Wagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

A-OP-Wagner at MetWagner Stars in Vintage Broadcasts from the Met

  I recall when those who wanted to have radio transcriptions of Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts had to be Met Guild members and well off enough to pay the price of the LP sets. That is all the more reason to welcome a box set of 25 CDs from Sony Classical, titled “Wagner at the Met.”

There are nine operas included and I had best list them with broadcast dates and the leading singers. “Der fliegende Hollander” (12-30-50) has Hans Hotter (Dutchman), Astrid Varnay (Senta) and Set Svanholm (Erik). Fritz Reiner conducts. “Tannhauser” (1-9-54) stars Ramon Vinay (Tannhauser), Margaret Sarshaw (Elisabeth), George London (Wolfram), and Jerome Hines (Landgrave). Heard in the tiny role of Shepherd is Roberta Peters. George Szell conducts.

Lauritz Melchior

“Lohengrin” (1-2-43) gives us Lauritz Melchior (Lohengrin) and Astrid Varnay as Elsa. The conductor is Erich Leinsdorf. The lovers in “Tristan und Isolde” (4-16-38) are Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad—an unbeatable team—with Karin Branzell as Brangane. Arthur Bodanzky conducts. The more human “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” (1-10-53) has Hans Hopf (Walther), Paul Schoffler (Hans Sachs) and Victoria de los Angeles (Eva). Fritz Reiner wields the baton.

I pause here to point out that opera lovers who originally heard some or all of these broadcasts must have recognized  many of the artists I have listed up to now. So beyond any historical value of these discs is a nostalgic value that is a strong one. Now back to the set.

Kirsten Flagstad

This wouldn’t be much of a salute to Wagner at the Met without the entire Ring Cycle. “Das Rheingold” (1-27-51) features Lawrence Davidson (Alberich), Margaret Harshaw (Fricka), Hans Hotter (Wotan), and Set Svenholm (Loge). Fritz Stiedry conducts. “Die Walkure” (2-17-40) pairs Melchior (Siegmund) with Flagstad (Brunnhilde) and Marjorie Lawrence (Sieglinde). Julius Huehn (Wotan), Karin Branzell (Fricka) and Emanuel List (Hunding) share the spotlight, while Leinsdorf conducts.

“Siegfried” (1-30-37) is like the scherzo movement to this Ring-symphony, and Melchior (Siegfried) and Brunnhilde (Flagstad) finally get to meet. The Wanderer, Wotan in disguise, is sung by Friedrich Schorr, the evil Mime by Karl Laufkotter, and the equally nasty Alberich by Eduard Habich.

Marjorie Lawrence

The titanic “Gotterdammerung” (1-11-36) has Marjorie Lawrence as Brunnhilde, now wedded to her Siegfried (Melchior) and thwarted by the machinations of Gunther (Friedrich Schorr), Hagen (Ludwig Hofmann) and to a lesser degree by Gutrune (Dorothea Manski).

I apologize for the long listings, but I feel my readers might be encouraged to hear these discs by knowing some of the casts. Yes, the sound is not studio-perfect; but many low-fi radios sounded like these transcriptions back then.  Now and then, as at the actual opera house, the orchestra drowns out the singers, an example being Hagen’s call to the Vassals, the only traditional chorus in the Ring cycle. But it is the best that 1936 technology had to offer.

Each opera is in a cardboard folder with the cast and track listings. Unhappily, the CDs are in sleeves and so tightly in those sleeves that one fears harming the discs when removing them. Is that the best that 2013 technology can offer? Just be careful handling them.

A 128-page booklet repeats the cast and track listings (the latter with timings), synopses and notes about each work.

The Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

220px-Poster_TurandotThe Riddle of the 3 Riddles in “Turandot”

The plot of Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” hinges on the nameless suitor answering three riddles. Readers familiar with myth and folklore will instantly recognize this as an element common to many tales.

