24 January 2010

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner – TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (R. Vinay, M. Harshaw, B. Thebom, O. Edelmann; Walhall Eternity)

Wagner: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE (Vinay, Harshaw, Thebom, Edelmann; Walhall Eternity)

RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Tristan und Isolde – R. Vinay (Tristan), M. Harshaw (Isolde), B. Thebom (Brangäne), O. Edelmann (Marke), W. Cassel (Kurwenal), C. Marsh (Melot), P. Franke (Shepherd), O. Hawkins (Steersman), R. Nagy (Sailor); Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera; Fritz Stiedry [Metropolitan Opera matinée broadcast of 1 March 1958; Walhall Eternity Series 0281]

The Metropolitan Opera’s relationship with Tristan und Isolde began on 1 December 1886, when the Company – then in its fourth season – presented the United States premiere of the opera with Albert Niemann and Lilli Lehmann under the baton of Anton Seidl, a Wagner disciple whose work at Bayreuth under Wagner’s supervision included contributing to the first fair copy of the manuscript of Der Ring des Nibelungen.  In the years between the MET’s first performance of Tristan und Isolde and the second half of the Twentieth Century, the Company hosted the world’s most celebrated Isoldes: Lillian Nordica, Milka Ternina (in addition to having been London’s and New York’s first Tosca, Ternina was credited with having discovered Zinka Milanov in their native Croatia), Johanna Gadski, Olive Fremstad (whose first MET Isolde was conducted by Gustav Mahler in his house debut: she was later conducted in the role by Arturo Toscanini), Melanie Kurt, Margarete Matzenauer, Florence Easton, Barbara Kemp (wife of the composer Max von Schillings and creator of the title role in his Mona Lisa), Nanny Larsén-Todsen (the first studio-recorded Isolde), Gertrude Kappel, Elisabeth Ohms (who was the favorite Isolde of Richard Strauss, by whom she was conducted in the role in Vienna), Göta Ljungberg (a favorite singer of both Mahler and Bruno Walter, who chose her for the premiere of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde), Frida Leider, Anny Konetzni, Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Marjorie Lawrence, and Astrid Varnay.  The role of Tristan was dominated in the affections of MET audiences by Lauritz Melchior, who first sang the part with the company in a Philadelphia performance on 5 March 1929: his last performance as Tristan, a month before his last MET appearance (as Lohengrin), was on 2 January 1950.  In the interim, Melchior sang Tristan an astonishing 128 times for the MET, both in New York and on national tours.

The formidable Isolde of Martha Mödl having been heard at the MET only three times (during the 1957 – 58 season), it might be argued that there was a lapse in New York’s love affair with Tristan und Isolde during the 1950’s, until Birgit Nilsson’s sensational MET debut as Isolde on 18 December 1959.  The opera was in the MET repertory during five seasons in the 1950’s, however: Flagstad sang Isolde for the last time at the MET on 26 March 1951, after which the mantel was carried by Traubel (whose last MET performance was as Isolde on 21 March 1953) and Varnay (who last sang Isolde at the MET on 19 March 1955).  This newly-issued recording from Walhall preserves the MET broadcast of 1 March 1958, when Isolde was sung by American soprano Margaret Harshaw – a valuable document of the continuation of the MET’s ‘Tristan tradition’ in the years just prior to Birgit Nilsson’s debut.

Margaret Harshaw as Ortrud in Wagner's LOHENGRIN at the Metropolitan Opera

Margaret Harshaw was among the MET’s busiest singers, singing during her twenty-two-year tenure with the Company (1942 – 1964) 364 staged performances and eleven concerts in an uncommonly wide repertory including contralto, mezzo-soprano, and dramatic soprano roles.  In addition to the Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung Brünnhildes, she also sang Brangäne to the Isoldes of Flagstad, Traubel, and Varnay.  Her Isolde was heard by MET audiences (in New York and on national tours) on eight occasions.  Ms. Harshaw possessed a voice that, despite what might seem hard use considering the breadth of her repertory, combined tonal beauty with security throughout her range.  Unlike many singers who sang both mezzo-soprano and dramatic soprano roles, Ms. Harshaw’s voice easily encompassed the highest notes of standard Hochdramatische tessitura, up to top C.  She uses all of these qualities to good effect in this performance of Tristan und Isolde.

