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Wagner : Walkure

New York, Met, 1975 (Audio)

Director: Sixten Ehriling

  • Jon Vickers
  • Birgit Nilsson
  • Bengt Rundgren
  • Rita Hunter
  • Donal McIntyre

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  •   Hunter
    RITA HUNTER,was much feted as Brunnhilde in performances of Wagner's Ring cycle given by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum in 1970s; she was a soprano possessed of a large voice - and corresponding physique - and an appreciable acting ability.

    Rita Hunter sang the role of the erring goddess with glorious tone, which she seemed to produce without strain or a hint of tiredness. This summit of her career was achieved in collaboration with the great Wagnerian conductor and coach Reginald Goodall. In full flight, the sound she made was a wonder to hear and was often compared with that of Birgit Nilsson.

    Rita Hunter was also accomplished in Italian opera. Her generous singing graced many performances of Verdi's work for the ENO and she eventually undertook, with considerable success, the taxing title role in Bellini's Norma, in which she triumphed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

    But her career in earlier years had been far from plain sailing. Her size had often discouraged opera companies from casting her in romantic roles and she was instead confined to character parts such as Marcelina in Figaro and the Mother in Hansel and Gretel. These were undertaken with Sadler's Wells Opera, the precursor of the ENO, at Sadler's Wells Theatre, north London.

    Rita Hunter had joined the company as a principal soprano in 1960. Her only major parts in her early years were as Senta in The Flying Dutchman (a portent of what was to come) and as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. At the age of 32 she decided to take a break and have a baby. It proved a godsend in more ways than one as, on her return to the stage, her true merits gradually became recognised.

    She made her Covent Garden debut in a small role, then sang Eglantine in Weber's Euryanthe for the Chelsea Opera Group and - late in 1968 - Donna Anna (in Don Giovanni) at the Coliseum. On January 29 1970 she sang Brunnhilde for the first time, in the final opera of the Ring: The Twilight of the Gods.

    The rave reviews which followed this performance established her as one of the leading Wagner sopranos of the day, or indeed of any day. The other operas in the cycle followed in 1973. Meanwhile, Rita Hunter had saved a performance of Der Fliegende Hollander at Covent Garden by taking over the role of Senta at short notice in 1972, singing in English to her colleagues' German. She also became a noted Turandot in Puccini's opera, another role which demanded her powerful voice.

    Rita Hunter was born at Wallasey, Cheshire, on August 15 1933, and made her first stage appearance locally at the age of eight. At 15, she sang Goldilocks in pantomime and was engaged as a dancer to play the Liverpool clubs, where the tough audience often demanded a song from her. While she undertook serious singing lessons, training with Edwin Francis in Liverpool, she began singing in operetta on tour.

    She joined the Sadler's Wells Chorus on her 21st birthday. After her arrival in London, Rita Hunter continued to study, with Redvers Llewellyn, and after two years became a principal with the now-defunct Carl Rosa Opera, undertaking small roles. It was there that she met her husband John Darnley, who was a tenor. After winning a scholarship which enabled her to study with Eva Turner in 1959, she returned the following year to Sadler's Wells as a principal.

    Rita Hunter was a phenomenon. Once she had a role under her capacious belt, she could sing it unflinchingly for however often was required. Though she inevitably moved on stage with dignity rather than flexibility, she acted keenly with her expressive face to project the emotion of the moment. Wagner was her metier, but she made a vital impression in at least three roles in Verdi's operas - Leonora in Il trovatore, Elisabeth in Don Carlos and Amelia in A Masked Ball.

    In the later part of her career, after singing all over Europe and the USA, she made several appearances in Australia, where she had lived since 1985.

    On a visit to Britain in 1993, to sing at Chichester Cathedral, her size presented a new difficulty when she decided to have a dress made from Union flags; it proved impossible to secure enough of them. "All great artists," she announced, "have some flaw, and that is mine."

    Her work is preserved in the complete ENO recording of the Ring, which is in the process of being reissued, and on various solo recitals. She was appointed CBE in 1980.

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