The suitor in “Turandot” is faced with having to answer three abstract riddles, the answers to which are “Hope,” “Blood,” and “Turandot.” (One wonders if each suitor got the same three, considering that they are read out loud and word must have gotten around if they were unchanged through the years!) If he wins, he gets the Princess; if he loses, he loses his head. Since Turandot herself is the cause of many deaths in the past, one should keep her association with Death in mind as we proceed in this essay.

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Careful of whom you ask questions!

In Wagner’s “Siegfried,” Wotan in his guise as The Wanderer, plays (as Anna Russell puts it in her spoof of the Ring Cycle) 20 Questions with Mime. The dwarf wages his head (cf. the wager in “Turandot”) that he can ask his guest three questions and then answer whatever three the guest proposes. Mime’s questions are easily answered by Wotan, and Wotan’s first two questions are easily answered by Mime. The last question, however, “Who will forge the sword?”, puts Mime in great jeopardy. Again, the last answer concerns an instrument of death—and again the contestant’s head is at stake.

Gold, silver, lead?

In Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Bassanio is confronted with three caskets: gold, silver, lead. A portrait of his beloved Portia is in one. The audience knows which casket is the right one, because it has seen two other suitors choose the wrong ones. What is at stake here is Bassanio’s love and his need for money, both of which Portia is willing to satisfy—and indeed she has a song sung to Bassanio before he chooses in which most of the end words rhyme with “lead.”

Consider, now. Lead is associated with bullets and coffins, and is found deep in the earth. Again, Death lies in the third riddle.

In the folk tale, Goldilocks enters the house of the Three Bears. From the best bowl of porridge to the best bed, the first and second choices are too extreme while the third is always “just right.” When the anthropomorphic family returns, the little human barely escapes with her life—and a record of breaking and entering, I suppose.

1024px-Page_69_illustration_in_English_Fairy_TalesAnd what about the Three Little Pigs? The third survived the Big Bad Wolf, so perhaps death is not always the reward. Symbolism is not required to be consistent.


ts141207In myth, the shepherd Paris (or in some versions, Alexander) is suddenly faced with three naked goddesses, each of whom bribes him to award her the Golden Apple. Hera offers him the rule of Europe and Asia, Athena offers him the power to lead Troy to victory against the Greeks, Aphrodite offers him the fairest woman in the world. Since the latter is Helen of Sparta and her departure to Troy with Paris leads to the death of countless soldiers and citizens, that third choice seems yet again one of certain death.

One step back again to very early myth. The Moon appears in three phases. When full, it is Selina, Queen of Heaven. When it is in the shape of a bow, it is Artemis, the Huntress Queen of the Earth. When it is the New Moon (that is, no moon at all), it is black Hecate, Queen of the Underworld. And there we are again!

Beware that third wish, according to Dr. Freud

Freud considered this theme and concluded that humans will forever harbor a Death Wish, making choices that lead thereto. I see it from a different point of view. The very essence of three-ness is that three points form a triangle. Consider that nearly every comic opera plot concerns two characters of one sex in love with a third party of the other. In “Marriage of Figaro” there is the Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle; in “Oklahoma!” there is the Curly-Laurey-Judd triangle; in “The Mikado” we have Nanki Poo-Yum Yum-Ko Ko!

If we consider one of the males to be Thesis and the other Antithesis, there can be no Synthesis (i.e., a Happy Ending) unless the undesirable suitor bows out willingly or otherwise. This is the one of the great elements of comedy.

In tragic operas, however, that Synthesis can be brought about only in Death. So Aida and Radames can be united only in the tomb while Amneris curses the priests from above. Violetta and Mimi must both die of consumption because Life with the Beloved has proven impossible. Both Tannhauser and his Elizabeth must die to be united (one supposes) in a better world.

And of course the greatest example of love-in-death is that of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner tells it. But more about that in some other essay.

Going full cycle, then, back to “Turandot,” her first kiss from a man suddenly brings her over to his way of looking at things and the opera ends happily (if one ignores the death of little Liu, the only really sympathetic character in this tale). And yet, a recent production of this opera (available on a DVD) takes a chance and has Turandot stab herself at the last moment, even as the chorus is singing about how wonderful life will be in Peking. Personally, I think the tenor doesn’t know how lucky he is!

