Elena Souliotis, the Greek soprano who died aged 61, was hailed as the likely successor to Maria Callas when she first appeared on the scene; and it seemed as though she might fulfil that promise during a brief period in the mid-1960s, when she was in demand in all the major opera houses.
Blessed with a true lyric-dramatic voice of notable individuality and an arresting stage presence, Elena Souliotis delighted vocal cognoscenti with her characterful portrayals of some of the most difficult parts in Italian opera. That her star faded so quickly was probably due to her taxing her talents beyond their limits.
Elena Souliotis (sometimes spelled Suliotis) was born in Athens on May 28 1943. Her mother was Greek, her father Russian. When Elena was only five years old, her parents emigrated to Buenos Aires, where she started her vocal training. Her promise as a singer soon became evident, and her parents sent her to Milan to work with Mercedes Llopart.
Elena Souliotis made her debut when she was only 20, in the vocally and dramatically demanding role of Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. Word soon got round in Italy that a new star had been born, and she was sought after in most of that country's major houses. In 1965 she sang Amelia in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Mantua. The next year she made her debut at La Scala, opening the season as the evil Abigaille in Verdi's early melodrama Nabucco; she caused something of a sensation, as she did later that year at Florence's Maggio Musicale in the title part of Verdi's Luisa Miller. The same composer's Leonora (in Il trovatore) and Aida were further successes in Italy at that time.
Also in 1966, Elena Souliotis made her American debut as Helen of Troy in Boito's Mefistofele, at the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Then, for her first appearance in New York, she chose the title part in Donizetti's Anna Bolena, in concert form, at the Carnegie Hall. Once more she won wide acclaim. London had to wait another two years to hear her. But when she undertook Abigaille in a concert form of Nabucco in 1968, critics and public alike took her to their hearts, and Covent Garden became interested in her talents.
She made her house debut as a fiery Lady Macbeth in Verdi's Macbeth in 1969, then returned in 1972 for a new production of Nabucco at the start of Colin Davis's spell as music director at the Royal Opera in 1972. The production was not much appreciated, but Elena Souliotis certainly was.
Meanwhile, in America she had added the name part in Bellini's Norma to her repertoire, at first in a concert in 1967 under the auspices of the American Opera Society. Italy soon proclaimed her as the true successor to Callas in the role, though in truth her portrayal of the role was no more than a simulacrum of the original.
It was about this time that BBC2 presented her in a programme called simply Suliotis Sings. Her personality and temperament were evident in interviews given for the programme, and in her singing; but some of her interpretations seemed unduly reckless, even when the star quality was obviously there.
Elena Suliotis was put under contract by Decca in the late 1960s, and recorded for that company Norma, Abigaille in Nabucco and Lady Macbeth, as well as a solo recital that tested her capabilities to the limit. These discs remain to proclaim her gifts as a dramatic artist, but they already reveal the tell-tale signs of technical difficulties, which all too soon were to curtail her career. One eminent conductor had his reservations, saying that she ought to be careful of what she sang.
It was a prophetic judgment. Taking her chest-register up too high and being wantonly free with her high notes led to her early demise as a soprano. Indeed, when she returned to Covent Garden for Santuzza in 1973, the decline had already begun.
Elena Souliotis was a true creature of the stage, and used her good looks and imposing presence to supplement her peculiarly individual voice; this was certainly Callas-like in its intensity of expression and its erotic frisson, but it was never as controlled in terms of real artistry. In an age which saw too many mundane and orthodox singers, however, she was a splendidly uninhibited artist.
From the mid-1970s Elena Souliotis devised a second career as a mezzo, mostly in character parts, among them the Grandmother in The Gambler by Prokofiev; Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana; and the old Countess in Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, which she sang at the Stuttgart Opera in 1999, her final appearance on stage.
Elena Souliotis died on December 4 2004 in Florence. She was divorced, and had one daughter.
Copyright The Daily Telegraph (2004)