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.
“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.
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.
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.