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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Melchior, Flagstad, Reiner) (1936)
By Andrew Farach-Colton
Barnes & Noble
By Henry Fogel
(1813 - 1883)
A music drama
in three acts to the composer's libretto, based on Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan
of circa 1210
monument to love, this most beautiful of all dreams" Wagner on Tristan
recording of Tristan und Isolde preserves one of the greatest
partnerships in the whole history of opera, Kirsten FIagstad and Lauritz
Melchior first sang together (at the Metropolitan, New York) in 1935,
Flagstad's arrival took the American public by storm; she had hitherto sung
little outside Scandinavia and her name was known to few opera enthusiasts, To
quote her accompanist and biographer, Edwin McArthur, "… from an obscure
position in the provincial musical world, this woman, relatively late in life,
suddenly blazed upon the international scene"," Isolde was almost new
to her as, apart from a handful of performances in Norway (and in Norwegian) a
few years earlier, this visit to New York offered her first assumption of the
role, Flagstad's appearances at Covent Garden in 1936 were similarly greeted
with enthusiasm and we are fortunate indeed that this recording was made
"live" at the opera house that season, during which she sang tout performances
of Tristan und Isolde.
In the summer of
1936 Lauritz Melchior was far better known than Flagstad in both Britain and the United States. At
the time this recording was made, his Tristan was a thoroughly experienced and
secure interpretation; he had been singing the role for over seven years and
during his career he performed it more frequently than any other in his repertoire
– over 200 times.
Yes, one of the
greatest partnerships in the history of opera, but one that lasted only six
years, In April 1941 Flagstad flew from the United States to rejoin her
husband, the industrialist Henry Johansen, in occupied Norway and the greatest
Tristan and Isolde of the century never sang together, never met, again.
Both Melchior and
Flagstad performed in the opera (or Handlung/music drama to use Wagner's
own term) with other singers of international renown, but never apart did they
generate the dramatic excitement and lyrical eloquence that this recording
illustrates; and both were easily able to sustain their long roles through
three acts without any audible evidence of tiring (though it must be mentioned
that in this performance some then-customary cuts were made in the first part
of the Act 2 love duet and in Tristan's taxing scene in Act 3).
Flagstad is truly
aristocratic. By sheer tonal splendour she portrays the Irish princess in all
moods; the fury of the first act outburst, followed soon by the fervent
declaration of love as the potion takes effect. Isolde's greeting of Tristan in
Act 2 is spontaneous and, not unexpectedly, tense with anticipation. The love
duet exemplifies Flagstad's reputation for beautiful, soft singing which then,
without apparent effort, soars passionately before the untimely interruption of
Marke and his courtiers; always secure, achievement never in doubt. At the
close of the third act Flagstad, resigned, fulfilled and still enraptured by
her love for Tristan, sings the most moving Liebestod on record.
interpretation is based on different assets. Immediately we hear his first
responses in Act I we are aware that his early training as a baritone remains a
beneficial influence. Just where some tenors are particularly vulnerable -at
the lower end of their range - Melchior is strong and assured; and so on, up through
to a ringing top, confident and secure all the way. (Incidentally, there is
little evidence on this recording of some of Melchior's noted mannerisms. He
had a reputation for rhythmical slackness and carelessness over note values.
But here, some oddly emphatic pronunciation apart, he behaves pretty well.) He
is incomparably moving in his third act delirium - and makes a whole world of
love out of the single word "Isolde" at Tristan's death.
These two fine
singers are handsomely supported by their colleagues on stage and in the pit. The
London Philharmonic Orchestra play with commitment under Fritz Reiner (1888 -1963).
His reputation for irritability with orchestras is fortunately not evident in
this 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 terminating
a career at the Berlin Staatsoper. As King Marke, the Austrian-born Emanuel
List (1890 -1967) employs his dark, resonant tones in a part he too sang regularly
at 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). After
training in Vienna she sang mostly in Hamburg, moving to London before the
war; at Covent Garden she sang principally Wagnerian roles,
ending her career there in 1939. She sings with haunting beauty in the distant warning
to the lovers in Act 2 and her exchanges with Isolde in Act I display an
urgency that shows what can be made of this part.
"live" recorded performances frequently do, this Tristan und Isolde
has a theatrical frisson often absent from studio recordings. Even to an
offstage voice briefly vocalising during the First Act Prelude (Flagstad
warming up?), even to the sound of Kurwenal running up steps to see Isolde's
ship in Act 3, even to the occasional audience cough, we are taken back to
Covent Garden on that summer night in 1936 to hear one of the great
performances of the century.
At sea, on the
deck of Tristan's ship.
prelude introduces a number of significant motifs which will be heard again
during the drama.
