mon 15/07/2024

Jessye Norman, 1945-2019 | reviews, news & interviews

Jessye Norman, 1945-2019

Jessye Norman, 1945-2019

The great soprano has died at the age of 74, leaving behind a fabulous legacy

In New York, 1997John Mathew Smith

She was recording Carmen in Paris, and the Radio France auditorium was packed with the press, asking such dazzling questions as "have you been up the Eiffel Tower yet?" and "what do you think of the French men?". I thought, given the statuesque approach, it might be best to wonder if there was a nobility in the characterisation.

Jessye Norman refined it to "dignity" and enlarged graciously on that (I can no longer find the transcript or the printed feature). The end result in Seiji Ozawa's Philips recording was far from the expected improbability. The soprano could always float a line, and there was even a certain sensuality in the tone; her "Seguidilla" sounds like no other.

This was one of the great voices, the great personalities, of the operatic world. Perhaps the range was truly a mezzo's - the top could go disarmingly flat at times - but when she hit the heights, the earth shook. And there was always a fabulous palette of colours in the middle range, which made her an ideal Lieder singer. Not, arguably, for Strauss's Four Last Songs - a Desert Island Disc for many, her recording of that masterpiece seemed at odds with the kind of open, creamy soprano sound the composer had in mind - but in Strauss's other songs, as in Schumann and Brahms, she could be peerless. And her supreme operatic performance - at least among the few I saw on stage - was as Ariadne, in splendid isolation on Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Naxos. She moved and expressed the emotions in high style, and the close-ups of the Metropolitan Opera film iconise that beautiful face and enormous mouth. Update: unfortunately this essential clip has been removed by the Metropolitan Opera. The full performance of Ariadne auf Naxos can be found on DVD.

Strauss she approached by way of Wagner: one early appearance at the Royal Opera was as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. The Royal Opera has just kindly supplied a selection of Donald Southern's images from 1973, so let's take the opportunity to include one here. Jessye Norman as Wagner's ElisabethHas anyone sung Sieglinde's great apostrophe to Brünnhilde in Act 3 of Die Walküre with more ecstatic breadth?

 Fearless in difficult repertoire - her Schoenberg Erwartung is a nightmare wonder - she also had the gift to be simple; her spirituals, the legacy of her upbringing in Augusta Georgia, are peerless, and in later years she focused on the importance of the Afro-American heritage.

 Gone too soon, she leaves behind a formidable legacy to ensure immortality.

Jessye Norman, born 15 September 1945, Augusta, Georgia; died 30 September 2019, Manhattan, New York

As Strauss's Ariadne, she moved and expressed the emotions in high style

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Thank you dear David for this beautiful and insightful homage.

Wonderful soaring voice. Unforgettable..

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