Elisabeth Soederstroem is one of the great--one uses the adjective advisedly--singing actresses of our time.
Her silvery tone, her probing intelligence, her exceptional taste and expressive eloquence have been savored in major opera houses throughout the world for nearly four decades, from Stockholm to the Met, from Glyndebourne to Santa Fe.
Although she has illuminated a vast and varied repertory, the Swedish soprano has found her special forte (and her piano ) in the warm, wise and sensuous heroines of Richard Strauss.
Southern California finally caught up with the Soederstroem phenomenon Thursday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, thanks to Andre Previn and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Replacing the originally scheduled Hildegard Behrens, she sang excerpts from Berg's "Wozzeck" as a prelude to her obvious piece de resistance , the final scene of Strauss' "Capriccio."
Strauss' autumnal "conversation piece," more a philosophical treatise than a music drama, is well represented in the record catalogue. Soederstroem's recording of the monologue in question ranks with the illustrious versions of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lisa della Casa.
Los Angeles saw the intimate opera staged only twice, long ago: in 1960 at USC and three years later at the hopelessly gargantuan Shrine.
Under the circumstances, logic would have dictated enormous interest in, and enthusiasm for, Soederstroem's belated debut. Unfortunately, our bizarre, unpredictable and terminally conservative public is seldom afflicted with logic.
In Orange County, the audience claps between movements. At the Music Center, the audience leaves.
Before intermission, the Thursday-nighters mustered a reasonably polite, essentially stoic response to three "Wozzeck" scenes. But all that bleak 1921 modernism, all that muted dissonance, all that delicate Sprechgesang , all that orchestrated Weltschmerz must have been too much for the gentle souls.
After intermission, they returned long enough to cheer Previn and the Philharmonic in a safe Haydn symphony. Then they fled in droves.
"Capriccio" was written in 1941. Horrors. The prospect of more 20th-Century singing obviously was too much to anticipate, much less bear.
If it weren't so silly and so embarrassing, it would be sad.
The departees didn't just miss some exquisite vocalism. They also missed some marvelous, romantic, lyrical music.
The introspective heroine of "Capriccio" is torn between two suitors, one a poet and the other a composer. Left alone, she contemplates the relative virtues of the gentlemen and, with delicious ambiguity, the importance of the word versus that of music. Although the description makes the scene sound dry and intellectual, Strauss' autumnal sentiment, as aligned to the witty text of Clemens Krauss, is ardent, expansive, poignant.
Soederstroem defined both mood and character with elegance and whimsy, with subtle inflection of the words, with sweet tone, ethereal lyricism and dynamic point.
Although Previn provided rather stolid support, he earned gratitude for his decision to retain the lovely intermezzo (unheralded in the program) and for his thoughtful phrasing of the magical little orchestral benediction.
The collaboration between soloist and conductor had been less successful in the extended "Wozzeck" excerpts.
Soederstroem's innate refinement and slender tone seemed less than ideal for the earthy utterances of poor Marie. Previn's loud, thick and oddly bland symphonic perspective did little to support either the soprano or the drama. And, taken out of operatic context, the drama seemed oddly disjointed.
To open the program, Previn offered a rather pedestrian performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 29, K. 201. The companion symphony in the second half, Haydn's "Miracle," fared smoother, but charm and vigor remained elusive.