Tanglewood 75 - From the Audio Archives: Day 29
Wagner: Die WalkÜre, Act I;
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und
Walküre, Act I
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor
Cast (in order of appearance):
Siegmund - Albert Da Costa, tenor
Sieglinde - Margaret Harshaw, soprano
Hunding - James Pease, bass-baritone
Koussevitzky Music Shed, July 21, 1956
Wagner: Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch, conductor
Margaret Harshaw, soprano
Koussevitzky Music Shed, August 1, 1958
Background on the Music
Wagner's operas are full of glorious music and surging orchestral climaxes. They also require the resources, and the budgets, of major opera houses to stage them. So it is no wonder that since Wagner's own day, conductors and symphony orchestras have eagerly programmed orchestral excerpts from the operas, and even full scenes and acts.
Act I of Die Walküre, the second opera in the Ring cycle, has often appeared on symphony programs. There are only three singers, and the act lasts less than an hour. The story is only part of a much longer saga, but this particular act tells a part of the epic drama that can stand on its own, and traces a complete dramatic arc.
The scene is Hunding's hut in a dense forest. Siegmund, a warrior, takes shelter there from a violent storm and is welcomed by Sieglinde, Hunding's wife. The two feel a strange attraction and harmony. Hunding arrives and is angry when he realizes that Siegmund is an enemy of his clan. The laws of hospitality forbid immediate conflict, but Hunding challenges Siegmund to combat in the morning. Sieglinde puts a sleeping potion into Hunding's drink, and he retires.
The rest of the act is a sustained recognition scene as Siegmund and Sieglinde come to realize that they are twins; she is the sister who was abducted as a child. Siegmund fulfills the prophecy of his father when he withdraws a gleaming sword from the tree that rises through the house, a sword no man had previously been able to budge. The doors swing wide to admit the spring, and Siegmund and Sieglinde rush out. In modern productions they are more likely to roll around on the floor in each other's arms.
Both Siegmund and Sieglinde relate their back-stories, which are linked by Wagner's music motives that are another form of narration, and the end of the act is an explosion of passion.
In our second Wagner work, Charles Munch links together the famous Prelude to Tristan und Isolde and Isolde's Liebestod ("Love-death") with which the opera ends. The Prelude finishes on a suspended harmony that is not resolved until the end of the opera, when, at the close of the Liebestod, Isolde falls lifeless on the body of her beloved Tristan. This is a famous concert sequence that omits about three hours of opera to arrive at the harmonic resolution. Sometimes the Liebestod is performed in a version for orchestra only, but on this occasion at Tanglewood, soprano Margaret Harshaw sang it.
Serge Koussevitzky was the first BSO music director to program Act I of Die Walküre. Munch, in this Tanglewood performance, was the second. Erich Leinsdorf programmed it both in Boston and at Tanglewood, and so did Seiji Ozawa and James Levine, the latter performing it with the orchestra of the Tanglewood Music Center. Principal Guest Conductor Bernard Haitink also led it in a Symphony Hall series.
Like Koussevitzy, Munch never conducted a compete opera by Wagner. In fact, in his long career Munch conducted only one complete opera, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. He did program standard overtures and orchestral excerpts from operas, and made his own popular suite from Wagner's Die Meistersinger. And at Tanglewood he led concert performances of Act II of Beethoven's Fidelio and Act I of Wagner's Die Walküre. His conducting was predictably exciting and passionate, and we should not be surprised that it was also idiomatic up until the very end, which turns into a headlong rush to the finish - even the Boston Symphony can barely keep up with him.
Munch did know his Wagner. Before he became a conductor, he was a violinist - apparently an excellent one, because he played as concertmaster in Leipzig, where the principal conductors were William Furtwängler and Bruno Walter, both notable Wagnerians. In America he made a famous record of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde and the Immolation Scene from Die Götterdämmerung with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and soprano Eileen Farrell.
In Wagner, however, he worked more often with Margaret Harshaw than with Farrell. Harshaw (1909-1997) was an unusual and important figure. She didn't begin serious vocal study until she was 22 - before that she sang in choruses and worked for the telephone company. After study at the Curtis Institute of Music, she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions, made her debut with the company in 1942, and sang there until 1964, first in mezzo roles and then as a dramatic soprano specializing in Wagner. Because of this switch of register, Harshaw was able to sing 32 Wagnerian roles at the Met, which stands as a company record; in Die Walküre alone she performed four different roles. After leaving the Met, Harshaw embarked on an even longer career as one of America's most demanding and successful voice teachers, first at her alma mater and then, for decades, at Indiana University. She knew what she was talking about when it came to vocal technique. "Before you can create nuance,'' she would trumpet, "you must first create tone." There may be more tone than nuance in her Tanglewood Sieglinde, but the tone is impressive in resonance, steadiness, and stamina; she knows how to project her voice, the music, and the drama.
