Richard Wagner(1813 - 1883)
A music dramain three acts to the composer's libretto, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristanof circa 1210
"... amonument to love, this most beautiful of all dreams" ?é?áWagner on Tristanund Isolde
This thrillingrecording of Tristan und Isolde preserves one of the greatestpartnerships in the whole history of opera, Kirsten FIagstad and LauritzMelchior first sang together (at the Metropolitan, New York) in 1935,Flagstad's arrival took the American public by storm; she had hitherto sunglittle outside Scandinavia and her name was known to few opera enthusiasts, Toquote her accompanist and biographer, Edwin McArthur, "... from an obscureposition in the provincial musical world, this woman, relatively late in life,suddenly blazed upon the international scene"," Isolde was almost newto her as, apart from a handful of performances in Norway (and in Norwegian) afew years earlier, this visit to New York offered her first assumption of therole, Flagstad's appearances at Covent Garden in 1936 were similarly greetedwith enthusiasm and we are fortunate indeed that this recording was made"live" at the opera house that season, during which she sang tout performancesof Tristan und Isolde.
In the summer of1936 Lauritz Melchior was far better known than Flagstad in both Britain and the United States. Atthe time this recording was made, his Tristan was a thoroughly experienced andsecure interpretation; he had been singing the role for over seven years andduring his career he performed it more frequently than any other in his repertoire- over 200 times.
Yes, one of thegreatest partnerships in the history of opera, but one that lasted only sixyears, In April 1941 Flagstad flew from the United States to rejoin herhusband, the industrialist Henry Johansen, in occupied Norway and the greatestTristan and Isolde of the century never sang together, never met, again.
Both Melchior andFlagstad performed in the opera (or Handlung/music drama to use Wagner'sown term) with other singers of international renown, but never apart did theygenerate the dramatic excitement and lyrical eloquence that this recordingillustrates; and both were easily able to sustain their long roles throughthree acts without any audible evidence of tiring (though it must be mentionedthat in this performance some then-customary cuts were made in the first partof the Act 2 love duet and in Tristan's taxing scene in Act 3).
Flagstad is trulyaristocratic. By sheer tonal splendour she portrays the Irish princess in allmoods; the fury of the first act outburst, followed soon by the ferventdeclaration of love as the potion takes effect. Isolde's greeting of Tristan inAct 2 is spontaneous and, not unexpectedly, tense with anticipation. The loveduet exemplifies Flagstad's reputation for beautiful, soft singing which then,without apparent effort, soars passionately before the untimely interruption ofMarke and his courtiers; always secure, achievement never in doubt. At theclose of the third act Flagstad, resigned, fulfilled and still enraptured byher love for Tristan, sings the most moving Liebestod on record.
Melchior'sinterpretation is based on different assets. Immediately we hear his firstresponses in Act I we are aware that his early training as a baritone remains abeneficial influence. Just where some tenors are particularly vulnerable -atthe lower end of their range - Melchior is strong and assured; and so on, up throughto a ringing top, confident and secure all the way. (Incidentally, there islittle evidence on this recording of some of Melchior's noted mannerisms. Hehad a reputation for rhythmical slackness and carelessness over note values.
But here, some oddly emphatic pronunciation apart, he behaves pretty well.) Heis incomparably moving in his third act delirium - and makes a whole world oflove out of the single word "Isolde" at Tristan's death.
These two finesingers are handsomely supported by their colleagues on stage and in the pit. TheLondon Philharmonic Orchestra play with commitment under Fritz Reiner (1888 -1963).
His reputation for irritability with orchestras is fortunately not evident inthis tautly led, well paced performance -no self-indulgence here. Janssen (1895-1965) is a compassionate Kurwenal, a role he also sang with success at Bayreuth and, from 1939, at the Met, after voluntarily terminatinga career at the Berlin Staatsoper. As King Marke, the Austrian-born EmanuelList (1890 -1967) employs his dark, resonant tones in a part he too sang regularlyat the Met (from 1934). Like Janssen, he appeared in Berlin before the second world war and also in Salzburg, Bayreuth, Buenos Aires and throughout the USA.
As Brangane we hear the Polish contralto Sabine Kalter (1890 -1957). Aftertraining in Vienna she sang mostly in Hamburg, moving to London before thewar; at Covent Garden she sang principally Wagnerian roles,ending her career there in 1939. She sings with haunting beauty in the distant warningto the lovers in Act 2 and her exchanges with Isolde in Act I display anurgency that shows what can be made of this part.
As"live" recorded performances frequently do, this Tristan und Isolde
has a theatrical frisson often absent from studio recordings. Even to anoffstage voice briefly vocalising during the First Act Prelude (Flagstadwarming up?), even to the sound of Kurwenal running up steps to see Isolde'sship in Act 3, even to the occasional audience cough, we are taken back toCovent Garden on that summer night in 1936 to hear one of the greatperformances of the century.
At sea, on thedeck of Tristan's ship.
An extendedprelude introduces a number of significant motifs which will be heard againduring the drama.
Isolde is onboard Tristan's ship travelling from Ireland to Cornwall, where she is to marry King Marke, Tristan's uncle.
A sailor sings a plaintive song about a forsaken lover, hearing which Isolde burstsinto a rebellious tirade against the weakness of her own people who have beenovercome by their enemies. Her servant Brangane tries to pacify her as Tristan,with his servant Kurwenal, is seen standing at the stern of the ship. After thesailor's song has been heard again, Brangane calls for Tristan to attend hermistress, which he declines to do. A second request is also rejected, this timeby Kurwenal, who scornfully relates how Tristan murdered Morold, the man to whomIsolde was previously betrothed. Incensed by Kurwenal's response, Isolde tellsBrangane how she recognised Tristan when he came to her in disguise and soughthelp after the murder. She wanted to kill h