WDBX Opera Overnight: Wagner, Debussy

Backstage at the War Memorial Opera House, San...

Backstage at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco 1936. from left: conductor Fritz Reiner, Lauritz Melchior, and Kirsten Flagstad. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We start the evening with one of the great works of operatic history.  Richard Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde between 1857 and 1859, but it took Wagner 6 years from the time of its completion before he was able to premier it in Munich.  The opera was way ahead of its time musically, and is widely considered as one of the great works in operatic history, if not the history of music in general, and some historians credit the opera as laying the groundwork for where classical music would go in the 20th century.

However, the particulars about tonight’s performance are about as interesting as the opera itself.  The recording captures two of the great Wagnerians of the 20th century, Kirsten Flagstad, and Lauritz Melchior in a 1936 performance in London, along with Sabine Kalter, Herbert Janssen, Emmanuel List, Frank Sale, Roy Devereux, Octave Dua, Leslie Horsmann; Chorus of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden; the London Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Fritz Reiner.  The sound quality may not be up to 2012 digital standards, but it is actually pretty good for 1936, and there are very few recordings of Flagstad at this point in her career, which makes this one quite a treasure.

Our second work is the incidental music for a 5 act mystery play called The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Claude Debussy.  Debussy wrote the piece on commission in 1911, and was assisted in the orchestration by André Caplet, who also conducted the premiere.  Although the full play is not regularly performed, the incidental music has been recorded several times, including recordings by Leonard Bernstein and Michael Tilson Thomas.  Tonight’s recording is a 2012 recording that features Irene Jacob (narrator), Elizabeth Atherton, Jennifer Johnson, and Trove Dahlberg.  Thierry Fischer leads the BBd National Orchestra of Wales.


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