Mythic Themes in Opera: The Unknown Bridegroom

Lohengrin arrives with his swan.


Some while ago, I wrote a series of articles about operas based on myths. Now I want to examine a certain mythic theme that shows up in operas. Having just listened to a recording of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” for the purposes of a review, the theme of the “Unknown Wooer” or the “Unknown Husband” came readily to mind.

The oldest version is that of Apuleius in the 5th  century. Here we have a young girl married to a man she must never look upon. When, Cinderella-like, she is taunted by her sisters, she sees him sleeping, learns it is Cupid himself, and loses him for her disobedience. You see, “Love cannot live where there is no trust” (as Edith Hamilton translates it).

Well, the story of Elsa and Lohengrin bears too strong a resemblance to be a mere coincidence. Accused by Friedrich and his evil wife Ortrud of murdering her brother, Elsa is championed by a wondrous knight who arrives pulled to shore by a swan and easily defeats Elsa’s accuser. Since she has already announced that her champion will also be her husband, the knight agrees but on the sole condition that she never ask his name or origins.

Ortrud easily convinces the otherwise perfect Elsa that her accuser had been overcome by magic, and that Elsa had best find out the forbidden details lest she be wed to a sorcerer. True to the tradition of Eve in the story, Elsa cannot resist the temptation and asks her husband on their bridal night. Now he must tell his secret to the whole world, but he can no longer stay with her.

It turns out that he is the Knight of the Holy Grail, Lohengrin, the son of Parzifal; and off he goes, pulled by his “beloved swan”–which just happens to be Elsa’s missing brother, transformed by Ortrud to advance her husband’s status. As for Elsa, there is nothing for it but to sink to the ground as her virtuous spouse sails off.

51oJAJptQqL._AA160_There is a neat twist on this theme in Puccini’s “Turandot.” Here a nameless suitor successfully answers three riddles at the risk of his head and wins the haughty Princess Turandot as his bride. But in a burst of fair play, he tells her that he will lose his head if she can find out his name before dawn.

Another variation comes in Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” in which his new bride Judith cannot resist insisting that he show her the contents of several rooms in the castle. The last one contains all his former wives, who asked the same fatal question about that room, and she joins them as he laments her loss.

Son of the Mikado in disguise (Derek Oldham as Nanki-Poo)

(You might even think of “The Mikado,” in which a semi-divine man, Nanki-Poo, is disguised as a wand’ring minstrel; but he willingly reveals his identity as soon as he is alone with Yum-Yum, so that does not count.)

One artist’s view of Cupid and Psyche

Now what exactly is the meaning of all this? One very obvious similarity is that it is always the Male who imposes the conditions for marriage; and I suppose (alas) that historically this is the correct way of doing things. But why should a man impose such ignorance upon a bride to begin with? Cupid would not allow himself to be seen, no less named. We know from other Greek myths and writers of the time that while Immortals often succumbed to the charms of mortals, they felt degraded afterwards. This, perhaps, lets us into Cupid’s motivation for imposing those restrictions. He was, of course, an immortal and they worked by their set of rules.

Lohengrin was a little more than simply mortal, but he had all sorts of divine backing, which imposed upon him the the duty not to reveal himself. Therefore he had to make those demands on Elsa, since he was required to do so. The Prince in “Turandot” was just being a Good Sport and did not want her in the mood she was in when he unexpectedly won her.

Granted: males can impose conditions and females cannot. But why this condition? Why the prohibition against asking a name? We know that in very ancient Greece, you could put a curse on a chap by scraping his name into a piece of lead and throwing it into the sea. The name IS the man. If you do not know my name, you do not know me; and if you do not know me, I am not vulnerable to you, I am in no danger from you, you have no power over me.

Bluebeard and latest wife, according to Gustave Dore

Well, that seems to fit Cupid and Lohengrin to a greater and lesser degree. The Prince is daring Turandot to find his name, knowing full well that she will not succeed. Though why this should make her love him is only for the mythographers to say. Bluebeard might bring us closer to the answer by forbidding his wife to look into his rooms. Of course, here the symbolism is pretty obvious. The rooms of a man’s mind are not always open to others, even to a Beloved. So it is not so much No Girls Allowed but more of a general No Admittance, Private Property to one and all.

