Distant Voices : Sigrid Onegin

For those unfamiliar with her singing, the name Sigrid Onégin might appear to be an exotic combination of a popular Scandinavian first name and the last name of Pushkin’s (and Tchaikovsky’s) famous anti-hero. Such an assumption would be correct. Sigrid Onégin (1889-1943) was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but to German parents, who named her Elisabeth Elfriede Emilie Sigrid Hoffmann. She initially performed under the name Lilly Hoffmann and took the professional name Sigrid Onégin after marrying the Russian composer and pianist Baron Eugene Borisovich Lvov Onégin in 1913. Her husband’s last name was, in fact, adopted from that of the classic Russian literary figure.

Sigrid Onégin is widely regarded as having possessed one of the finest and most cultivated contralto voices since the distinguished Ernestine Schumann-Heink. After early studies in Frankfurt, Munich, and Milan, Onégin’s teachers included the renowned Wagnerian soprano-turned-pedagogue Lilli Lehmann and soprano Margarethe Siems. Siems, incidentally, was Strauss’ Zerbinetta for the 1912 world premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Onégin sang the role of Dryad. Her husband also played an important part in her artistic life.

Onégin’s performance in the premiere of Ariadne in Stuttgart was preceded by her operatic debut as Carmen earlier that year, also in Stuttgart. The German city remained her musical home until 1919, the year her husband died. Onégin spent the following three years in Munich (1919-22), during which time she married Fritz Penzoldt, a German doctor who authored her biography. In October 1922, Onégin made her first appearance in the United States in a concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. The following month, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Amneris in Aida in a cast that included Elisabeth Rethberg (also in her Met debut) and Giovanni Martinelli. She remained with the company for two seasons. From 1926-31, she performed regularly with the State Opera in Berlin, and she made guest appearances at such important centers as Covent Garden, Paris, Vienna, Zürich, and Bayreuth. Onégin’s operatic roles encompassed Wagner (Fricka, Erda, Waltraute, First Norn, Kundry, Ortrud, Brangäne), Verdi (also Azucena, Ulrica, Eboli, Lady Macbeth), and Strauss (also Klytemnästra and Herodias). In 1931, she was triumphant as Gluck’s Orpheus at the Salzburg Festival, where her acting made an indelible impression.

Despite these significant operatic performances, Onégin’s most notable accomplishments took place in the concert arena, making regular recital tours throughout the United States until 1938. In addition to Lieder, her recital programs included Mozart and Bel Canto arias, which allowed her to exploit her remarkable vocal agility and expert trill, and she was a highly regarded interpreter of Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody.

Onégin’s singing has been characterized as “marmoreal,” as lacking communicative power, and as being stylistically cold. A different perspective would be to describe her art as “noble”: a resplendent tone of abundant radiance and warmth, a line of unerring elegance and poise, and a consistency of production at which one can only marvel. Her vocal range was enormous, spanning nearly three octaves without apparent effort.

For the modern listener, it is fortunate Onégin recorded frequently. She first recorded for Deutsche Grammophon in 1910 and, over the course of nine years, her repertoire covered Wagner, Verdi, and Bizet arias (all in German) and Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. For Decca, she made original-language recordings of arias from Carmen, Samson et Dalila, and Il trovatore; more Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms; and the first of two recordings she made of the “Alleluia” from the Mozart Exsultate, jubilate. Onégin’s second recording of the “Alleluia” was made for RCA Victor, who captured the artist in several Lieder; a complete recording of the Alto Rhapsody; arias of Donizetti, Verdi, Meyerbeer, and Saint-Saëns; and a gorgeously affecting (if stylistically dated) “Che farò senza Euridice?” from Orfeo ed Euridice. A novelty from the RCA Victor sessions is an arrangement of the Chopin Impromptu in A-flat, a dazzlingly virtuosic performance demonstrating the full spectrum of her extraordinary gifts.

Several of Onégin’s other recordings are deserving of special mention. “O prêtre de Baal” from Meyerbeer’s Le prophète exhibits sophisticated musicianship and is a prime example of her brilliant coloratura technique (with a fantastic final trill). Likewise, these qualities are on fine display in the Brindisi from Lucrezia Borgia, which is dispatched with an infectiously enchanting panache.

Onégin’s plushly sung “O don fatal” from Don Carlo is appropriately hair raising, yet the ease with which she approaches climactic higher pitches serves only to heighten the visceral thrill. In song repertoire, “Du bist die Ruh” is noteworthy for its pure, honest phrasing, as is her “Freiwilliges Versinken” for the depth of its longing. Her rich timbre is particularly well suited for the harmonies and textures of Brahms, especially in “Die Mainacht” and “Von ewiger Liebe.” Conversely, Mozart’s “Das Veilchen” reveals a delicate freshness in the song’s storytelling.

As with other singers, Nimbus Records’ Prima Voce label has a disc dedicated to Onégin in its catalog. Its track list includes various arias, Brahms Lieder, and three of Weckerlin’s Bergerettes (“O ma tendre musette,” “Menuett d’exaudet,” and “Jeunes fillettes”). Three discs on Preiser Records’ Lebendige Vergangenheit label, however, give a more complete picture of the artist. The first volume is comprised of arias (including “O prêtre de Baal,” the Brindisi, and “O don fatal”) and the Alto Rhapsody. Lieder and a couple of early Italian songs (“Amarilli” and “Pur dicesti”) are contained in the second volume, while the third consists of Wagner, several arias in German translation, and the Four Serious Songs of Brahms.

These recordings and others featuring Sigrid Onégin can be readily purchased on iTunes and Amazon, among other retail outlets. With such ease of availability, one should not miss the artist about whom noted music critic J.B. Steane wrote, “It would not be rash to suggest that among recorded contraltos hers is the most beautiful voice.”

Dean Southern

Dean Southern, DMA, is on the voice faculties of the Cleveland Institute of Music and the American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria.