OP0797. TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Live Performance, 6 Feb., 1943, w.Leinsdorf Cond. Met Opera Ensemble; Helen Traubel, Lauritz Melchior, Kerstin Thorborg, Julius Huehn, Alexander Kipnis, etc. (England) 3-Naxos 8.110008/10. Transfers by Richard Caniell. Long out-of-print, Final Sealed Copy! - 636943100820
"In King Marke's monologue [Kipnis] shows most of the qualities that made his artistry so distinctive. Few voices are as ebon-hued, but those that are have nothing Kipnis, open core, his songlike flow of rich tone....Vitality in the phrasing as well as the tone energizes the narrative sufficiently to avoid ennui."
- Paul Jackson, SATURDAY AFTERNOONS AT THE OLD MET, p.260
"Before you become too impatient with those who moon over ‘the good old days’, you should hear this performance. It was not a special gala evening. This was the norm for Wagner performances in the 1930s and 1940s at the Met - perhaps even one notch below the norm for TRISTAN, because Kirsten Flagstad had returned to Norway during the war and Marjorie Lawrence had been struck down by polio, so the Met had to turn to the third-ranked Wagnerian soprano of the era, Helen Traubel. Would that we had her like today. Every principal role is sung at an extraordinary level, and even if one can pick a few nits, the fact is if we walked into such a performance today, we would be utterly astonished.
Traubel lacked the keen dramatic insights of the greatest of Wagnerian sopranos like Frida Leider and Lotte Lehmann, and even to a reasonable degree Flagstad. Traubel’s performance is more a vocally focused reading than a theatrical portrayal. But what a glorious sound it is, rich throughout its range up to about A or B-flat. (She avoids the Cs in Act II, choosing a lower alternative). Within that range there is a richness of color, a tonal juiciness and glow, that is uniquely hers. And Traubel possessed a marvelously even legato, stitching together Wagner’s long phrases in one continuous arc. There are also some moments of dramatic imagination, inflecting much of Act I with genuine anger and bitterness at Isolde’s plight. But it is the glory of her sound that one takes away in memory, a lustrous beauty that rises above the orchestra in the Liebestod with a tonal magnificence that few, even among the great ones, have matched. I would not be without the Isoldes of Leider and Flagstad (or Birgit Nilsson for that matter), but neither would I be without Traubel’s
The one consistent element of Met Tristan performances beginning in 1929 and going through 1950 was the great Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior. John Steane, in his essential book THE GRAND TRADITION, begins his discussion of Melchior this way: ‘… the years go by, and records continue to show him the greatest singer of the century in his own field’. With Melchior it is not only the steady emission of a beautiful tone, although that is fundamental to his success, but it is also his often-under-appreciated dramatic sense. Melchior had the ability to thunder, to soar, or to tenderly envelop you with the sweetest and tenderest of sounds. He was a far subtler actor with his voice than he was often given credit for, a point that Steane makes firmly. We hear it throughout this performance. Melchior conveys Tristan’s heartache and guilt in his scene with King Marke (where he empties his tone of color), Tristan’s ecstatic potion-induced passion in the first act, and the physical exhaustion and mental anguish of Tristan’s delirium scene in the last act….In the opera’s central love duet, the richness and passion of singing from Melchior and Traubel define what we call ‘golden age’ vocalism.
The strengths of this performance do not end with the two protagonists. Kerstin Thorborg sang the role of Brangäne 52 times at the Met, partnering both Flagstad and Traubel, and she was worthy of singing alongside both. Thorborg is vocally magnificent in the long lines of Brangäne’s Watch in Act II and very specific with her vocal coloring in the music of the first act and beginning of the second. Her warm caring for Isolde is conveyed in the tone in which she she addresses her mistress, particularly after Isolde’s long narration and curse. Julius Huehn makes Kurwenal much more than the cardboard character he often seems. First of all, he sings beautifully, particularly in the last act as Kurwenal tries to comfort Tristan (and, quite possibly, himself). In the first act, Huehn is appropriately brusque, particularly in his exchanges with Brangäne. His is an imaginative and convincing portrayal of a character we often overlook.
In CADENZA, Leinsdorf was candid about his lack of respect for Traubel....[but] he was a consummate professional who knew the score in detail, and he provides some drama and passion.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE, March /April, 2018