Beginning with the celebrated Narration and Curse in the first act, Ms. Harshaw makes it clear that hers is an Isolde to be taken seriously.  This should not imply that Ms. Harshaw sings with either the abandon of Varnay or the psychological depth of Mödl: her performance is more cautious, more musical than metaphysical in nature.  With obvious attention to the text, however, Ms. Harshaw creates a vivid, living Isolde whose recollections of her former passion for Tristan are as painful to her as is its reawakening upon his appearance.  It is apparent that her scorn is what Shakespeare might have deemed ‘an outward show’ and that, internally, she remains a woman in love with the wrong man.  In the second act, this suppressed emotion finds expression in an exceptionally beautiful performance of the love duet (‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’).  Earlier in the same act, Ms. Harshaw is too shrewd a singer to linger over the pair of top C’s that greet Tristan’s arrival, troublesome to so many Isoldes (Flagstad famously allowed Elisabeth Schwarzkopf to supply them in the studio recording conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Traubel shirked them altogether), and it must be admitted that there are a few top notes elsewhere that reveal strain.  Nonetheless, Ms. Harshaw creates an Isolde who is affectionately feminine without being matronly or maternal; not a woman for whom fiery passions are typical but a poised, regal woman of substance for whom illicit love is both damning and liberating.  As suggested, Ms. Harshaw’s singing of the love duet surpasses performances by many more renowned Isoldes in terms of tonal beauty, and she distinguishes herself throughout the performance by avoiding distorting or forcing the tone even in moments of stress.  The performance is crowned by a Liebestod that, though more resigned and muted than ecstatic, suggests genuine sorrow and longing for reunion with Tristan.  The perceptions of MET audiences would be altered twenty-one months later by Nilsson’s inaugural New York Isolde, just as they had been by Flagstad’s first MET performance of the role in 1935, but this performance reveals that the legendary MET procession of important Isoldes was maintained by Margaret Harshaw.

Ramón Vinay as Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera

The Tristan of Chilean tenor Ramón Vinay is a far more known and appreciated musical portrait, documented in a live recording from the 1952 Bayreuther Festspiele (opposite the Isolde of Mödl, conducted by Herbert von Karajan) that is considered by many committed Wagnerites a landmark in the Tristan discography.  Like Ms. Harshaw, Mr. Vinay sang a wide repertory, his career both beginning and ending with baritone roles (his late-career Kurwenal is also preserved in a live recording from Philadelphia).  Accordingly, Mr. Vinay’s Tristan possessed a remarkable richness in the lower register that allowed him to approach difficult passages such as the delirium and death with reserves of power.  This performance finds Mr. Vinay marginally off his best form, especially in comparison with the 1952 Bayreuth performance, but he displays every attribute required to support his reputation as one of the finest post-WWII Tristans.  Mr. Vinay’s impassioned singing makes Tristan’s frustrated love for Isolde palpable in the first act, and his entrance in the second act bursts with excitement and erotic exuberance.  Mr. Vinay combines sublimely with Ms. Harshaw in the love duet, imbuing his singing with a beautiful warmth of tone and matching his performance both musically and temperamentally to his soprano.  In Tristan’s crucial (and often poorly-done) final scene, Mr. Vinay brings the finest of his artistry to his performance, fully conveying Tristan’s anguish without resorting to school-pageant histrionics.  On balance, Mr. Vinay’s Tristan wants for nothing in terms of vocal strength or refinement, and the singer’s versatility in evident in the fact that he is an equally effective Tristan opposite Isoldes as different as Mödl and Ms. Harshaw.

