WDBX Opera Overnight: Wagner, Moussorgsky

English: Facsimile from the manuscript final b...

Manuscript page from Tristan und Isolde (Image via Wikipedia)

We started tonight’s edition of WDBX Opera Overnight with a classic recording of Richard Wagner‘s Tristan und Isolde.  Tristan und Isolde was written between 1857 and 1859 (but not staged until 1865), and is considered one of the more influential works of the 19th century,  It did things with chromaticism and tonality that laid the groundwork for much of what would come during the 20th century, and inspired a significant group of major composers, including Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.  (It can also be said to have inspired a group of composers who recognized but rejected his influence, including Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel.)

Tonight’s performance was recorded live at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival, with the following cast:

  • Wolfgang Windgassen –  if any person were ever seem to be fated to inevitably become a Wagnerian tenor, it would be the person who bore a name such as Wolfgang Windgassen.  But his gifts were no fluke – his father, Fritz Windgassen, was himself a noted Heldentenor, his mother, Vali von der Osten, was a coloratura soprano, and her sister, Eva von der Osten, created the part of Octavian in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.  Windgassen sang all of the great Wagnerian tenor roles, and he was a mainstay at the Staatsoper Stuttgart, succeeding his father as principal tenor and eventually becoming its artistic director.
  • Birgit Nilsson – Swedish soprano who is generally mentioned along with Kirsten Flagstad as being the greatest dramatic sopranos of the 20th century
  • Christa Ludwig – German mezzo-soprano whom we have heard in multiple performances over the past few months.
  • Claude Heater – also a noted Wagnerian tenor who is featured in a side role in this recording.  He is also known for his portrayal of Jesus in the classic movie Ben Hur, which never showed his face (the character was shown only from the rear, in keeping with the wishes of Lew Wallace, who wrote the book upon which Ben Hur was based).
  • Eberhard Wächter – another mainstay of our show, as he participated in so many recordings that have achieved high regard over the years.
  • Erwin Wohlfahrt
  • Gerd Nienstedt
  • Peter Schreier – German tenor who was noted for his performances in the works of Bach, and for his performances of lieder.  After the end of his singing career, he has focused his attention on conducting.

Karl Böhm conducted the Bayreuth Festival Choir and Orchestra.

Feodor Chaliapin with Sergei Rachmaninoff, c. 1890

Feodor Chaliapin (l), with friend Sergei Rachmaninoff, c. 1890

For our second recording of the evening, we have a rather interesting excerpted recording of Modest Moussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.  It is not my normal practice to play portions of a piece of music, as I want to hear the complete piece, thereby giving me the opportunity to understand the composer’s intentions for the music.  But this recording is a special case: a live recording, from 1928, that features the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing his signature role.  Chaliapin was born in 1873, and died in 1938, long before technology allowed for the recording of full operas.  All of Chaliapin’s surviving recordings exist on 78s (or even earlier recording media), which require an extensive amount of preservation work just to make them listenable.  The result is an interesting document that brings back one of the great voices in musical history.

Chaliapin’s achievements did not stop with his vocal talents: he put so much effort into his acting that some of his characterizations were considered startling (indeed, many of the surviving pictures of him show him in costume with elaborate makeup).  In fact, his 1907 premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was considered disappointing in part because audiences did not expect the frankness of his character portrayals (his next visit in 1923 found audiences that were far more accommodating).  This philosophy of musicianship did not limit itself to on-stage portrayals, as composers and performers such as Sergei Rachmaninoff (shown above with his good friend Chaliapin in 1890) picked up on these ideas and used them to make their performances more believable.

Chaliapin also is important because he championed Russian composers.  His presence in the West (after the Bolshevik Revolution, he generally remained in Western Europe due to professional reasons, although he stated that he was not opposed to the Soviet administration; he eventually made his home in Paris) allowed him to bring the work of these great Russian composers to an audience that otherwise might not have been exposed to them.  It is at least partially because of Feodor Chaliapin that we are blessed with the awareness of the beauty of the works of men such as Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakof, Prokofiev, etc.

In tonight’s performance, the Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, were conducted by Vincenzo Bellezza.  It should be noted that the supporting cast was largely Italian, and sung their roles in Italian, while Chaliapin sung in Russian.  Such multi-lingual performances like this were fairly common, even into the 1940s.  The cast:

It should also be noted that a full performance of Boris Godunov is normally in the 3h 30+ minute realm, whereas tonight’s recording is only 1 hour 12 minutes.  At some point in the future I have selected a full rendition of Boris Godunov for presentation.  But this recording isn’t so much about the piece is it is the musician.

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