A new but old Tristan

Gebhardt Musikvertrieb recently released a performance of Tristan und Isolde that was broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in NY on February 8, 1941. The cast contained the Met's stalwarts from that period: Lauritz Melchior was Tristan, Kirsten Flagstad was Isolde, Kirsten Thorborg was Brangaene, Julius Huehn was Kurwenal and Alexander Kipnis was Marke. Erich Leinsdorf conducted.

This performance is notable because it was Flagstad's final broadcast of Isolde, having been in eight previous broadcasts. She would leave the U.S. shortly to be with her husband during the war. When she finally returned to the Met for the 1950-51 season, she did sing a couple of Isoldes but Traubel got the broadcast on December 9, which was also Reiner's only broadcast of Tristan. Admittedly, by 1950, Flagstad was nearing the end of her career and her peak years at the Met were behind her. She would announce her retirement in 1952. There is no doubt that Flagstad was just happy to be back at the Met after all the controversy that surrounded her departure during the war. One wonders, though, how she felt at having to play second fiddle to Traubel's careless approach to singing Isolde, totally unconcerned if she got Isolde's top notes or not (most of the time she missed them). Nonetheless, the ovation that greeted Flagstad when the curtain went up on the first act of Tristan on January 22, 1951 is legendary. It went on and on. It is said that Fritz Reiner just put down the baton and let it continue for several minutes.

There is much to admire in this performance and having it available in superb sound is worth any price. The original transcription disks are surprisingly free of pops and scratches except during the 'popular' sections of the opera, such as the Curse, the "Einsam wachend," the Liebestod, etc., where the surface noise indicates repeated playings.

Flagstad's performance is stunning. One can quibble that perhaps her vocalism was fresher in certain parts of the role in previous years, perhaps her high C's were stronger and her legato was more connected in the thirties, but these are quibbles. The fact remains that here is a performance of Isolde for the ages. Overall, it has no competition. Not from Traubel who had the voice but not the musicality, nor from Nilsson whose shrillness and white tone could cut glass, nor from Varnay or Moedl, nor from Behrens or Meier. There really has been only ONE Isolde, and her name was Kirsten Flagstad.

Flagstad's characteristic instrumental timbre, warm and sensuous, is there to be admired in all its full-bodied splendor. Her ability to color phrases or words is magnificent and the big vocal displays are awesome in their security and forcefulness. Despite the fact that we are hearing a broadcast, one is able to tell that her sound must have filled every nook and cranny of the old Met. The final scene of the opera is truly heart breaking and the Liebestod is stunning, with those long phrases caressed and spun to perfection.

Melchior is up to par on this afternoon, his darky-hued, baritonal vocalism at its considerable best. Rarely have I heard him display such an easy flow of sweet tone, of deep feeling, with dramatic meaning that he usually avoids. It is one of Melchior's best afternoons in the opera house. Here is a heroic knight, whose final act is awesome in its dramatic outbursts. Here is a real heldentenor. Pure and simple.

Thorborg was a bit beyond her prime by 1941 and some of her outbursts are shrieked rather than sung and I had trouble hearing her at times, (usually drowned out by the orchestra) but her customary velvety vocalism is very much in evidence. Hers was a lovely "Einsam wachend". Huehn's baritone is opulent and he does some lovely mezza di voce singing for the dying Tristan. Kipnis is vocally excellent as well with a velvety richness to his sound that few possess. Here is an angry Marke, not a sorrowful one, but his vocal pronouncements are full of humanity.

Just about everything I hear Leinsdorf conduct impresses me as being competent but rarely more than that. Such is the case here. The orchestra is loud (possibly not his fault) and it occasionally drowns the singers. He is notorious for skirting over the surface of the score rather than digging into it and his brisk tempi on this afternoon accentuate that criticism. The second act love duet is beautifully paced though, as is the Liebestod - which is magnificent - but I find much of his work a bit slick and routine. There is not much depth or emotional probing. As was always the case with Wagner at the old Met, the score is savagely cut, and it is jarring when one is accustomed to the uncut performances that we hear today. A huge chunk is removed from the love duet (a good 20 pages!) and there are long stretches of Tristan's music that are removed from the third act. Act III is only 61 minutes long, rather than the customary 73 or so minutes. It is a pity that the Met sanctioned these cuts (and still does. The recent broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier had huge chunks removed from Act III).

One gets spoiled listening to this kind of singing.  Their splendid vocalism remains in the ear and can be matched today by a paltry few. In a few days, I will sit through Tristan & Isolde in Chicago with Jane Eaglen, Ben Heppner, Michelle De Young, and René Pape, and on paper, it's a cast that probably is the best that can be found today. Yet, Jane's Isolde is cold, emotionless and often bland.  Rarely does one find any depth of emotion or feeling in her work.  Vocally, the role is a challenge in ways it shouldn't be.  Gone is the free, lovely top that I heard in Chicago in the Ring a few years ago.  Heppner's Tristan is beautifully sung but it lacks the much-needed heroic pulse and one is aware that he is being pushed to his limits by the score, that the role has been pushed into his voice rather than assuming it as a part of his natural fach.  I wish I were going to hear Flagstad and Melchior!     P13

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