"Wagner at the Met: Legendary Performances from the Metropolitan Opera"
Met broadcasts performances (1936–54) of Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and
Tristan und Isolde. De los Angeles, Flagstad, Harshaw, Lawrence, Varnay, Branzell et al.; Davidson, Melchior, Sullivan, Svanholm, Huehn, Hotter, List, Schoeffler, Schorr et al; Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Bodanzky, Leinsdorf, Reiner, Stiedry, Szell. No texts or translations. Sony Classical 88765 42717 2 (25)
The Metropolitan Opera loomed large in the reception history of Wagner's works. Besides introducing certain operas, notably Parsifal,to America, the company for a while solved two crucial challenges that had frustrated Wagner in his lifetime — finding singers capable of his almost suprahuman demands and making production of the operas commercially viable. While the Met was hardly the only company performing Wagner with distinction before World War II, its star system and other resources gave this repertoire a broad acceptance and in some ways mirrored the approach to entertainment-marketing perfected by Hollywood.
Unfortunately for us, however, the "golden age for Wagner singing at the Met" did not coincide with strong backstage recording technology. In this star-studded collection of nine operas broadcast between 1936 and 1954, the most alluring constellations — Flagstad, Lawrence and Melchior conducted by Artur Bodanzky, in Tristan and half of the Ring — are nearly eclipsed by a maddening layer of distortion, muffling and all kinds of extraneous noise. All but the most intrepid listeners will prefer to sample those parts of the collection sparingly. Luckily, though, there is more to be appreciated here.
The latest of the prewar performances, a firm, imposing Walküre from February 1940, marks an improvement in sound quality, barring a few knocking sounds in the final scene. Instrumental effects may lack color and finesse, but at least they're not harshly distorted; the deep bass tones in brass and strings are especially resonant, clipped and exciting at Erich Leinsdorf's propulsive tempos. The true distinction is, of course, the casting of two so formidable sopranos as Flagstad and Marjorie Lawrence as Brünnhilde and Sieglinde. Both are in staggeringly secure form, firing off those blazing notes that somehow combine power and femininity. Given that herculean capacity, it's even more impressive to hear their refinement in quieter intervals, where some stars might prefer to coast — Flagstad's quick, accurate staccatos in dialogue with the other Valkyries, Lawrence's psychologically astute awakening scene in Act II.
Lauritz Melchior offers his reliably firm Siegmund, with his taut, bright "Wälse," as expected, but he is a little insensitive for some tastes; his attempt at tenderness on the word "Geliebte" in Act II produces a peculiar whited, alien tone that seems to have been outsourced to a synthesizer. American bass-baritone Julius Huehn (1904–71), who sang big Wagner parts at the company under the Johnson regime, is imposing in power — almost to the end — and in the sensitivity of his "Der Augen leuchtendes Paar" in the farewell to Brünnhilde. Eugene List (Hunding) and Karin Branzell (Fricka) maintain the strong standard.
If the war ended the reign of the real giants in this repertoire, it also led to a more than respectable Met silver age that is well represented in the collection. It is in fact difficult to choose just one or two favorites among the six early postwar tapings, which feature acceptable or better recorded sound. I ruled out the George Szell Tannhäuser,the latest recording in the collection (1954), an exercise in poor rapport (the conductor resigned soon thereafter) with non-responsive chorus, orchestra and an uneven cast. A 1953 Die Meistersinger led by the formidable Fritz Reiner did not live up to its reputation. (Like several of these recordings, this one has been available in the past from various channels.) Its distinguished cast sounds all too mortal; even Victoria de los Angeles stumbles in the opening lines of the quintet, which would seem perfectly suited to her gifts.
My postwar favorites came down to two — Reiner's sizzling, penetrating Fliegende Holländer,with inspired characterizations by Varnay, Hotter and Svanholm, and a remarkably intelligent Das Rheingold conducted by Fritz Stiedry, offering another sampling of Hans Hotter. We expect tight focus and exciting edge from Reiner (his legendary Met Salome with Ljuba Welitsch dates from this time), but Stiedry was often dismissed as a routine, back-up conductor, despite his range and the fact that he had impressed Mahler early in his career. Here he does more than merely benefit from low expectations.
The relative clarity of the recorded sound in 1951 enhances appreciation of the vocal details that make this such a crackling, lively Rheingold, marked by dialogue with comic flavoring and freshness. Set Svanholm's Loge masters the vocal sneer, and he can be heard chuckling through his lines as he outwits Alberich.The orchestral tone is still slightly muffled and vague in the prelude, but the rapid, flexible pacing draws the listener in. And the three Rhinemaidens (Erna Berger, Lucine Amara and Hertha Glaz) achieve real poignancy, Berger especially having a rarely heard fairytale purity and brilliance of tone suitable to the innocence of this dawn of civilization.
Elsewhere, the casting is less luxurious but still sound. It's instructive to observe how the little-known Alberich, Lawrence Davidson, rises to the occasion; this would be the biggest role in his nineteen seasons as a Met comprimario. Apart from a thin upper register where one might prefer a rugged, id-style ferocity, the singer creates a suitably itchy, desperate and finally despondent characterization, using vocal coloring, emphatic diction and meaningful pauses to produce a memorable curse. Davidson's performance suggests the importance of coaching and preparation; he is idiomatic and expressive, like everyone in the cast.
Hotter's Wotan is hardly an unknown quantity, but he is fresher in this 1951 take than on some recordings, and his range of expression — starting with the lyrical dreaminess of his opening lines — is unparalleled. We hear Margaret Harshaw (also a flexible Elisabeth on the aforementioned Tannhäuser) as Fricka and — in a thrilling brief appearance — the stellar Froh sung by Brian Sullivan. But it's Stiedry one most recalls, with his balance of drive and detail, his subtle playfulness; not least, his influence seems to drive the singers' authentic treatment of the German text, which animates and flavors the musical performance so intimately.
A final note of caution about the collection, especially for purists: part of the midcentury Met's approach to Wagner was a certain selectivity; cuts were frequent and extensive, and so we find the longer operas squeezed here onto three CDs each. The absence of Parsifal from the collection is also regrettable, especially given the company's historic association with the work.
DAVID J. BAKER
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