Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: I, The Dramatic Soprano

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In April and May 2019 the Met will revive Robert Lepage’s clunky and famously derided production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. Wagnerites avid for this monumental music-drama have every reason to look forward to Christine Goerke in the lynch-pin role of Brünnhilde. And yet, despite this return of the tetralogy, compared with past eras, the Wagner fare remains sparse. The opening decade of the 21st century saw an average of fewer than three works by Wagner per season; in each of the four seasons ending with 2017-2018, audiences had to be content with only one. The golden age of Wagner at the Metropolitan is long past.

A golden age of any slice of the repertoire is dependent on the profusion of gifted voices suited to the style and to the commitment of management to their frequent display: at the Met, French opera in the “Gilded Age,” bel canto since the 1961 debut of Joan Sutherland Slavic opera for nearly two decades beginning in 1990. The Met’s dedication to Wagner between 1932 and 1950 was astonishing. In this period, a minimum of seven Wagner operas were programmed most seasons. A Wagnerite could often count on at least one “Ring” cycle, an Easter Parsifal, and Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, and Meistersinger, a bounty greater than that offered pilgrims to Bayreuth in any given summer. And essential to the profusion of performances, the Met could call upon a deep cadre of singers capable of meeting the gold standard with consistency. At the close of the 1940s, and given inevitable departures, a fabulous Wagnerian era came to an end, ceding center stage to Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini. In a series of posts devoted to specific voice types, we will evoke a remarkable epoch when Wagner ruled at the Met. We begin with the Hoch dramatischer, the dramatic soprano entrusted with Brünnhilde and Isolde.

It all began with the demise of the Chicago Civic Opera. A victim of the Great Depression, the prestigious company released its roster of stars in 1932. Chicago’s loss was New York’s gain. Frida Leider, acknowledged as the foremost Wagnerian dramatic soprano of the day, came to the Met. Here she sings the last minutes of the “Ring,” Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene, in a 1927 Berlin recording, conducted by Leo Blech. Exceptional are the warmth of Leider’s timbre, the precision of her attacks (fearless at the top of her range), and her moving reading of the text, the climax of Wagner’s fifteen-hour-long narrative.

Leider’s presence in the Met’s Wagnerian Valhalla was alas short-lived, a mere twenty-eight performances in two seasons. In 1934 the company engaged Kirsten Flagstad, a Norwegian Hoch dramatisch. Some twenty-two years into a career almost exclusively confined to Scandinavia, she was nearly unknown on the international circuit. Her sensational debut was the beginning of her reign as the most prodigious Wagner soprano of her generation, indeed of the 20th century. Her extensive discography offers an embarrassment of riches. We have chosen the “Liebestod” of her iconic Isolde in a live 1939 performance at the San Francisco opera.

Flagstad’s voice is perfectly placed over its full range, caressing a pianissimo, thrilling at fortissimo, at one with the orchestral texture, yet never submerged by Wagner’s massive sound. Unusual with a timbre so refulgent is such crystalline diction and such precise intonation.

Flagstad sang an average of thirty-five times per season between 1935 and 1941. As if this extraordinary commitment were not enough, the Australian Marjorie Lawrence, a diva in her own right, was there for additional Wagner performances. Here is Lawrence’s Brünnhilde, as she pleads for mercy from her father Wotan at the end of Die Walküre. The 1933 recording, made in Paris where Lawrence first became known to the opera world, is in French.

In 1940-1941, the Met had three first-rank Hoch drammatisher sopranos under contract, Flagstad, Lawrence, and a new American, Helen Traubel. In 1941-1942, two of the three were no longer on the roster, Flagstad having returned to Norway, now occupied by the Nazis, Lawrence having succumbed to polio. Traubel and the very young Swedish-American Astrid Varnay shouldered the Wagner repertoire for the remainder of the decade.

We hear Traubel’s creamy timbre and effortless emission in a 1946 recording of Elsa’s “traum (dream),” “Einsam in trüben Tagen (Lonely, in troubled days).” She is accompanied in this excerpt from Lohengrin by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Artur Rodzinski.

Astrid Varnay’s Met debut at twenty-three, with no previous operatic stage experience, came as a last-minute replacement in a December 1941 broadcast of Die Walküre. Varnay’s rapturously received Sieglinde shone in a cast that featured a constellation of Wagnerian luminaries: Traubel in her role debut as Brünnhilde, Lauritz Melchior, Friedrich Schorr, Kerstin Thorborg, and Alexander Kipnis. In the first fifteen years of Varnay’s Met career (she returned in 1974 for dramatic mezzo roles) Varnay sang fourteen of Wagner’s leads, a total far in excess of Flagstad’s or Traubel’s. We hear Varnay in a live transmission from Bayreuth dated 1951, the year of the first post-war Wagner festival. Conducted by Herbert von Karajan, her Brünnhilde in the final scene of Siegfried captures the unique density of her voice as she negotiates both lyric and heroic passages. And then there is her secure and blazing high C, stunning in a voice as dark as Varnay’s.

We should add that the performances of Traubel and Varnay were led by a cluster of legendary conductors: George Szell, Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Busch, and Fritz Reiner.

Please look for our next post, “Wagner’s Last Golden Age at the Met: 2. The Heroic Tenor.”