Sunday, October 13, 2019

Remembering Jessye Norman

From R.J. Stove at The American Conservative:
The obituarists of Jessye Norman have said it all. And probably all of it is accurate. She had one of the greatest voices of any classical singer in the post-war epoch. She mastered an astonishing variety of repertoire from the 17th century (her Dido is one of the few who sounds like a Queen of Carthage) to the 20th. Whether in Purcell or in Poulenc, she excelled. She worked with many of the age’s leading conductors, from Herbert von Karajan and Daniel Barenboim to Sir Colin Davis and Sir Georg Solti. She possessed courage and class. In an industry which for the most part resembles nothing so much as Heathers with cultural pretensions, she had—as far as can be determined—not a single foe. 
Even the anecdotes about her are eminently humane. Although some might have been fictions by a public relations agent, we can only hope that they are authentic. Did the majestically built Miss Norman really (as was famously alleged) rebuke the conductor who asked her to move sideways with the immortal words “Honey, I ain’t got no sideways”? She refused to countenance the tale. Her memoirs reveal so little that they make Clement Attlee’s look like Benvenuto Cellini’s. So we will probably never know whether the tale is true. But one feels by instinct that it should be true. (A similar tale is told about a far earlier diva, Ernestine Schumann-Heink.) 
And did she really sing, as a Tel Aviv encore—in the presence of Ariel Sharon surrounded by his fellow peace-and-love avatars—the spiritual Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? Maybe she did, maybe she didn’t. Again, hard evidence is lacking, but the anecdote would be all wrong if its leading role had been credited to, say, Leontyne Price or Kathleen Battle. It needed the Jessye Norman Gestalt to convince: a Gestalt warm, loving, the reverse of explicitly hysterical, and with an occasional touch of mischief, yet matriarchal and queenly. 
Wherein lay Jessye Norman’s supreme triumph? In her interpretations of Wagner? Of Berlioz? Of Schoenberg? Of Richard Strauss? Convincing cases could be made for each of these achievements. Permit this Common Musician (on the analogy of Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader) to suggest that her supreme triumph resided, rather, in her decision to leave off singing before conspicuous decline set in. (Read more.)

No comments: