23 June 2009

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – DIE WALKÜRE (M. Harshaw, O. Edelmann, M. Schech, R. Vinay, B. Thebom, K. Böhme; Living Stage)

Margaret Harshaw as Brünnhilde in DIE WALKÜRE at the Metropolitan Opera Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883) – Die Walküre: M. Harshaw (Brünnhilde), O. Edelmann (Wotan), M. Schech (Sieglinde), R. Vinay (Siegmund), B. Thebom (Fricka), K. Böhme (Hunding), B. Amparán (Schwertleite), G. Lind (Helmwige), R. Elias (Siegrune), C. Ordassy (Gerhilde), H. Krall (Ortlinde), M. Moll (Waltraute), M. Lipton (Grimgerde), S. Warfield (Rossweisse); Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera; Dimitri Mitropoulos [Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 02.02.1957; Living Stage LS1058]

This performance is not new to the discography, and the present release by Living Stage is likewise not new to the shelves.  Preserving the Metropolitan Opera broadcast of 2 February 1957 of the Herbert Graf production of Die Walküre (first performed in 1948), this recording commemorates the Ring season in which both Marianne Schech and Wolfgang Windgassen made their MET debuts and in which – in the broadcast performance recorded here – Ramón Vinay sang his first MET Siegmund.  The Wagnerian pedigrees of the Walküre cast fit well into what was a momentous season that also witnessed the MET debuts of Maria Callas (as Norma), Carlo Bergonzi (as Radamès), Irene Dalias (as Principessa Eboli), Mary Curtis-Verna (as Leonora in Trovatore), and Martha Mödl (as Brünnhilde in Siegfried).  An established entity, then, this recording merits the interest of even a casual Wagnerian for the insights it provides into the Wagner culture of the MET during one of the Company’s periods of glory.

The wonder to a listener approaching this performance in 2009 is that, in 1957, the cast assembled by the MET for Walküre was considered slightly disappointing, especially as Astrid Varnay was the reigning Brünnhilde at Bayreuth (and a familiar presence at the MET since 1941), and Birgit Nilsson was already singing the three Brünnhilde roles at Covent Garden (and had sung the Walküre Brünnhilde in San Francisco in 1956).  Furthermore, Dimitri Mitropoulos was celebrated as a champion of contemporary music rather than as a Wagnerian.  Reviews of the 1957 Ring center on respectable but not resplendent singing and unfortunate costuming, but it is significant that the Metropolitan Opera Record Club recorded excerpts from Walküre during the 1957 run with Margaret Harshaw, Blanche Thebom, and Hermann Uhde (substituting for Otto Edelmann as Wotan), under Mitropoulos’ baton; perhaps not viewed as a top-flight cast by the standards of the day but one nonetheless worthy of documentation.

Thus it was in 1957, and even more worthy those players seem now.  It was written in 1957 that Mitropoulos conducted Walküre as though he were eager to get home to his dinner, rushing the music in a manner that conveyed disinterest more than excitement.  There are moments in which the music is pushed to extremes, not least in passages in the final act in which the put-upon Walküren (an impressive if not well-blended sorority including Rosalind Elias, Martha Lipton, Sandra Warfield, Belén Amparán, and Carlotta Ordassy) cannot keep pace with their music.  This inevitably leads to untidiness of ensemble, which is a tremendous pity as the Walküren en masse make an audible effort at preserving musical accuracy.  In many other portions of the score, however, Mitropoulos allows the music to flow at a natural pace, even bringing welcome expansiveness to passages of great emotional significance: the Todesverkündigung, Sieglinde’s lament (‘Nicht sehre dich Sorge um mich’), and Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde are only the three most obvious examples.  Mitropoulos’ leadership of this performance may well lack the grace of Clemens Krauss, the gravity of Wilhelm Furtwängler, and the visionary drive of Hans Knappertsbusch, but Mitropoulos presides over a performance that, occasional missteps notwithstanding, offers a deeply-felt, fulfilling Walküre.

