Our Friend Flicka

In the summer of 1974, I first heard Frederica Von Stade — Flicka, as she’s widely known — and it was an experience that helped shaped my interest in opera and classical music.  She was not the first opera star I ever heard — I’d been interested in classical music (especially vocal music) for several years by that time, and I’d had the good fortune to hear recitals by some of the greats, including Carlo Bergonzi, Renata Tebaldi, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda, and Joan Sutherland.  (I saw recitals, since these were the days before Los Angeles really had a home opera company.)  But all of them were older singers, whose presence and personalities seemed very much of another time.

Von Stade, on the other hand, seemed much more a part of my world (in ’74, I was 18 and she was 28).  The concert I heard first was an evening at the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by James Levine, which featured music of Mozart — Von Stade in Cherubino’s arias, and an excerpt or two from Clemenza di Tito; in the second half, she sang “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” which also featured pianist Stephen Bishop, who had previously done a Mozart piano concerto.

It was, all told, a pretty extraordinary evening.  But it was Von Stade who really dazzled me.  I can still remember the first notes she sang — “Parto, parto” — and the instant realization that this was a special voice and artist — distinctive, memorable.

So I became a fan, and I still am.  I should say that, while this experience is unique to me, I know many other fans who feel the same way.  Von Stade, famously the nicest diva in opera, is as universally beloved as any singer I know, and we all feel like we know her!

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to hear her quite a number of times, in opera and in concert.

In a couple of weeks, I’ll hear her again, for what is likely the last time — she has come out of retirement to sing in Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, a work he composed specifically for her.  The performance I’ll attend will be very close to exactly 40 years since the first time I heard her — I had just graduated from high school, and she was beginning to achieve international stardom.

I’ll have more to say about Flicka and the upcoming show, but meanwhile I’m celebrating our 40 years together(!) by listening to her wonderful recordings.  Here are a few of my favorites.  (Please feel free to share yours!)

Here goes…

flicka blegen
Songs and Duets with Judith Blegen (Sony).  This disc may have been Von Stade’s recording debut — I know that it came out after the Hollywood Bowl concert, and I waited eagerly for its release.  When I did get it, I was thrilled that it captured the specialness in Von Stade’s timbre and style.  It’s a chamber recital, mostly devoted to duets (Blegen, a soprano who is a near-contemporary of Von Stade’s, and  frequent co-star, is delightful).  Von Stade gets a couple of solos, including her first recorded performance of Cherubino’s “Non so piu” from NOZZE DI FIGARO, a role that would become her signature.  Performances, repertoire — it’s a beautiful disc all around.

Mozart, Rossini and Haydn Arias (Philips).  This recording, from a few years after the duets recital, was Von Stade’s first solo disc — and one that showcased her as an emerging star, in repertoire — Mozart and Rossini — she would soon make her own.  Many of these excerpts have been recorded a lot by very gifted singers, and in some cases, I think there are more virtuosic performances.  But Von Stade’s charm and warmth, as well as the gorgeous caramel color of her tone, are in the front rank.  (The Haydn excerpts, pulled from complete recordings, are also lovely, though I think the music itself sounds rather pallid next to Mozart and Rossini!)

Flicka French
French Opera Arias (Sony).  Von Stade was very good at many things, and quickly established herself as a great stylist in the French repertoire (both opera and song), where her excellent command of the language was rare and welcome.  Her light-and-dark vocal color — an alto’s warmth, but with the bright upper extension of a soprano — also really suits this music.  Every excerpts here is a bonne bouche, but my special favorites — at opposite ends of the spectrum — are Mignon’s nostalgic “Connais-tu le pays?,” and Frederic’s gavotte, “Me voici dans son boudoir” from the same opera (but by a different character).

Show Boat (with John McGlinn — EMI).  Another decade, another Von Stade — this time, most definitely not a solo turn, but part of a large ensemble cast.  The recording itself was — and is — one of the great contributions to American musical theatre — McGlinn’s reconstruction allows us for the first time to hear the operatic sweep and grandeur of Kern’s score, which isn’t remotely suggested by either of the films (good as they are in many ways) or any stage revival I’ve seen.  Von Stade is up to every part of the task — not only the operetta aspects of the musical writing, where we would expect her to be at home, but also in the jazzier bits, and in the spoken dialogue. Throughout, she brims with charm and personality.  And the mezzo coloration of her tone makes Magnolia seem a more substantial character than she sometimes does.

My Funny Valentine: Songs of Rodgers and Hart (EMI). If I have a Flicka desert island disc, it’s this one.  Building on her Show Boat status as a go-to performer for American musical theatre, she and John McGlinn offer a program of 17 Rodgers and Hart songs.  Some (“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “My Funny Valentine”) are well-known; others (“Bye and Bye,” “If I Were You”) largely unfamiliar — but they’re all wonderful, especially as heard here in (mostly) original orchestrations, done with impeccable period style that somehow even now sounds as fresh as a daisy!


