WDBX Opera Overnight – Beethoven, Wagner

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804, by which point ...

Portrait of Beethoven in 1804 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our first opera of the evening was the only operatic work written by Ludwig van Beethoven, and it is considered to be one of his great masterpieces.  Fidelio was premiered in Vienna as a three act work on November 20, 1805.  Subsequent revisions shortened it to two acts, which were premiered later in 1805 and 1806, and finally in 1814.  The 1814 revision, with a premiere that featured Johann Michael Vogl and which was attended by a 17 year old Franz Schubert, was a considerable success.  The opera is noted for the three overtures that Beethoven wrote for it at various points in the revision process.  Three of the overtures have entered the regular concert repertoire, although I believe that what we will hear tonight will be the third.

Tonight’s recording is a 1998 recording that features Gosta Windbergh, Inga Nielsen, Wolfgang Glashof, Alan Titus, and Kurt Moll.  Michael Halász directs the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia and the Hungarian Radio Choir.

The next opera that we’ll hear this evening is Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann,  the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes.  Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842.  He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845.  It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna singing the part of Elizabeth.  The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it.  He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.

Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival.  It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth.  Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli.  The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch.

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WDBX Opera Overnight – Wagner, Puccini

Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861

Photograph of composer Richard Wagner, Paris, 1861 (catalog number 007); this was taken when Wagner was in France for the premiere of Tannhauser.

We have another interesting show for you this evening, with two great operas featuring two great tenor/sopranos duos.  We begin the evening with Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.  Wagner based the libretto on a poem by Heinrich Heine, the same poet who inspired Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, although Wagner also found some inspiration in a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann,  the 15th century folk ballad Das Lied von dem Danheüser, and a collection of folk legends from Thuringia called Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes.  Heine published his poem in 1837, and Wagner (who wrote all of his own librettos) wrote a draft libretto in prose in 1842.  He began the composition of the music in the summer of 1843, and completed the full score on April 13, 1845.  It was premiered on October 19 of that same year, with Wagner’s niece Johanna (who had assisted him during the compositional process by singing the parts as he wrote them, thereby serving as a partial inspiration for Wagner’s vision of the lead soprano part) singing the part of Elizabeth.  The opera was not initially as successful as some of Wagner’s previous works, and he spent parts of 1846 and 1847 revising it.  He also produced a well known revision of the opera in 1860 for a special performance in Paris, and that revision was itself revised in 1875.

Grace Bumpry

Grace Bumpry, from some time in the 1960s, during a performance of Carmen

Tonight’s recording is a legendary live recording from the 1962 Bayreuth Festival.  It is commonly referred to as the “Black Venus” because of the presence of Grace Bumpry, the first black singer to appear at Bayreuth.  Along with Grace Bumpry (whose Venus is quite prominent in Act 1), we hear Wolfgang Windgassen and Anja Silja in the lead roles, along with Eberhard Wächter, Gerhard Stolze, Franz Crass, Georg Paskuda, Gerd Nienstedt, and Else-Margaret Gardelli.  The Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra is conducted by Wolfgang Swallisch, and the production was staged by Wagner’s grandson Wieland Wagner, who for years ran the Bayreuth Festival and is credited for initiating the modernist trend in Wagnerian productions (and who was in a relationship for a while with Anja Silja, tonight’s lead soprano).

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Anja Silja, c. 1966

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera...

Promotional poster for Giacomo Puccini's opera "Turandot", from 25 April 1926. (Image via Wikipedia)

For our second opera this evening, we’re going to hear the last composition by Giacomo Puccini, Turandot.  Puccini began composition in January of 1921, using a libretto by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni.  He had completed all but a final duet by March of 1924, but was dissatisfied with the text for the duet.   He finally received a version of the text that he found satisfactory on October 8th, but two days later was diagnosed with throat cancer.  He continued writing while undergoing what was then an experimental radiation treatment, but died of a heart attack on November 29th, 1924.  He left 36 pages of sketches, along with instructions for how it was to be completed and whom should complete it – the last part of which Puccini’s son objected to.  The job was eventually handed to Franco Alfano, whose contributions were edited by conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had worked extensively with Puccini in the past, and who conducted the premiere.  Although there have been a number of recent attempts at revising this last portion, none have managed to stick, and the edition with Alfano’s contribution is the version that is usually heard.

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot

Birgit Nilsson as Turandot, possibly for a Metropolitan Opera performance, date unknown

But a mere recounting of the music’s history fails to touch on the beauty that inhabits this music.  Puccini’s music, while a continuation of the Italian musical tradition established by such great writers as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi, was fully modern for the 1920s.  He showed with traces of Wagnerian inspiration, but also suggesting hints of influences from Debussy and, later in his life, Stravinsky.  Puccini also had a taste for exotic locations and influences, as many of his operas were set outside of Italy, and two of them (Turandot and Madama Butterfly) were set in the Orient.  Puccini wrote demanding roles, and Turandot attracts the best sopranos and tenors.  He also had a gift for melody, and Nessun Dorma, the soaring tenor aria that helps lead off Act 3, is one of the more easily recognized melodies in all of music.

Tonight’s performance is a 1966 recording that features top vocalists Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli, two of the greatest voices of their era, along with Bonaldo Giaiotti, Renata Scotto, Angelo Mercuriali, and the Rome Opera House Orchestra & Chorus under the baton of Franco Molinari-Pradelli.

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.