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In Memoriam: Anita Välkki

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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?