Isolde is on
board 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 bursts
into a rebellious tirade against the weakness of her own people who have been
overcome 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 the
sailor's song has been heard again, Brangane calls for Tristan to attend her
mistress, which he declines to do. A second request is also rejected, this time
by Kurwenal, who scornfully relates how Tristan murdered Morold, the man to whom
Isolde was previously betrothed. Incensed by Kurwenal's response, Isolde tells
Brangane how she recognised Tristan when he came to her in disguise and sought
help after the murder. She wanted to kill him then but, restrained by his
mysterious gaze, finally spared his life. Now she wishes she had been more courageous,
curses him and determines to avenge Morold's death with poison.
As the ship
reaches land, Isolde demands to speak to Tristan under the pretext of pardoning
his crime, and he finally joins her. She tells him that she recognised his
murder disguise but that now she truly will take revenge. Refusing his offer of
a sword with which to kill him, Isolde calls Brangane whom she has instructed
to prepare a draught of poison; as Tristan drinks, Isolde snatches the cup from
him and empties it herself. Unknown to either of them, Brangane has prepared a
love potion instead of poison; before long it takes potent effect and Tristan
and Isolde declare their passionate love while Brangane watches, appalled at
the result of her deceit. Kurwenal's return brings them both suddenly back to reality
and as they begin to understand what the potion has done, the crowd acclaims
King Marke and his domain of Cornwall.
A summer night
in King Marke's castle in CornwaIl.
After a short
prelude King Marke's garden is revealed. The King himself has just left on a
hunting expedition and the horns are heard in the distance. Isolde listens to
the sounds of the night, oblivious to Brangane's concern that the hunt is still
within hearing; the maid warns her mistress that she should beware of Melot, a
treacherous "friend" of Tristan, who has organised the King's
night-time expedition as a ploy to catch the lovers unawares. Isolde dismisses Brangane's
warning and orders her to extinguish the lighted torch, which will be the
signal for Tristan to join her in the garden. Brangane refuses and rues the outcome
of her earlier deception in substituting potion for poison. Isolde, aware of
nothing but the power of love, herself extinguishes the torch, awaits Tristan's
arrival and sends Brangane to keep watch for the return of the hunt.
in and the lovers greet each other, sharing their feelings in a prolonged
"Hymn to the Night". Their ardent expressions of love are interrupted
only by Brangane's admonition as she keeps vigil in a nearby tower. Emotions intensify,
Brangane is again heard briefly, as the duet continues, rising unrestrainedly
towards an ecstatic climax.
But a horrified
scream is heard from the maid as the King, Kurwenal, Melot and their friends
rush in to surprise the lovers. The King questions Tristan, reproaching him for
this betrayal of trust. Tristan replies obliquely that he no longer feels
himself to be a creature of this world and invites Isolde to join him in the
sunless land of his birth. She agrees, Tristan kisses her, but Melot, incensed
by the frustration of his own love for her, attacks Tristan who falls wounded into
the arms of Kurwenal.
castle at Kareol in Brittany.
prelude introduces the act, and a view of Tristan who is lying unconscious
under a lime tree in the courtyard of his castle, tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd
is heard playing a sad tune on his pipe and he soon appears, asking Kurwenal
about Tristan; he is abruptly told to return to his watch and, should he see
Isolde's ship approaching the coastline, to play instead a cheerful melody. No
vessel is yet in sight, so the sad tune continues. Soon Tristan wakes and asks
his servant where he is; on being told that Isolde has been summoned to join
him, he deliriously imagines that she is nearby and orders Kurwenal to find her
ship. But the shepherd's sad music is again heard. Tristan recalls its theme
from his sorrowful childhood when he was orphaned, and in his wild confusion he
begins to blame himself for the fateful love potion that is causing such misery.
Weaving in and out of consciousness, Tristan again supposes he can see the ship
approaching and at last a lively tune is heard from the shepherd. Kurwenal watches
as, in the distance, Isolde steps ashore and he hastens to meet her In agitated
anticipation of her arrival at the castle, Tristan rips the bandages from his
wound and struggles to greet her as she hurries to him. With her name on his
lips, he dies in her arms. Unable to revive him, Isolde falls insensible to the
tells Kurwenal that he can see a second ship approaching and the helmsman confirms
that King Marke and others are aboard. Brangane arrives and when Melot appears
Kurwenal kills him. He also attacks the King's retainers but, sustaining a fatal
wound, dies beside his master, Tristan. The King grieves over the deaths; he
has travelled to Kareol in order to surrender Isolde (whom he also believes to
be dead) to Tristan, but now they lie lifeless at his feet. As Isolde wakes,
Brangane tells her that she has revealed the truth about the love potion to the
King, who forgives his intended bride. It is to no avail and in her mystical
farewell, Isolde, disregarding all else, wishes only to join Tristan in death.
Her hope is fulfilled as she sinks slowly on to her lover's body
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