It seems perverse to name a compilation of recordings by a Swedish soprano who specialized in Wagner "Ritorna vincitor!," but there's no denying the victorious aspects of both Birgit Nilsson's career and the voice itself. The first selection on the first CD is that same aria from Verdi's Aïda, so there's no missing the point that Decca wanted to make. The authority, stamina, cool brilliance, and power of Nilsson's singing are evident throughout these two discs. A softer and more intimate side of the soprano is shown by the generous inclusion of songs by Sibelius, Grieg, and Rangström.
Scenes from Macbeth, Tosca, Götterdämmerung, Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Salome have been excerpted from complete recordings of these operas; the rest come from recital discs. Some of the excerpts end with fade-outs, and the selections from Götterdämmerung and Elektra end abruptly, presumably because of timing limitations.
Nilsson recorded for labels other than Decca, and therefore some of her more notable recordings are absent here. Casualties include her Turandot (recorded for RCA Victor and later for EMI) and La fanciulla del west (also EMI). As part of the Universal Classics group, Decca could have chosen to draw from Nilsson's Philips and DG recordings, but did so in only one case – an excerpt from Die Frau ohne Schatten, recorded live in 1977 at the Staatsoper in Vienna and released by DG. I assume that this recording was included to prove, even late in her career, that Nilsson was an exciting singer who could deliver the vocal goods. (The earliest selection is the "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde, recorded in 1959 with conductor Hans Knappertsbusch.)
Decca has placed some hysterically funny photographs in the booklet – the soprano on an exercise cycle, the soprano wielding an axe (both from Elektra recording sessions), and the soprano as Salome, wearing a gigantic and possibly man-eating wig on her head. (It's very sixties, darlings.) Unfortunately, sung texts have been excluded – a problem given the relative unfamiliarity of the Scandinavian songs, which account for more than forty minutes of this disc's playing time. The engineering has held up well – not surprisingly, as several recordings originally produced by John Culshaw and conducted by Sir Georg Solti have been included.
As the Swedes say, "Tak så mycket" – thank you so much, Birgit!
Copyright © 2003, Raymond Tuttle