Remembering Suzanne Danco

The Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco was born in Brussels on 22 January 1911, and was brought up within a Flemish family with French as her native language. She showed musical ability from an early age and although her family was less than enthusiastic about her pursuing a career in music, she gained a place at the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles to study voice, piano and music history, aided by the encouragement and support of the Queen of the Belgians. In 1936 at the age of 25 she won a vocal competition in Vienna, where she was heard by the distinguished conductor Erich Kleiber. At this early age her voice range tended to be closer to mezzo-soprano than soprano, and Kleiber wrote to Danco’s mother that she was ‘the possessor of a coloratura mezzo voice such as is rarely found’. On Kleiber’s recommendation she went to Prague to continue her studies under the celebrated teacher Fernando Carpi (1876–1959). Carpi had enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a tenor at opera houses around the world, and on his retirement from the stage in 1923 became a noted vocal trainer. As well as Danco his pupils included Zinka Milanov, Gwynneth Jones, Geraint Evans, the Swiss tenor Ernst Haefliger and the baritone Otakar Kraus.

Suzanne Danco made her professional stage debut at the Genoa Opera in 1941 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a role with which she was to be closely associated throughout her career along with that of Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She remained in Italy throughout World War II, and in 1947 at La Scala sang the role of Eurydice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice opposite Ebe Stignani’s Orfeo. In June of the same year she sang at La Scala in a performance of the Brahms German Requiem alongside Boris Christoff under Vittorio Gui to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the composer’s death. She then began to extend her repertoire with a number of more dramatic roles by contemporary composers. At La Scala she was the first Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1949 and Jocasta in Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, and at the San Carlo in Naples she sang the role of Marie in performances of Berg’s Wozzeck with Tito Gobbi during the 1949/50 season. Interestingly, the reviewer in Opera magazine felt that ‘that most exquisite of present day singers, Suzanne Danco was rather too refined to portray quite satisfactorily the sluttish figure that is Marie’. Other appearances in contemporary roles included Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges and in 1940 she sang in Dallapiccola’s Il volo di notte in Florence, where the composer described her voice as ‘spun air’. In 1952 in Florence she performed the role of the Narrator in Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s puppet opera Aucassin et Nicolette, a work largely forgotten until its revival at the Teatro Pergolesi, Jesi, in 2019.

Danco’s first appearances in the UK were with the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Edinburgh at the 1948 and 1949 festivals where she sang Fiordiligi under Vittorio Gui, and then in 1951 she appeared with the company in both Edinburgh and at Glyndebourne as Donna Elvira. By the time she came to make her debut at Covent Garden that same year as Mimì in La bohème (sung in English), her reputation in Europe was already secured with appearances in Milan, Florence, Edinburgh and Aix in roles including Eurydice, The Countess in Figaro, Desdemona and Violetta. The reviewer in Opera described her Mimì as ‘convincing, really looking the part and achieving the utmost pathos with the simplest of means’. She also made her debut in the USA in 1951 in Boston, and later sang in Buffalo and Rochester where she performed in Don Giovanni under Josef Krips, this time as Donna Anna.

Danco’s career on the opera stage continued until about 1960, when she turned increasingly to giving song recitals, particularly of the French repertoire in which she excelled. She retired from performing in 1970, her final performance being that of soloist in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. She then turned her attention to teaching, first at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena, and later during the 1980s and 90s at the Britten-Pears School in Snape, where Peter Pears complimented her with the words ‘if I were twenty years younger I would come to study with you’.

Suzanne Danco made her first recording in Milan in February 1941 at the request of a friend of hers – a 10” 78 for HMV (La Voce del Padrone, HN1870). Two madrigals were recorded privately, accompanied by Professor E. Bellinzona on viola, one of which, Amor amaro, was included in EMI’s ‘The Record of Singing’, Volume 4. It was to be another six years before she returned to the studio, when in July 1947 in Milan she began her long recording career with Decca with three Mozart arias with the Orchestra of La Scala conducted by Jonel Perlea. Two are included in this collection, the third (a Swiss Decca issue) was unfortunately not traced. The producer for this recording was Victor Olof who was to oversee many of her recordings and was responsible for her first major opera recording. In his unpublished autobiography Olof recounts how she ‘recorded Cherubino’s aria “Voi chè sapete” so beautifully and in perfect Mozart-style that we never let her go to any other company’. In October of that year she recorded two Schubert lieder (unpublished and presumed lost) and songs by Bononcini and Caccini, accompanied by the pianist Phyllis Spurr. The charming Caccini song, ‘Amarilli mia bella’, was to be a favourite throughout her career, and she was later to name her home in Fiesole near Florence ‘Villamarilli’.

In May the following year, Danco made her first landmark recording of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, a setting of three orientalist poems by the poet Tristan Klingsor. The recording was given additional authenticity by the involvement of the conductor Ernest Ansermet, who had been a friend of the composer and had championed his music for many years. The relationship between Danco and Ansermet was one of great affection and mutual respect, and was to lead to many further recordings of the French repertoire, including a second, early stereo recording of Shéhérazade six years later.

In April 1949 Danco formed another partnership which was to be central to her career when she made her first recordings in Decca’s West Hampstead Studios with the Italian pianist and teacher Guido Agosti. Agosti had been a pupil of Ferruccio Busoni but his concert career was much hampered by his nerves. He made a small number of solo recordings, including a highly praised disc of Debussy Préludes, but apart from accompanying Suzanne Danco both in recital and on numerous recordings, his career was based mainly around teaching. His extensive list of pupils includes such notable artists as Solomon, Hamish Milne, Raymond Lewenthal and Angela Brownridge, and he is also remembered for his transcription of three movements from Stravinsky’s Firebird, which was sanctioned by the composer and still appears in recitals to this day.

