the face of challenges. With their history of foreign occupation, punishing winters eased by short but brilliant summers, and having a language that only they could understand, they always were different from the other Nordic peoples.

While Nilsson had unmatched vocal gifts, great humor and an extraordinary aura, Anita Välkki had sisu. Hers was an honorable career in which she sang the heavy dramatic Wagner roles and Puccini’s Turandot with thrilling freshness and security. She was quite small in stature, counter to our image of the operatic dramatic heroine. By all reports, though, she was charismatic on the stage. 

She began at the Finnish National Opera in 1955 and her international career, begun about five years later, took her to Stockholm, London, Vienna, Berlin, Bayreuth, Prague and Italy, all of which thrilled to her performances. She was very popular in London, which heard her Isolde in 1965. Her Liebestod may not have had Nilssonian heft but was incisively dramatic and tender, with vocal resources to spare. She also sang Aïda in London and did occasional performances as Tosca and other Italian and Czech roles (including Janacek’s Kat’a Kabanová in Prague). Like Nilsson and Callas, she could not resist venturing into dramatic mezzo territory in a concert setting. They all sang “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, each with flaws, but Välkki’s sense of drama shines through in this concert performance in Sweden in 1962:

She only sang 18 performances at the Met, between 1962 and 1966, but all were big and featured impressive colleagues and top conductors, including Kurt Adler, Karl Böhm, Fausto Cleva, Erich Leinsdorf, Zubin Mehta, Georges Prêtre and William Steinberg. She made her debut on January 23, 1962 in a run of Die Walküre in which Nilsson sang Brünnhilde in the other performances. Leinsdorf conducted a great cast, including Jon Vickers (Siegmund), Gladys Kuchta (Sieglinde), Jerome Hines (Wotan) and Irene Dalis (Fricka). Among the Valkyries were two young artists with great careers ahead of them: Martina Arroyo (Ortlinde) and Mignon Dunn (Waltraute). Listen to Välkki in the same role from a few months earlier, singing Brünnhilde’s battle cry in the second act of Die Walküre (London 1961) and note how full of the youthful zest this character is when we first meet her. It would be wonderful to have an artist of this quality performing today.

Here she is as Brünnhilde in the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. By this point, the character has been through all sorts of travails, has gone from being a goddess to a mortal, and has learned a great deal, not all of it pretty. Just before setting everything alight and returning the gold ring to the Rhinemaidens, Brünnhilde has a tour-de-force scene, here sung by Välkki with relish and a clear attack. 

I notice that, in the upper reaches of the voice, there is a distinct similarity to the current Finnish soprano goddess, Karita Mattila, who does not have quite the vocal heft of a Brünnhilde but is extraordinary in almost every role she undertakes, particular in German and Czech. She has assumed some of the parts that Rysanek performed so memorably. Mattila and Välkki share what Anthony Tommasini in the The New York Times has referred to as "cool Nordic shadings,” which is hard to define but one knows it when one hears it.

Välkki began her career as a dramatic actress before venturing into operetta and then into opera. You can hear that sense of theater as she performs. Here she is in the second act of Turandot on December 22, 1966, her penultimate appearance at the Met:

Also in the cast were Flaviano Labò as Calaf and Teresa Stratas as Liù. This is, by any standard, an impressive performance. Although the sound quality is not the best, I want to share with you the Act 3 duet (“Principessa di Morte”) from Turandot with Franco Corelli at the Met March 31, 1965. I would have loved to have been in the house on that night.

Välkki's other Met roles included Senta (Der Fliegende Holländer), Kundry (Parsifal) and Venus opposite Rysanek’s Elisabeth and fellow Finn Pekka Nuotio in the title role of Tannhäuser. I don’t know why New Yorkers did not hear her more or why she did not have a big American career. Nilsson was the reigning dramatic soprano from 1955 until her retirement in the early 1980s. Rysanek was a unique artist, the total performer, who inspired love and devotion among audiences the way few others do. I will write about her sometime in the future. With those two in front of her, Välkki’s greatness was never quite noticed.

She sang around Europe into the 1970s and then returned to Finland. She continued to appear at the National Opera and the outstanding summer festival at Savonlinna. After ending her career as a singer in 1986, she taught many top young Finnish singers at Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy. A few years ago I met and heard one of her protegés, Helena Juntunen (born 1976), at Savonlinna and spotted many of the stellar qualities of the older artist in the young soprano. So, while singers do leave the stage at some point, some of them become excellent teachers. Their legacy includes not only recordings and memories of great performances, but the artistry they instill in their students.

What singer of cherished memory do you think is ready to be rediscovered and given his or her due recognition?

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Comments [9]

Michael Sturgulewski from Miami, FL

I've long felt that Valkki left the MET because despite her great track record, they (meaning the eternal asshole, Bing) never gave her a matinee broadcast. They always used Nilsson. Despite my love of Nilsson, in many respects, I prefer Valkki's voice...bright, big but not too "steely."

