Lucia Popp, who tragically died of brain cancer at the age of 54, is one of those sopranos everyone seems to love, and with good reason. She had a winning personality, an immediately recognisable voice of great beauty and a rare gift for communication.
She made her debut at the age of 23, a light coloratura, singing roles such as the Queen of the Night, Blonde, Zerlina, Despina, Sophie, Oscar and Susanna, but by her 30s had moved on to the lyric repertoire and her roles would henceforth be Pamina, the Countess or the Marschallin. She was also active on the concert patform and was a superb recitalist, and this compilation, taken from her EMI recordings, is a good example of her work in all fields.
Disc 1 concentrates on works with orchestra starting with a lovely rendition of Rusalka’s Song to the Moon, taken from a 1988 recital of Slavonic Arias. She is ideal in the two Smetana arias too, but the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, which closes disc 1, ideally requires a fuller tone. One appreciates the fullness of heart nonetheless.
Gorgeous in every way are the exceprts from the Frühbeck de Burgos recording of Carmina Burana, no doubt the main reason many of us consider his recording a first choice for the work. I was lucky enough to hear Popp sing Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder under Tennstedt at the Royal Festival Hall in the early 1980s and their 1982 recording has long been considered a top recommendation for the work, so it is good to have it here included in its entirety. A further reminder of their artistic collaboration is the inclusion of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no 4, where Popp strikes and ideal note of childlike innocence.
Disc 2 starts with some 1967 recordings of Handel and continues with Mozart, taken both from complete recordings and a 1983 recital, so we get examples of her Queen of the Night under Klemperer and her Pamina under Haitink (both often considered touch stones for the roles). I don’t know if she ever sang Donna Anna on stage and I’m not sure the voice would ever have been right for the role. None the less the line in Non mi dir is beautifully sustained and the coloratura section cleanly articulated in a way heavier voices don’t often achieve. The Schubert songs expose a slight lack of colour, and we note that she is better at expressing joy as in Die Forelle and An Sylvia than the drama inherent in Gretchen am Spinnrade. On the other hand that fullness of heart I spoke about earlier suits Strauss’s Zueignung to perfection.
If one were to find any other fault, it would be to note that her legato is not always perfect. She has a tendency to use what John Steane once referred to as the squeeze-box method of production, where each individual note is given a slight push which impedes the long legato line. One might also note that the voice lost some of its silvery purity in the later recordings. She was a considerable artist, nonetheless, and this compendium, which finishes with Popp letting her hair down in arias from Die lustige Witwe and Die Fledermaus can be considered to live up to its title.