Maralin Niska (above), the American soprano who passed away on July 9th, 2016, was one of a handful of singers whose performances could induce me to travel - first from Syracuse, NY, to see her in several roles at New York City Opera, and later from Hartford, CT - where TJ and I had settled in the mid-1970s - to Lincoln Center, where she was singing at both the State Theatre and The Met.
Once, she even came to Hartford to sing Violetta, replacing another soprano on short notice. We were so excited when we arrived at The Bushnell and saw the announcement of the cast change; we rushed to the stage door to leave her a message, and en route we found her, just thirty minutes before curtain time, banging desperately on what she thought was the stage door. She was so happy to see us, not least because we were able to lead her to the proper entrance.
Violetta, Mimi, Tosca, Butterfly, Nedda, Countess Almaviva...these were some of the roles from the standard repertoire in which Niska thrilled me. Her triumphs in such great dramatic vehicles as Cherubini's Medea, Strauss's Salome, and Janacek's Emilia Marty were the stuff of operatic legend. In roles as diverse as Yaroslavna in PRINCE IGOR, the Composer in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, Rosalinda in FLEDERMAUS, and Elisabetta I in MARIA STUARDA, she achieved miracles of characterization and of voice.
Yet for all that, is was - curiously enough - as Marguerite in FAUST that Maralin gave a (somewhat unexpectedly) sensational performance that has lingered so clearly in my mind over the ensuing years. In the unforgettable Frank Corsaro production - in which the devil wins - Maralin left the notion of Marguerite as a shrinking violet in the dust. Faust's love for the girl signaled not only her romantic but also her sexual awakening.
In the Garden Scene, on the brink of having her, Faust backs off, causing Maralin/Marguerite to burst into frantic sobs of frustration; when he reappears after Marguerite's ecstatic invocation, there's no going back.
As the opera draws to its end, Faust comes to rescue Marguerite from prison, where she awaits execution for murdering her child. The demented girl imagines they are back in the garden; she ignores Faust's pleas to come away. When Mephistopheles appears to urge theme to hurry, Marguerite sees him for what he is and turns to fervent prayer. Faust tries one last time to persuade her to flee, but she turns on him, crying: "Pourquoi ces mains rouge de sang? Va! ... tu me fais horreur!" ("Why are your hands red with blood? Go!...you fill me with horror!") No soprano has done that last line quite like Maralin.
Heavenly voices declare Marguerite's salvation; she begins to climb a steep staircase, but at the top of it, double doors fly open, and instead of an angelic host she is greeted by a towering executioner, masked and carrying an monstrous axe. Faust rushes up the steps to try to save her, but the doors are slammed shut in his face. Mephistopheles steps out of the shadows, calling Faust's name quietly, and waving the contract with which Faust had sold away his soul to the devil in Act I.
I've been able to preserve some excerpts from one of Maralin's performances in this role at NYC Opera; the date was March 15, 1970, and her colleagues were Nicholas di Virgilio (Faust) and Norman Treigle (Mephistopheles). The original tapes are in a fragile state - I was lucky they played well enough to save them to MP3. The sound quality leaves much to be desired, but hearing these scenes brings back wonderful memories for me:
Photographer Beth Bergman has created a beautiful memorial in photos to Maralin Niska on her website: visit the page here.