On another subject, have you ever heard the 1937 Tannhauser with Carl Leonhardt conducting and an excellent cast? After collecting Wagner recordings for nearly fifty years (over three dozen Tannhausers at last count), I came across it for the first time quite recently and I think it's pretty remarkable. The whole opera (even Act II!!!) is complete except for the bit near the end of the final ensemble which (to my knowledge) only Barenboim and Thielemann restore. Even the Tann/Eliz duet in Act II is complete with Wolfram's line. The production team actually cast a boy soprano from the Regensburg Domspatzen as the shepherd boy, the sound is excellent considering the vintage and Leonhardt is equal to the best. Bychkov is the only living conductor to my knowledge who conducts the opera as well. Despite the age, the audible vocal and instrumental detail even during the thick ensembles which conclude the first two acts rivals the best of the modern recordings.

It is embarrassingly FAR superior to the bewilderingly admired and heavily truncated Bayreuth-Elmendorff recording from several years earlier in nearly every respect.

Oct. 29 2012 05:30 PM
Fred Plotkin from Valhalla

Dear Readers, I have returned to this posting after quite a while and am pleased to find more comments. Thanks, Leif, for your memories of Anita in Stockholm. And especially to Raija Leikola, Anita's daughter. Please keep me posted on activities being done in her memory and I will try to keep readers aware of them. My e-mail address is fredelicious@earthlink.net

Aug. 03 2011 11:46 PM
Raija Leikola from Finland

Dear Fred Plotkin!

I am Mss Välkkis daughter. I am very greatfull for your wonderful in memoriam article about my mother. Anita had many friends around the world who want to remember Anita and her art.

We have also founded an association for my mothers memory called Anita Välkki - seura. You can find us at facebook by that name. Later we shall publish our own webpage. We are planning a memory concert for next spring. We also plan to publish some restrored recordings. Later on we will hold an Anita Välkki singing contest here in Finland.

Thank you again for these memories. Whit best wishes Raija Leikola

Jul. 26 2011 11:50 AM
Leif from Sweden

How sad to learn that Anita Välkki not more is among us. In 1960 I was 16 and heard my first Wagner opera, Die Walküre, at the Royal Theatre in Stockholm. The second act began; there she was in helmet, shield and spear and made the Walkürenruf. I had never heard something so fantastic. That such a voice existed. From that moment I have been a Wagner lunatic. More memories: Tosca, Aida, Elisabeth and of course Isolde. No one has made a Spottlied so dramatic and filled with hatred and revenge. Her voice was enormous and yet soft and female. The Stockholm audience did not compare her with Nilsson. They compared her with Flagstad. I am grateful for all the beautiful memories she gave me.

May. 18 2011 05:26 PM
Claire from Mid-Atlantic

Thanks so much, Fred, for this lovely tribute to Anita Valkki. While I enjoyed that battle cry, I really loved the Turandot excerpts, especailly the 1965 performance excerpt including Corelli. Amazing that it exists.

May. 09 2011 07:26 PM
Scott Levine from NYC

Wow! That battle cry is thrilling. I've never heard an actual Valkyrie, but wouldn't be surprised if they sounded a lot like Anita Välkki.

Apr. 29 2011 12:27 PM
Christopher Darling from West Vancouver, BC, Canada

Fred,

How sad! We are losing our greatest singers in one great batch.

I see that Välkki was the 3rd Norn on Solti's Decca recording of Gotterdammerung ( a role that seems to catapult aspiring dramatic-sopranos into the limelight), and that she scored a great success at The Royal Opera House, London as Turandot.

You're right about what the great Leonie Rysanek said: that these other great singers help save singers that don't want to jump into the deep end all at once.

Bless you, Anita. You have a great chorus to join: Sutherland, Schwarzkopf, Rysanek, Nilsson, Souliotis, Dimitrova, Tebaldi, Callas, Lorengar, de Los Angeles, Margaret Price and on and on.

Apr. 29 2011 12:39 AM

Am listening to the Immolation scene. Goodness, she was a real VALLKI--rie!

Apr. 28 2011 07:37 PM
Patrick Dillon from New York

Thanks, Fred, for this lovely tribute to a most worthy singer. As I commented earlier, it's hard to believe, as I listen to her (even in less than pristine sound), that back in the day she was deemed a second-stringer.
I'd imagine many of your readers might own a recording of hers without realizing that they do: the Solti "Götterdämmerung," where her Third Norn really gives Nilsson something to live up to a few minutes later. That set also features a young Brünnhilde-to-be as a Rhinemaiden: Gwyneth Jones. So while many a "Götterdämmerung" I've heard hasn't been able to muster a single world-class Brünnhilde. this one can boast three!

Apr. 28 2011 05:03 PM

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