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Dutch Treat: Gre Brouwenstijn Sings Verdi And Wagner

The excellent Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn is remembered with a new reissue of her mid-1950s recordings.
Newton Classics
The excellent Dutch soprano Gré Brouwenstijn is remembered with a new reissue of her mid-1950s recordings.

These days, I guess only true opera nerds know about soprano Gré Brouwenstijn, but this new reissue of long gone Philips recordings should help spread the word about an elegant Dutch diva who sang beautifully for 30 years.

Brouwenstijn's career was barely off the ground in 1940 when the Germans invaded the Netherlands. But a few of her radio broadcasts fell attractively on Nazi ears and she found herself with offers to sing in Germany. She deflected the proposals by feigning illness.

After the war, she joined the Netherlands Opera, singing leading dramatic roles, and in 1951 made her Covent Garden debut in Verdi's Aida. Also in the 1950s she began singing lighter Wagner roles at Bayreuth and elsewhere.

Brouwenstijn's voice, in its prime, was like brushed silver, radiantly lyrical yet strong enough to be pushed into slightly heavier territory. She reportedly made a huge impression on stage in Beethoven's Fidelio. John Steane, in his book The Grand Tradition: 70 Years of Singing on Record, admires Brouwenstijn in Wagner, calling her his favorite lyric Wagner soprano of the '50s and '60s (and that's saying a lot), but notes that she's even more distinguished singing Verdi.

She had not an especially powerful voice, but it was a beautiful tone, and her sense of style was aristocratic. Her arias from La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore all have some precious individual touches, and "Tu che le vanita" (from Don Carlos) is a fine memento of her intensely moving portrayal of Elisabeth de Valois: there is feeling for the grandeur as well as the human anxiety, and a strong, finely projected, economical tone with no spread or vibrato in the climaxes.

The big aria from Trovatore, "Pace, pace, mio dio," is featured on this album in a recording from the mid-1950s. Everything Steane talks about is there, from the restrained but marvelously executed swell and decrescendo at the outset, to her pianissimo "pace," to the riveting high B-flat that caps the aria.

Brouwenstijn came of age at a time when there was no shortage of great sopranos. Her career coincided with those of Maria Callas, Rentata Tebaldi, Leonie Rysanek, Elisabeth Grümmer and Martha Mödl. Perhaps stiff competition explains the mystery of why — despite her exciting voice and Ingrid Bergman-like looks — she never sang at New York's Metropolitan Opera.

Brouwenstijn retired in 1971 after a successful string of Fidelio performances in Amsterdam. One author at the time noted, "The name of Gré Brouwenstijn will possibly be forgotten when others who had a fraction of her greatness are still remembered."

Hopefully that fear will never be realized as long as there are Brouwenstijn recordings and opera lovers to listen to them.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.