On the whole, the MET Orchestra play well for Mitropoulos, missing the monumental tonal solidity learned from Mahler (and still discernible on the wartime Walküre broadcast that preserved a characteristic Brünnhilde from Helen Traubel and Astrid Varnay making her MET debut on a moment’s notice as Sieglinde) and the later eloquence gained under Levine’s tenure but still proving an accomplished ensemble capable of great feats of virtuosity.  The brass players are particularly fine, making a beautiful showing in their crucial accompaniment to the Todesverkündigung that all too easily can seem a cacophony of automobile horns (and far too often does just that).  With only a few misfires from trombones and tubas and occasionally questionable intonation from high strings, the orchestra phrase the performance with that innate understanding of Wagner’s music that has been second nature at the MET since the Company’s inaugural Lohengrin in 1883.

With his performances of Hunding in the 1957 revival of Walküre, German bass Kurt Böhme bade farewell to the MET after a brief career at the house of only two seasons.  Böhme was celebrated throughout Europe for Wagner and Strauss roles (Strauss even stated that he considered Böhme the ideal Baron Ochs) and was a frequent presence at Bayreuth, where his most admired Ring role was Fafner.  Not yet fifty at the time of this MET Walküre, Böhme sings with intelligence and palpable menace, thrusting his deep, coal-black sound into Hunding’s music with abandon.  The voice is not beautiful (as, indeed, it never was, judging from Böhme’s many recordings), but the role does not truly require tonal beauty.  Slightly more regrettable is the conventional characterization, Hunding seeming in Böhme’s performance a stock villain rather than the hurt, rightfully vengeful figure that he can be.  Musically, though, little is missing, and the performance benefits from a Hunding who is a genuine presence in the drama and not merely a guileless pawn of Fricka’s coercion.

Long remembered for her Brangäne in Kirsten Flagstad’s studio recording of Tristan und Isolde, American mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom gave her first MET house performance (her first performance with the Company was as Brangäne in a MET tour performance in Philadelphia two weeks earlier) as Fricka in 1944, opposite Traubel’s Brünnhilde and Rose Bampton’s Sieglinde.  Thebom returned to Fricka during many of the seasons between her 1944 debut and this 1957 performance (including the 1948 debut of the Graf production), ultimately singing the role for the last time at the MET in 1958.  From her first entrance in this 1957 performance, it is evident that Thebom has lost none of her tonal luster.  Richly imperious, she establishes Fricka as a duly regal consort for Wotan.  The staunchest of Wotans could hardly refute the arguments of such a Fricka, yet Thebom achieves this unanswerable authority through careful placement of the tone rather than hectoring.  More than a decade after her MET debut, Thebom again proves that she is at home in German roles and, moreover, often beats the formidable Teutonic mezzo-sopranos of her time at their own game.

As previously noted, the 1957 revival of Walküre provided German soprano Marianne Schech with the opportunity for her MET debut as Sieglinde.  In the context of recordings, Schech is often considered an essentially ‘utilitarian’ soprano of whom generally acceptable but rarely exceptional performances can be expected.  In this performance, Schech is not revelatory in the sense that Varnay was at her MET debut, but she is an above-average Sieglinde.  As much as any character’s in the Ring, Sieglinde’s is a fearsomely challenging tessitura, residing in the first act mostly in the lower octave of the voice but requiring in the second and third acts the soaring upper register of a true soprano.  Under the right circumstances, lyric voices have proved effective as Sieglinde, but Schech restores to the role the proper dramatic dimensions.  Like Böhme’s, Schech’s voice cannot truthfully be termed beautiful in a traditional sense, but she sings beautifully as Sieglinde, phrasing the great melody of ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ (among Wagner’s most sublime inspirations and perhaps the single most significant Leitmotif in the Ring, resolved in the final moments of Götterdämmerung) broadly despite Mitropoulos’ refusal to linger on the climactic top notes at the zeniths of the lines.  The loneliness projected by Schech in the first act, the desperation and terror in the second, and the instinctive longing to save her unborn child in her final scene contribute to a complete portrayal of Sieglinde.  In a sense, Sieglinde is the subtle nucleus about which the Ring undulates: it is the love that she has awakened in Siegmund that inspires Brünnhilde to her decisive act of defiance, and it is her tragic delivery of the infant Siegfried unto Mime that shapes the progression of the the cycle to ultimate purification.  Attentive in many of his scores to the notion of the sacrificial woman as a force of social absolution and moral benediction, Wagner exultantly extols the virtue of Sieglinde’s sacrifice in the final moments of the Ring, after Brünnhilde’s immolation has felled Walhalla and restored the ring to the Rhinemaidens.  Schech brings to her performance the sort of passion and involvement with both music and text that meaningfully convey the personal drama of the character and honor her symbolic significance in the Ring.  This Schech accomplishes with a strong, focused voice that is never taken short at either end of her range.  She is a Sieglinde fully worthy of her surroundings and one who, on examination undertaken with the benefit of hindsight, achieves more than many famous sopranos managed in the role.