I am not offering any definitive answers. Just consider the power of this mythic element and perhaps ask yourself a few questions.

The Healing Power of Song


These words were written on September 14 with the memory of last Tuesday’s horror story still very fresh in mind. It is fascinating how while the political questions of Who, How and Why have begun to be hotly debated, certain religious questions have also been re-asked and re-examined. Did we not pray hard enough? Do prayers have any effect to begin with? Why was this allowed to happen? And so on. Still, many have flocked to their places of worship where prayers are being offered and songs are being sung.

No one will deny that songs under any circumstances fill a deeply rooted need in the human psyche. First of all, it is a form of community event, even if it involves a single performer and a silent audience. But in churches and synagogues, singing is a group effort and the members of that group are more closely drawn together by doing the same thing at the same time and for the same purpose. Thus we create a united act of defiance against the ones who sought to tear us apart.

But that cannot be all. Why sing at all? Yes, of course that is the accepted means of expression in places of worship. But that begs the question. What is there about songs that tends to ease our sorrow? This question was asked, for example, in the early days of Tin Pan Alley; and at least one analyst came up with this answer. Few people can express themselves well in words. Lyricists, by their very nature, can. Therefore most of us have to express our feelings in the words of others.

Now these words can be optimistic or pessimistic. If optimistic, then the effect on sorrowing singers is palpable: it expresses hope. In the case of September 11, some might ask, Hope for what? The horror was done, it is a fact, a fact that all the songs in the world cannot erase now. Hope that it will never happen again? That is too naïve to elicit comment. Perhaps the answer is this: hope that we will never sink so low as even to be glad in our hearts that such a thing can happen to innocent citizens. Think: people who gather to sing such songs are not the kind to condone, let alone commit, such acts. And who knows? Possibly such optimism will hold them back from knee-jerk thoughts of  “retaliation” against other innocents in this world.

ucsb_victor_45132_01_b18973_01_160If pessimistic, what possible solace can such songs afford to people already grieving? Help me disentangle this concept. If you are mourning the death of a person and read “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton,” you can not only feel that you are not alone in your grief but (to repeat) that the poet has expressed such grief far better than ever you could. Now this poem has been set to music, so if you actually sing the lyrics you have added an extra dimension to the healing power. And finally, if many people gather together to sing it… Well, I think we have already drawn the necessary conclusion.

TristanTake what is possibly the greatest non-religious expression of love-in-death, the “Liebestod” that ends Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Some of the lines translate more or less thus: “Do only I hear this melody that is so wonderful and gentle sounding within him, saying everything, reconciling gently, piercing me, hovering over me, sounding around me?” This is Isolde over the dead Tristan. Could it not be an entire nation over the thousands who died early in the morning because of a handful of maniacs who were convinced they alone were right or could never be anything but right? Many politicians rushed before the cameras to express their sorrow in words that may or may not have been scripted for them. Did any of them even come close to what Wagner wrote? Or Burns?

61RldYaBlAL._SY450_After our Civil War, there was a great outpouring of “angel songs,” mostly about the deaths of beloved family members, usually wives and infants. It was almost as if we had recoiled so forcefully from the horrors of the recent carnage that we sought to be reconciled with our religious beliefs, with our consciences, with the world in general. The point is, the songs did help and that is what is important.

So theological considerations are all beside the point. The very act of singing was then and is now an absolute necessity for us to keep our humanity and to find consolation as best we can. Let it be hymns, popular songs, or grand opera–singing, even when done alone, is an act of communion with all those who have grieved in the past or are grieving at that very moment.

I doubt if I have offered anything profound and I certainly have not answered the question I posed, but I simply was compelled to tackle this subject on this date in our history.