Blanche Thebom as Brangäne at the Metropolitan Opera

Brangäne is sung in this performance by American mezzo-soprano Blanche Thebom, one the the MET’s leading dramatic mezzo-sopranos during her career with the Company and a celebrated Brangäne (having recorded the role in the 1952 studio recording with Flagstad and Suthaus).  Brangäne is another of those roles that – like Mozart’s Cherubino, Bellini’s Adalgisa, and Strauss’ Composer and Octavian – has been appropriated by mezzo-sopranos contrary to the composer’s presumed original intentions.  Anna Deinet, the Brangäne in the 1865 premiere of Tristan und Isolde, also sang Mozart’s Konstanze and Königin der Nacht, Donizetti’s Marie (in La Fille du régiment), and Meyerbeer’s Inez (L’Africaine) and Isabella (Robert le diable).  She also created the role of Helmwige in the first performance of Die Walküre, a role taken in 1876 in the first complete Ring at Bayreuth by Lilli Lehmann (the MET’s first Isolde: Bayreuth’s first Siegmund was also the MET’s first Tristan, Albert Niemann).  Brangäne’s tessitura extends to top A, a minor third below Isolde’s ceiling of top C (almost in the manner of a traditional bel canto seconda donna), making the role viable for modern mezzo-sopranos (the standard mezzo-soprano range having gradually expanded upward during the Nineteenth Century), but Wagner’s own casting – at which he is known to have been meticulous to a fault – of Brangäne for the premiere suggests that he intended for the role to be taken by a soprano.  The MET’s first Brangäne was Marianne Brandt (who was also the first Brangäne heard in Britain), an Austrian singer billed during her tenures in German houses as a contralto but whose celebrated roles included Rachel in Meyerbeer’s La Juive, Mozart’s Donna Elvira, Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin (a role often sung in earlier generations by dramatic sopranos, as in the thrilling cases of Helena Braun and Astrid Varnay), the last three of which roles she sang at the MET (she was, in fact, the MET’s first Leonore).  Furthermore, Wagner selected her to alternate with Thérèse Malten (famous as Wagner’s Elsa, Elisabeth, and Eva) and Amalia Materna (the first Bayreuth Brünnhilde) as Kundry in the 1882 first production of Parsifal, again at Bayreuth.  It seems likely that Madame Brandt was a singer who, much like Margaret Harshaw – or, in a more obviously Teutonic tradition, Christa Ludwig, – possessed a voice that was essentially a strong, high mezzo-soprano, equally comfortable in certain soprano roles.  Questions of Fach (or fiction) aside, this illustrates that Ms. Thebom, a genuine high mezzo-soprano (with no soprano ambitions, as it were), took her place in the MET’s Brangäne lineage that extended from Madame Brandt, through Ernestine Schumann-Heink, to Karin Branzell.

Many contemporary critics were dismissive of Ms. Thebom’s Brangäne in the Furtwängler studio recording, perhaps regretting the absence of Furtwängler’s desired Brangänes, Margarete Klose or Martha Mödl (who, a year after the Tristan recording was completed, would be Fricka and Brünnhilde, respectively, in Furtwängler’s final recording, Die Walküre).  Ms. Thebom legitimizes her position as a notable Wagnerian in the MET’s annals with this performance, however.  As in the studio recording, Ms. Thebom’s voice is beautiful, with only slight thinning of the tone at the extreme top of her range.  The top notes have needed presence in Brangäne’s important contributions to Isolde’s Narration and Curse in the first act, though, and Ms. Thebom brings firm, subdued but slightly nervous tone to Brangäne’s ‘watch’ in the second act.  Her warnings to the trysting lovers are appropriately baleful, suggesting Brangäne’s fear of Melot’s betrayal and the return of Marke’s hunting party.  Like Ms. Harshaw, Ms. Thebom is in the context of this performance primarily a musician rather than an actress, but there is a welcome simplicity in her interpretation of Brangäne that results from focusing on providing an accurate, tasteful account of the role.  Particularly when viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective, there is much to be admired in a fluent, well-sung Brangäne: as is often said, adequacy in 1958 might well prove to be supremacy in 2010.  Ms. Thebom’s Brangäne proves rather more than merely adequate, in fact, and is a representative memento of the work of a fine singer.

Austrian bass Otto Edelmann, possibly as König Marke

This MET broadcast also preserves the König Marke of Austrian bass Otto Edelmann, a portrayal heard under the MET’s auspices only five times (four times in New York and once in Philadelphia).  Famous for the beauty of his voice (a quality praised by a colleague as discerning as Kirsten Flagstad), Mr. Edelmann was celebrated for his work in Strauss and Wagner roles, in which an urbane geniality combined with his native tonal opulence to produce sophisticated, often touching performances.  As in the other performances in this 1958 MET broadcast, Mr. Edelmann’s Marke is most effective in musical terms, the great monologue receiving a performance of dignity and tremendous sorrow conveyed through the grandeur of the tone.  If there are no penetrating insights on offer, it is nonetheless refreshing to hear such a magnificent instrument applied to Marke’s music.