The career of Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay was from start to finish an act of compromise.  Having launched his career as a baritone, Vinay eventually undertook the most demanding Verdi dramatic tenor and Wagner Heldentenor roles before returning in the Indian summer of his career to baritone roles.  It is likely that, as with Leonard Warren, the upper notes of the tenor register were present in the voice (even if dormant, as it were) from the beginning: coloration of the tone and perhaps an early compression of the range were surely the factors that determined Vinay’s early classification as a baritone.  [It was far more widely understood among singers and vocal pedagogues of the young Vinay’s time, it should be stated, that possession of notes above top A-flat does not of its own accord render a singer a tenor.]  Even in tenor roles, Vinay’s voice retained a dark, burnished sound that – unlike the voices of most baritones transformed into tenors, Bergonzi excepted – was both powerful and beautiful.  As Verdi’s Otello, there were both uncontrollable rage and extraordinarily tragic vulnerability in Vinay’s timbre.  This same combination of raw energy and warm humanity is audible in Vinay’s MET Siegmund, a performance of no little eloquence that cannot have failed to differ extensively from Windgassen’s, the MET’s alternating Siegmund in the 1957 revival.  In Vinay’s performance, Siegmund is perceptibly developed from a brutish young man on the run to a more mature figure experiencing the blossoming of love for the first time.  This is not to suggest that Vinay’s performance is without moments of brutality, for there are instances – most destructively in the Todesverkündigung – of explosive delivery and shouting.  Vinay wrote in his memoires of the difficulties Siegmund poses for tenors, stating that it is a role that he could have sung more easily as a baritone than as a tenor.  It is in the extreme lower register that many Siegmunds are caught out, but Vinay of course manages the lowest lines of the role without difficulty.  Outbursts in the upper register are muscular but not strained.  Even in his least refined moments, Vinay is a dignified Siegmund, both the hero and the lover.  Vinay responds with interest and engagement to his Sieglinde and Brünnhilde and, all things considered, provides despite – or, rather, as a result of – his compromises a truly distinguished performance.