5 replies »

  1. I encountered Flicka in live performance exactly a year earlier — the summer of 1973, most of which I spent in London. The papers were full of her triumphs in her first European opera engagements — Cherubino in Paris and at Glyndebourne — and I saw her in a Philharmonia concert in Ravel’s Sheherazade one Sunday afternoon (Michael Tilson Thomas). I knew the work from the classic Crespin recording, and in my snobby mid-20s way thought “Well, of course this isn’t going to be a mature or satisfying rendition like that one.” But it was! Gloriously sung, with a mysterious and glamorous distant call just right for that evocative piece of vocal-orchestral splendor. I was hooked.

    Since then I’ve enjoyed her in person, on recordings, on video. As David says, she occupies a special place. He named most of the recordings I would (her command of almost-soprano color in a middle range makes her ideal for those musicals and operettas that want exactly that). As an example of her being a star among stars in an operatic ensemble, I might add the Marriage of Figaro conducted by Solti, in which having her alongside Kiri Te Kanawa, Lucia Popp, Samuel Ramey, Thomas Allen, and Kurt Moll adds up to a banquet of magnetic singing. And at this juncture, I’m slightly amazed to realize that she left us no commercial recording of the aria David mentioned, “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” (possibly the greatest piece of music he ever wrote, and yes I know what a big claim I’m making), or of either of the Rossini mezzo roles she sparkled in, Cenerentola and Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Maybe the live-performance sources will eventually fill out the picture for those.

  2. Thanks, Jon. The lack of a documented Rosina really is odd. With Cenerentola, at least there’s the video version. It’s Ponnelle studio job, and I have mixed feelings about this one (and most of them) — some of his theatricality cloys, and a lot of it doesn’t translate well to film.

    At this point there’s a vogue for the opera, with pretty stiff competition among video versions — Bartoli, DiDonato et al. And certainly, both of them (and others) have put a stamp on it, and sing with great virtuosity. But it’s Flicka that I go back to. And when I use it to teach (and I do, pretty often, at least the rondo finale — it’s sure fire: I find my students are dazzled, not only by the beauty of tone and pyrotechnics, but by her freshness and charm. (It still works on me, too!)

    • Yes, I meant to add parenthetically that we do have the video Cenerentola, which is indeed great to have. It’s just so odd in retrospect that in a decade where Rossini was getting more recordings than ever before, and she had a name that sold recordings, the two didn’t meet. I do remember liking very much a Met Barbiere one Saturday just a year or so after the time we’re talking about, in which she was delightful and well matched with Ryland Davies and Richard Stilwell (all comparable age and skill and stylistic attitude). So there’s that.

  3. David, what a wonderful tribute. Thank you! I’m mad about Von Stade. Classy, well-bred, completely her own person, nonpareil, singular artist, sensitive, infallible musicality, and a ductile, warm tone that’s hers and hers alone. Generous of spirit. Some of my favorites: the song “Jenny Rebecca,” from her recital with Martin Katz. She named her daughter after this song, and her rendition of it is simply adorable, touching, and wonderfully tender. There are not many artists whose personality shines through recordings as vividly as Von Stade’s does, and that which emerges so attractively appealing and likable. All her Cherubinos I treasure, but I have a special fondness for the Solti “Le Nozze di Figaro,” in which she is in the absolute prime of her vocal bloom – and her portrayal is just irresistible. The “Voi che sapete” is my all-time favorite – seductive, delectable, the tone perfectly on the breath, and of a shimmering radiance (The cast in that recording, too, is just dynamite, not a single weak link). The first time I heard the De Almeida complete, excellently-cast “Mignon,” Von Stade in her relatively brief role just jumps out of the (LP) grooves right at you with a flawless account of Frederic – tone, spirit, musicality and loaded with personality. I second everything you wrote, therefore it’d be redundant, but I add one more favorite, the Broschi-Farinelli aria “Ombra fedele anch’io” from her CBS Italian Opera Arias recording of 1978. Her singing here is malleable and graceful, the slow, sinuous, florid line effortlessly negotiated, and beautifully poised. Vivica Genaux may sing it with more of a technical virtuosity, but I find it mechanical and not as sensuously alluring as Von Stade’s. For your reference: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1yekz_KGW4

  4. What fun!

    I first heard von Stade live when she did a recital in Hackensack NJ in the early 70s when I was a kid– don’t recall the date or program. But a few years later I saw her wonderful 1976 NYCO debut as Penelope opposite Richard Stilwell in the Leppardization of IL RITORNO D’ULISSE ( Henry Price and Hilda Harris, both good, were the other leads.) She and Stillwell recorded that, and though I have issues with the edition, she was terrific in it, and in almost everything i have seen since. I think I have seen her more times than any major classical singer save for Domingo, Plishka and Morris. Mainly in NYC but also in SF, L.A. and once in London (the ROH WERTHER under Colin Davis w/Carreras and the so-billed “British Callas”, Isobel Buchanan.

    I have limited tolerance for “Jenny Rebecca” as music despite its obvious meaning for the artist, but that recital w/Martin Katz yielded up a particular favorite von Stade cut of mine: the Liszt Hugo treatment “Oh! quand je dors”, just magically done. I am also partial to her Rossini Willow Song and to Annio’s arias in the Davis CLEMENZA.

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