In such company, it is perhaps inevitable that Kurwenal and Melot are reduced to secondary importance despite their crucial roles in the drama.  Kurwenal receives a strong performance from Walter Cassel, the role requiring nothing vocally or dramatically that Mr. Cassel cannot supply.  Calvin Marsh turns in a suitably duplicitous Melot.  Other roles are capably sung by MET stalwarts of the day: Robert Nagy as the Sailor (a role that he would sing again at the MET, where he would eventually also sing the leading role of the Kaiser in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, as late as 1984), Paul Franke as the Shepherd, and Osie Hawkins as the Steersman.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus contribute effectively to the performance, making a virile sound in their lines.  It is obvious, however, that the MET Orchestra of 1958 were not the presumably astonishingly disciplined and accomplished ensemble of which the Company justly boasted a few decades earlier, following the contentious but musically propitious 1908 – 1910 tenure of Gustav Mahler at the MET, during which time he conducted fifty-four performances (eleven of those performances were of Tristan und Isolde).  In this 1958 broadcast, the orchestra play with relative precision and attention to the style of the music, but the easy, invaluable command of the idiom apparent in recorded performances from previous decades is no longer in evidence.  The passion that permeated the performances of Fremstad and Flagstad is replaced in this performance by restraint and suppressed emotions, a viable but admittedly less thrilling interpretation.

The performance is conducted by Fritz Stiedry, an Austrian musician who was a protégé of Mahler in Vienna.  What remains of Mahler’s influence in Maestro Stiedry’s leadership of Tristan und Isolde cannot be ascertained with any degree of accuracy as no recorded examples of Mahler’s conducting of the score exist.  Contemporary accounts of Mahler’s MET performances of Tristan und Isolde refer to his approach to the score as ‘strikingly vital’ [Henry Krehbeel, writing in the New York Tribune], ‘genuinely heroic,’ ‘cataclysmal,’ and ‘glorious’ [W.J. Henderson, writing in The Sun].  These are not descriptions that apply with regularity to Maestro Stiedry’s conducting.  Though occasionally seeming rushed (though not, thankfully, perfunctory), Maestro Stiedry’s approach to the score is more lyrical than those of his MET predecessors – Bodanzky and Leinsdorf, in particular – but attentive to the linear movement of the drama.  Maestro Stiedry keeps the performance (and performers) unified in approach and en route to a common destination, a feat of no little difficulty in a score of the dimensions and complexity of Tristan und Isolde.

With the Tristan und Isolde discography already extensive and continuing to grow steadily as technological advances, the opening of archives, and the expiration of international copyrights restore historical performances to the catalogue, there is no lack of compelling, memorable performances of Wagner’s paean to tragic love.  Perhaps this 1958 MET broadcast does not challenge the likes of the 1928 Bayreuth abridged recording (incomparable for its preservation of the Bayreuth tradition under the watchful eyes of Cosima and Siegfried Wagner), the recordings from Covent Garden and the MET of Melchior and Flagstad in their primes, the legendary 1952 Bayreuth performance with Vinay and Mödl, or the 1966 recording of Wieland Wagner’s Bayreuth production with Windgassen and Nilsson.  It gives ample evidence of the care given to preserving the MET’s distinguished legacy of Tristan und Isolde performances that began on 1 December 1886, however.  In Ramón Vinay, the recording has a Tristan of distinction, one for whom Wagnerian excess is natural vocal territory.  The recording also preserves the Isolde of Margaret Harshaw, one of America’s most reliable, versatile, and most unjustly neglected singers.  Above all, there is the realization inherent in hearing this recording that, from the perspective of the proverbially heightened sensitivity of hindsight, what in 1956 was a respectable ‘house’ cast for a major-house Tristan und Isolde would in 2010 be a magical return to a mythical Golden Age.