The American artist Margaret Harshaw, encouraged by Sir Rudolf Bing to expand her repertory to include the principal Wagner soprano roles as a successor to Helen Traubel, still holds the record for having sung the most Wagner roles at the MET owing to having taken both mezzo-soprano and soprano roles (and even contralto roles such as La Cieca in Gioconda, which she sang opposite Zinka Milanov).  Heard here as Brünnhilde at something close to her prime, Harshaw brings complete vocal security to her task.  A few notes at the very top are produced with considerable effort, but Harshaw compensates for the rare moments of stress by bringing a disarmingly girlish tone to her performance.  For all that Brünnhilde is undeniably a ‘big girl’ part, there is no reason (other than the necessity implicit in casting sopranos who can cope with the music) that the hair under the horned helmet should be touched by grey.  After all, it is his aunt who Siegfried will extract from her fiery slumber in the next installment of the Ring, and any conscientious Siegfried must surely prefer that his Brünnhilde at least not sound like a decaying hag.  [To ask that she also not look like a decaying hag might be too ambitious.]  Harshaw sings in this performance with every sign of robust vocal health.  Like Vinay, the deep foundation of her voice serves her well in the Todesverkündigung, where Brünnhilde’s vocal lines climb gradually from a start in the lowest register.  In her two great interviews with her father, Harshaw’s Brünnhilde sings with poignant comprehension of the events unfolding before her, pleading her case before her father’s judgment in the final act to heartbreaking effect.  It is rare for a Brünnhilde to genuinely touch the heart in Walküre, but Harshaw accomplishes this by dedicating herself unashamedly to the music.  Harshaw’s interaction with Brünnhilde’s sisters following the Walkürenritt is an exercise more in camaraderie than in commandeering, and her exchanges with Sieglinde suggest true interest rather than the sense put forth by many singers of merely enacting a part in a specific destiny.  Harshaw’s strengths create a compelling, completely satisfactory Brünnhilde who, at least for the benefit of having such an attractive performance recorded for posterity, extinguishes quiet longing for Nilsson or Varnay.

When Kirsten Flagstad recorded the third act of Walküre for DECCA in the same year as this MET performance, under Sir Georg Solti’s baton, with Austrian bass-baritone Otto Edelmann as Wotan (and also with Marianne Schech as Sieglinde), she stated that Edelmann’s was the most purely beautiful instrument she had heard in Wotan’s music.  Though tarnished at times by overemphatic barking, much of that sterling beauty is evident in Edelmann’s Wotan in this broadcast.  A measure of the tragedy of the role that eluded Edelmann in the studio is present in the setting of a staged performance.  Vocally, Edelmann’s performance is remarkable, easily encompassing the considerable tessitura of the role and producing a clutch of ringing top notes that are all the more impressive considering that Edelmann was also a celebrated Baron Ochs (complete with low E).  Dramatically, Edelmann is both granitic and broken in his second-act scene with Fricka and the last-act denunciation of Brünnhilde.  Abandoning his favorite daughter to sleep upon the rock, Edelmann’s Wotan achieves a poignant sorrow that only just misses profundity.  In Edelmann’s performance, it is already possible to sense at the end of Walküre that redemption is not possible for Wotan.  Slight quibbles aside, it is impossible to not be grateful for this recording of a great but too-little-documented singer at the height of his powers in a congenial role.  Moreover, Edelmann offers a Wotan who stands with the best in terms of vocalism.

Sonically, this recording is typical of similar recordings of MET broadcasts from the 1950’s.  There are bumps, thumps, and minor disturbances from stage, pit, and house.  There are also instances in which, likely owing to staging business, voices wander far away from the microphone(s): several lines from various Walküren in the first scene of the final act are virtually inaudible, for example.  On the whole, these are very insignificant flaws that will only lessen the appeal of this recording if the listener demands the antiseptic silence of the recording studio.  Far greater inconsistencies than these are happily endured in order to enjoy a performance such as this.

In the course of a long MET career, Astrid Varnay only sang the Walküre Brünnhilde with the Company four times, one of which was in a tour performance in Boston.  Birgit Nilsson’s first MET Walküre Brünnhilde was sung in 1960.  In 1957, the MET entrusted the Walküre Brünnhilde, the most iconic of the three incarnations of the role, to Margaret Harshaw, a stalwart ‘house’ Wagnerian who could be relied upon for competent, committed performances.  Competency in Wagnerian roles being a sadly rare commodity now, what seemed merely sufficient in 1957 seems in 2009 little short of sublime.  Harshaw and the idiomatic cast with which the MET surrounded her brought to Walküre a sense of ensemble music-making that is almost invariably lacking in current performances.  Even more importantly, there is in this 1957 broadcast an omnipresent atmosphere in which the listener feels that this music matters.  How many performances in 2009 manage to convince an audience for four hours that incest, filial disobedience, domestic squabbles, and the dissolution of family units are truly, universally significant?