We start the evening with one of the great works of operatic history. Normally, I would not be returning to the music of Richard Wagner so soon after having completed our Ring Cycle last week. But I belatedly learned that last week was Wagner’s 200th birthday. Given the circumstances, and even when considering how controversial Wagner’s personal life is, I would be remiss if I failed to do something appropriate. Really, the only realistic option would be to take a listen to Tristan und Isolde.
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, and Leslie Horsmann. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the Chorus of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden,was conducted by the great Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner (an early recording of his; he later became famous for his tenure with the Chicago Symphony). The sound quality may not be up to 2012 digital standards, and there are some portions cut out of Acts 2 and 3, but when considering the technology available at the time, this must be considered to be an incredible live recording. As there are only a few recordings of Flagstad at this point, in the early portion of her career, this one becomes quite a treasure, and a must-have for the lover of great voices.
For our second opera, we’re going to hear a classic example of the verismo style of operatic composition. Pietro Mascagni wrote his one act opera Cavalleria Rusticana as part of a competition held in 1888. The competition was for new Italian composers who had not yet had an opera performed on stage. Mascagni heard about the competition three months before the deadline, but was able to compose and submit his opera on the very last day of the competition, with the help of his friends and librettists Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci. The opera was selected as one of three finalists in the competition, and at its premiere in 1890 won the first prize after a sensational performance that incurred 40 curtain calls for the composer. Although the opera is one of only a few of his 15 operatic compositions to remain in the regular repertoire, it has been performed regularly in opera houses around the world, and has been recorded many times.
Tonight’s performance is a 1989 recording that features Agnes Baltsa, Plácido Domingo, Vera Baniewicz, Juan Pons, Susanne Mentzer, with Giuseppi Sinopoli leading the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Opera House Chorus right here on WDBX, Carbondale, 91.1FM, community radio for Southern Illinois.
- A to Z of Wagner: I is for Isolde (guardian.co.uk)
- Opera Singer Kirsten Flagstad – The Voice of the 20th Century (marian39site.wordpress.com)