Charles Affron, Mirella Jona Affron: Publications

Monday, April 29, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: III, Other Voices

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In the first of three linked posts ( we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. The second post (Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor) was devoted to the Heldentenor, and specifically to Lauritz Melchior. In the third and last post of the series we turn our attention to other voices that drew clamoring audiences to 39th Street and Broadway during the brilliant Wagnerian decade of the 1930s--the Jugendlich dramatischer (literally the young dramatic soprano), the dramatic mezzo, and the Heldenbariton (the heroic baritone).

The Jugendlich dramatischer is endowed with a lyric instrument suited to the gentler vocal demands placed on Elsa, Elisabeth, and Eva, the heroines of Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, and Die Meistersinger. Her repertoire extends to Mozart’s Contessa and Verdi‘s Aïda. So it was for the versatile Elisabeth Rethberg who took on nearly thirty German, Italian, and French roles at the Met. We hear her in a 1932 recording as Elsa in Act I of Lohengrin. A warm yet silvery sound and limpid legato suffuse her recital of the dream in which a virtuous knight comes to her rescue.

Another remarkable Jugendlich of the time, Lotte Lehmann, yearned to sing Isolde, one of the great Hoch dramatischer roles. But she understood that while dramatic sopranos might poach in the precinct of the lyric soprano, the reverse was fraught with peril. She feared for the survival of her voice. In this 1930 recording she lent her passionate temperament to the “Liebestod” but never sang the whole of Isolde’s long and arduous part.

The Wagnerian dramatic mezzo sometimes ventures into lead soprano territory—Ortrud in Lohengrin, Kundry in Parsifal—but is most often obliged to content herself with important yet secondary parts. Here is Kerstin Thorborg whose rock-solid technique fills out Brangäne’s exceptionally long phrases as she warns the adulterous Tristan and Isolde of the danger that awaits them.

Friedrich Schorr was the undisputed dominant Heldenbariton of the interwar period. In New York and elsewhere he was called on to sing Wotan (three “Ring” operas), Amfortas (Parsifal), Kurwenal (Tristan und Isolde), the Dutchman (Der Fliegende Holländer), and Hans Sachs (Die Meistersinger). In this 1927 recording, he applies his sweet tone and silken phrasing to Wolfram’s hymn to the Evening Star from the last act of Tannhäuser.

Rethberg, Lehmann, Thorborg, Schorr, and the other artists mentioned in our two previous posts formed a constellation surrounding the two most luminous stars, Flagstad and Melchior. There is not today, nor has there been since 1950, a roster of singers sufficient to sustain a Wagnerian golden age at the Met or, indeed, anywhere.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Wagner's Last Golden Age at the Met: II, The Heroic Tenor

Note to those who receive new posts via e-mail: You must click on the title of the new post, highlighted above in blue, in order to access moving images and sound. 

In our last post (, we undertook a fleeting review of the dramatic soprano during the fourth and last Wagnerian Golden Age at the Metropolitan Opera. During the first of these, 1884-1891, all opera at the Met was sung in German and Lilli Lehmann was the company’s prima donna assoluta; the second, 1895-1901, was dominated by the leading tenor of his time, Jean de Reszke and sopranos Lehmann and Lillian Nordica. New Yorkers owed the third, 1903-1917, to conductors Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini, and sopranos Olive Fremstad and Johanna Gadski. Our focus here, as it was in our previous post and will be in our next, is on the fourth, the 1930s and 1940s. We devote the present installment to the Heldentenor. We should add that since the middle of the 20th century, there have, of course, been extraordinary Wagnerian singers (Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers to name only two), but there has not been a cohort strong enough to stand side by side with the earlier eras of Wagnerian excellence, the last of which closed circa 1950.

In 1926, just as electrical recording technology began to do justice to the power and refinement of great Wagnerian voices, Lauritz Melchior made his Met debut as Tannhäuser. At first, the young Dane created only a modest impression. The Herald Tribune wrote, “An improved variety of that disheartening species, the Wagner tenor.” In his first two seasons with the company, Melchior appeared a scant seven times, then took a year’s sabbatical. It was not until the 1932-1933 season and the advent of a fabulous partner, soprano Frida Leider, that reviewers recognized his unique instrument and surpassing gifts. Melchior became the leading Wagner tenor of the 1930s and 1940s, and in retrospect, indisputably the greatest Heldentenor of the 20th century. Kirsten Flagstad, to be sure, was the foremost Hoch Dramatischer, but Leider, Marjorie Lawrence, Helen Traubel, and Astrid Varnay attest to the deep well of ranking sopranos in this period. Melchior had the field to himself: more than 500 performances between that 1926 Tannhäuser and his final Lohengrin in 1950. By a wide margin, he holds the house record for every one of Wagner’s Heldentenor roles.

As we hear in countless commercial recordings and transcriptions of live performances, Melchior’s voice rides above the wave of the composer’s massive orchestration all the while taking the measure of passages of lyric tenderness. With a rock-solid lower octave, a legacy of the first five years of his career when he sang as a baritone, Melchior negotiates the top of the range with unparalleled stamina, brilliant timbre, and clarity of dictionHere, in a live 1941 broadcast conducted by Toscanini, are the final minutes of Act I of Die Walküre. Having at last revealed his identity to Sieglinde, his sister and soon-to-be lover, Siegmund draws the sword his father, the god Wotan, had embedded deep into an ash tree. The titanic feat finds expression in Melchior's unstinting delivery of the high-lying phrases. Traubel is the Sieglinde.

When Melchior and Flagstad starred together in the late 1930s, the Met’s box-office receipts soared. Their most popular draw was Tristan und Isolde. Little wonder that the exacting maestro Toscanini dubbed Melchior “Tristanissimo.” This 1939 recording of the end of the “love duet”lustrates how stunningly matched were Melchior and Flagstad, the quality of their huge, beautiful voices, a breath span that enables both to easily encompass the longest phrases.

We see and hear Melchior live on television in 1951 in Lohengrin's Act III narration. The "Swan Knight" explains the mystery of his name and provenance. At the age of sixty-one, the tenor sustains the long phrases with the bright metal of his voice intact.

p.s. In the mid-1940s, Melchior curtailed his Met performances and began to enjoy success in Hollywood movies as an amiable, avuncular character actor. In Two Sisters from Boston (1946), one of four films he made for M-G-M, he sings Walter’s melodious “Prize Song” from Die Meistersinger, a Wagner opera not in his New York repertoire. The sequence frames a comic reconstruction of an early 1900s acoustical recording session. The two characters who appear at the beginning are played by June Allyson and Jimmy Durante.