Music and the Legend of Faust, Part 2

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150605_0001_NEWThe Symphonic Treatments of the Faust Legend

It is interesting to note that German composers tacitly agreed not to set their countryman’s version of the Faust story into an opera, thereby leaving the field open as it were to other nationalities. We will examine the route taken by Berlioz in the 1840s in the next essay. What is important here is the influence of La Damnation de Faust on Liszt and Wagner  .

Liszt had set upon a course of popularizing the piano as a substitute for an entire orchestra—and himself as the prodigy who could play his pieces as they were meant to be played—and in giving us a series of tone poems that have been criticized as being a bit too literal.

(To digress for a moment, while so many of us old timers associate The Lone Ranger with the fourth part of the “William Tell Overture,” not too many are aware that during the program much of Liszt’s “Les Preludes” was used as a mood-setter.)

Liszt’s Faust Symphony is a welcome exception in that the composer wanted to express the mood of the work by doing a musical character study of its three main characters: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. He was at once face to face with the problem that confronted Beethoven before that composer decided to bring a chorus into a symphony: music cannot be specific. It can portray grief or joy or pomp and circumstance, but it is at a loss to specify in purely musical terms who is feeling these emotions and what is causing them. Of course one can give the work a title such as “By a Waterfall” or “Falstaff: a Symphonic Synthesis” or “The 1812 Festival Overture” or whatever. But that is cheating, as is the use of “God Save the Queen” and “Marlborough se va-t-en guerre” in Beethoven’s noisy “Wellington’s Victory.”

Therefore Liszt gave his “Faust” movement two important themes that are supposed to show the two sides of the old philosopher’s personality, and then several other subsidiary themes that are presented in a turbulent fashion (Faust’s inner struggles?), and then there is a final falling away of the second theme (which may or may not be interpreted, as I read somewhere, as Faust’s self doubts).

Then Gretchen is given her more childlike motifs, full of innocence and love (one of which might be the “he loves me, loves me not” business from the Garden Scene). Then the horns suggest the presence of Faust himself, whose themes are interwoven with hers in a sort of love duet.

But what is one to do with the Devil? Well, this is where the genius of the composer saves the day. “I am the Spirit that denies” is Mephisto’s self description in Goethe; “and all things called forth from the Void deserve to be destroyed.” So here is a gigantic character that cannot create—in which case he cannot have his own themes—but can only destroy. So a good deal of the third movement is a distortion of what we heard in the Faust movement. The themes are taken up, distorted (think of Berlioz’ treatment of the “Beloved” theme in his “Symphonie Fantastique”), and twisted into a diabolic fugue (what else?). But twice the Gretchen theme is heard, untouched by Mephisto’s influence, to show the limits of his power and what Faust is missing.

Now this is wonderful enough, but Liszt felt the need to append the last eight lines from Goethe’s epic, the last two of which are the famous “Das Ewig Weibliche/Zieht uns hinan” (The Eternal Feminine draws us onward). These are assigned to a male chorus and towards the end to a tenor who is given the Gretchen theme with which to sing the words.

It is all very impressive and wonderful. Although I will not recommend any particular recording of this work, be sure the one you do get has the chorus at the end to enjoy the full effect.

Now the Liszt work runs a little over an hour and it would seem almost anti-climactic to hear an eleven-minute work on the same subject. But the one I have in mind is Wagner’s Faust Overture, and it is certainly worth consideration. It was originally planned to be the first movement of a full symphony, but it was put aside and Wagner was motivated to return to it when he learned about Liszt’s treatment of the concept. He never meant to publish it in its original or revised form, but there are several recordings of it and it is worth comparing what he did in about one-seventh the time it took Liszt.

It opens, naturally enough, in a somber mood, followed by a peaceful one (salvation?), and then again by heavy Beethovenesque crashes from the orchestra. We next hear a tender theme that reminds us perhaps of the heroine of “Lohengrin,” then some more tension, and a final resolution not unlike that at the end of the “Lohengrin” Prelude. Such brevity is quite atypical of Wagner (his first act of “Gotterdammerung” is longer than the entire “La Boheme”), and this Overture should be required listening to any one interested in the problems of translating Literature into Music.

In our next article, we will take a look at the Gounod version.