The tenor Albert Da Costa (1927-1967) was a towering presence with a voice to match. He was just on the brink of a major international career as a Heldentenor when he died in an automobile accident in Denmark; he was only 39. One night in his career became legendary - in 1969, all three available Metropolitan Opera Tristans were indisposed, so each sang an act opposite the indefatigable Birgit Nilsson; Da Costa sang the third and most demanding act. His first Siegmund ever, in this download, is a demonstration of diligent study, musical phrasing, and charismatically ringing tone.
The bass-baritone James Pease (1916-1967) was an alumnus of the Tanglewood Music Center who sang at the New York City Opera before embarking on a major career based in Germany. Serge Koussevitzky admired him and provided a promotional blurb for his management - "an exceptionally beautiful, powerful and expansive voice." He did occasionally return to America for performances like this one, and he sang Don Alfonso in the NBC Opera telecast of Mozart's Così fan tutte opposite another former fellow of the TMC, Phyllis Curtin. He was an impressive and dramatically powerful singer.
"Wagner was performed with a rare transparency and eloquence here at Tanglewood last night. The first act of Die Walküre,directed by Charles Munch, and played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was unfolded like a mighty symphony. When one hears an orchestra of this caliber in Wagner's music, one is reminded afresh how essentially symphonic his musical thinking was. From the opening with its raging storm music through the development and interplay of motifs to the closing invocation to spring and love, the Bostonians conveyed the ebb and flow of the drama in sound. The phrasing was full of nuance; the coloring, particularly by the winds, was admirable, and the entire act was built up under Mr. Munch's leadership like a force of nature. Margaret Harshaw, Metropolitan Opera soprano, who has sung Sieglinde just once before, gave a remarkably authoritative performance and her voice had a stirring opulence. Albert Da Costa, Met tenor, attempting his first Siegmund, gave a very satisfactory account of himself. He sang intelligently and accurately . . . the promise of his becoming a fine Heldentenor is bearing fruit. James Pease, who has been singing with the Hamburg Opera, gave evidence that he was become an outstanding Wagnerian. His Hunding, to begin with, was sung throughout; and secondly, it was realized as a full-dimensional character. Mr. Pease has learned not only to handle German, but also how to make music with a role like Hunding, which some basses wade through like barking seals."
-Howard Taubman, New York Times
"Munch paced his Wagner somewhat deliberately but drew sensuous sounds from the orchestra. The soloists gave outstanding accounts of themselves and the music. Miss Harshaw has seldom sung better. Da Costa qualifies potentially as a top-rank-heldentenor; Pease has returned with a new sense of authority in voice and in manner. Never having sung his role before, Da Costa brought special distinction to himself.
-Miles Kastendieck, New York Journal-American
"If Margaret Harshaw did not thrill every listener with the opulent beauty of her voice, the fault was not hers. Singing on a cold, damp night, where even wrapped in a mink stole she must have been chilly, she poured out tones which were effulgent in quality and alive with Wagnerian ecstasy. In my experience I have never heard her sing so well. And as could be expected, she sang with her familiar impeccable musicianship. [Da Costa's] trumpet-like quality which soars over even the loudest orchestral passages, was excellent in its effect. He also obviously had studied the role with thoroughness, was impressive in his sincerity . . . he is well on his way to a big career in this almost-impossible-to-find category. James Pease . . . sang with authority and with a sonorous richness."
-Harriet Johnson, New York Post
"The singing of Miss Harshaw [in the Liebestod] above the passion-filled pages of the orchestral background was the most telling part of the evening. She needs no operatic costume to portray the heroic characters of Wagner's dramas. Her regal posture and stature and imperturbable attitude are stage-settings before a note is sounded, and when she allows her easy-but-powerful and majestic voice to be heard her domination is both vocal and graphic. The great Boston orchestra was at its most expressive last night. The sighing arch which the celli play at the beginning of the Prelude which preceded Miss Harshaw's singing was a miniature but mighty detail of the orchestra's magnificence during the whole program. Miss Harshaw achieved her memorable success entirely vocally, for she makes no emotional display and stands with immobile majestic dignity. The formidable intensity of her grief was a supreme demonstration of her art and Munch drew the orchestral narrative with a vivid brush."
-Jay C. Rosenfeld, Berkshire Eagle