Romanian soprano Viorica Ursuleac (Fee-o-rit-za Oor-sool-yahts) has entered musical history as an enigma. Described by composer Richard Strauss as the "truest of the true" in interpreting his great soprano roles, she left recorded evidence that both supports and contradicts the validity of his belief in her. Contemporary singers spoke admiringly of the haunting quality of her large instrument and the extraordinary ease of her top register. On the other hand, much of her singing as captured on disc seems labored and, as the years passed, increasingly unsteady. Her voice was slow to "speak" and often the text sounded as though it were being voiced in slow motion. Still, she made at least two recording indispensable to a full understanding of the Strauss oeuvre and these suggest that on-stage she was capable of creating an aura of magic.
Reared in a musical family, she was sent to Vienna for five years to study at the Academy. On a visit to Zagreb, she was overheard singing by the city's opera intendant. Offered a contract, she made her debut in 1922 as Charlotte in Werther and subsequently sang a number of lyric roles (all in Croatian). Later, she retuned to Czernowitz, largely to escape an unfortunate marriage. At a concert in Bucharest, Ursuleac attracted the interest of Queen Marie, who facilitated her move toward an international career.
Soon, an audition with Felix Weingartner brought her a contract at the Vienna Volksoper. Hearing that conductor Clemens Krauss was assuming the directorship at Frankfort in 1924 and needed a leading soprano, Ursuleac sought to audition, but was rebuffed by the conductor who disliked Balkan singers. Finally, she gained a hearing under a fictitious name. When Krauss discovered the ruse, he hired her anyway, thus beginning a legendary collaboration that later resulted in their marriage. Ursuleac began receiving offers for guest appearances with several other major houses, forming an especially close relationship with Dresden. It was there that she created the first of four Strauss heroines, performing the title role of Arabella in 1933. Later, she sang the premieres of Friedenstag (dedicated to her and Krauss), Capriccio, and, at a 1944 Salzburg dress rehearsal, created Danae in Die Liebe der Danae (theater closings delayed the actual premiere until 1952).
When Ursuleac moved to Vienna in 1930, a rivalry with soprano Lotte Lehmann developed. Lehmann, the superior artist, lacked the one important element Ursuleac possessed in abundance: a soaring top register. Tensions abated when Ursuleac moved to Berlin in 1935, then Munich in 1937. Through this entire period, Ursuleac added other Strauss roles to her repertory: the Marschallin, Ariadne, Chrysothemis, the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten among them. Several premieres of works by other composers (Krenek's Der Dictator and d'Albert's Mister Wu, for example), Wagner, and various Italian roles were also a part of her activities.
Ursuleac's career was largely confined to Germany, Austria, and Italy. Her appearances at Covent Garden in 1934 brought a Desdemona that was not appreciated and an Arabella that was. Critic Richard Capell wrote, "Her singing, if not consistent, had a generally victorious quality, and details were exquisite."
A 1935 Berlin recording of Ariadne auf Naxos (sans prologue) with Helge Rosvaenge and Erna Berger reveals what Ursuleac could achieve in her prime, approaching something close to ecstatic utterance in the final pages. Likewise, a live Friedenstag from 1938 shows a spectacular mastery of a very high-lying role.