These first London sessions produced songs by Brahms and Schubert, and in the course of preparing this set, it was discovered that two different takes of Schubert’s ‘Wohin?’ were issued under the same catalogue number on different pressings (M658). Both have been included here. These same sessions also produced a complete recording of Schumann’s sixteen Heine settings, described by Danco in a private letter as ‘my beloved Dichterliebe’. The next five years saw further recordings with Agosti made in both London and Geneva – more German lied, including Brahms, Strauss, Wolf. In the preparation of this set, a delightful and unexpected discovery was made – at the end of the tape for the five Wolf lieder, a sixth song was found which was previously unknown and not included in any of the documentation. This proved to be a spirited rendition of the ‘Elfenlied’ from the Mörike-Lieder, which brings this group to a lively conclusion.

A further Schumann cycle followed, the Liederkreis, Op. 39, regarded by Danco as one of her finest recordings. It is much to be regretted that she did not record Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, a work she performed frequently, but Decca had in 1950 recorded the cycle with Kathleen Ferrier and at this time such duplication of repertoire was regarded as impossible.

Perhaps even more importantly were the discs of French songs in which Danco was an almost unrivalled interpreter. Debussy featured prominently, along with Fauré, and it was here that her unerring sense of style and sensibility was most clearly in evidence. Danco was on occasions criticised for what was seen as a slight coolness, an aloofness, in her performances, but her ability to penetrate to the heart of a text coupled with her refusal ever to over emote simply for effect made her an ideal interpreter of this repertoire. The composer Luigi Dallapiccola described her ‘control, breathing, technique and intonation’ as ‘balanced so perfectly that one cannot even perceive them as separate.’ Her 1951 disc of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été made in Cincinnati was astonishingly the first complete recording of the work. BBC Music Magazine wrote that ‘her voice quivering and silvery, captures its languor’.

Danco’s first operatic recording was fittingly the role of Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, recorded in April 1952 with Ansermet and L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Ansermet always regarded Danco as his ideal Mélisande, and although he was later to record the work in stereo with Erna Spoorenberg in the title role, it is the earlier recording which is widely acknowledged to be the closest to the composer’s intentions, Danco ‘striking just the right balance between knowingness and innocence which lies at the heart of that equivocal role’ (Daily Telegraph). Other recordings made with Ansermet during this period included the two Ravel one-act operas L’Enfant et les sortilèges and L’Heure espagnole, Honegger’s Le Roi David and Debussy’s luminous but sadly neglected incidental music to Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien.

The music of Mozart ran like a silver thread through Danco’s career, and in 1952 she was engaged to sing the role of Cherubino in a recording of Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna conducted by Erich Kleiber. The recording was scheduled for late June, and the two weeks previous were assigned to another Decca Mozart opera recording, Don Giovanni under Josef Krips. The role of Donna Anna had been assigned to Leonie Rysanek, who became indisposed shortly before the first sessions. The recording producer was again Victor Olof who had worked with Danco on her first Decca recordings five years earlier, and Olof telephoned her in Florence, asking her to come to Vienna as quickly as possible to record the challenging role of Donna Anna. Olof later recounted how ‘Danco magnificently recorded both her main arias and one of the difficult ensembles with complete ease. It was a remarkable feat and she was warmly applauded by her colleagues and the orchestra; all were quite astonished that a Belgium-born artist could sing Mozart so perfectly’. Thus Suzanne Danco came to record major roles in two Mozart operas in just three weeks, and both sets still hold their place amongst the most recommended versions of these masterpieces. The celebrated opera critic Alan Blyth wrote that Danco’s Cherubino was ‘an object lesson in the use of words and phrasing to enhance the mere notes’. Her operatic repertoire also included the role of Eurydice in the Paris version of Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice. This she recorded for Philips Classics in 1956 alongside Léopold Simoneau under the direction of Hans Rosbaud.

Church and sacred music did not figure prominently in her recorded repertoire, although we are fortunate to have available a BBC live recording of the Bach B minor Mass under Georges Enescu (also featuring Kathleen Ferrier), as well as the two Bach Cantatas presented here, recorded for Decca in Geneva in late 1953 with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and Karl Münchinger.

As a delightful pendant to Suzanne Danco’s recording career, we are fortunate to have a disc she made for Philips Classics in October 1956 near her home in Florence, accompanied at the piano by her close friend the renowned conductor Francesco Molinari-Pradelli. The program is based around an album presented in March 1835 by the composer Gioachino Rossini to Louise Carlier, daughter of a prominent Parisian impresario, containing a collection of melodies all in original manuscript form by celebrated contemporary composers. The recording, made in a relaxed domestic setting, perfectly captures the quiet intimacy essential for what Danco herself modestly described as ‘a charming performance of these songs and romances from the eighteenth century’.

Suzanne Danco died in Fiesole in August 2000. Her recorded legacy is perhaps smaller than one might have wished, but we are nevertheless fortunate to be able to enjoy her rare talent in its many aspects, from the great soprano roles of Mozart to the delights of French song and opera. In Act IV of Pélleas et Mélisande, Pélleas is captivated by the beauty of Mélisande’s voice, describing it as ‘plus fraîche et plus franche que l’eau’ – ‘fresher and purer than water’. He could equally well have been describing the unforgettable voice of Suzanne Danco.

With thanks to the family of Victor Olof for permission to quote from his unpublished autobiography and to Michael Letchford for access to private correspondence with Suzanne Danco.