Flagstad centennial Part II
Peerless Wagnerian immortalized in large discography
Donald V. Mehus
New York, N.Y.
Note: Norwegian American Weekly Contributing Editor Donald V. Mehus writes further about the great Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad (1895 – 1962), with discussion of some of her especially notable, widely available recordings.
The centennial of Flagstad’s operatic debut took place just a century ago this month, on December 12, 1913, at Oslo’s National Theater. She appeared in the veristic, Puccini-influenced opera Tiefland, in the light lyric soprano role of Nuri, a far cry from her later heroic Wagnerian roles of Brunnhilde and Isolde.
Donald V. Mehus, who as a young man had the profound experience of attending many of Kirsten Flagstad’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera, can – as he has confirmed to NAW – certainly attest to the justness of the encomiums showered on this brilliant new Star of the North. A number of these awed critical responses our contributor published with the previous Part One of this article.
While living in Norway in the late 1950s, Mehus had the pleasure of interviewing Mme. Flagstad while she was serving as the inaugural intendant of the newly established Norwegian National Opera (Den Norske Opera) in Oslo. The company has evolved over the years into a first-rate European ensemble.
Mr. Mehus has written a number of widely-published articles on Flagstad, including an account of the above interview, which appeared in major papers of of such opera centers as Berlin, Vienna, New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.
Following is the discussion by our contributor on but a few of the many notable, widely available recordings by Kirsten Flagstad.
As the voice of Kirsten Flagstad is so monumentally heroic in scope, a special quality displayed in a major performance at a great opera house, such as the Metropolitan, how then can we today hear what it sounded like it did in her glory years? Is it ever really possible?
In the late 1940s and early 1950s when we operaphiles in New York were attending every Flagstad possible at the Met or Carnegie Hall, new Flagstad recordings were being periodically released. As notable as these were, they just somehow failed to do justice to the Flagstad we had heard at the opera house or concert hall. Then one day in the early 1950s, I heard yet another brand, recently recorded new Flagstad disc. When the needle dropped onto the disc and Flagstad uttered the first notes of this sublime Wagner music, I almost gasped in astonishment and exclaimed: “At last! That is Flagstad! “So now we – and posterity – have this remarkable recording that, along with others, to be sure, to the profoundly moving artistry of the legendary Kirsten Flagstad.
Siegfried Love Duet
The recording is the magnificent final scene of Siegfried, the passionate love duet between the awakening Brunnhilde and the fearless young hero Siegfried, who has fought way through a ring of magic fire to find the heroine. Like the prince in the fairy tale, Siegfried gently kisses the sleeping Brunnhilde, who gradually awakening from a long sleep to the new day, exclaims in drowsy wonder, “Heil dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (Hail to the sun: Hail to the light!)
The scene contains some of the most sublime and glorious music that Wagner ever wrote.
In this particular recording Swedish tenor Set Svanholm sings Siegfried and Conductor Georges Sebsastian leads the Philharmonic Orchestra of London. Flagstad is in top vocal form, and the sound of her voice is superlative.
Further, the technical and engineering aspects of record-making were by then (early 1950s) far enough advanced to capture the unique qualities, the oceanic splendor of the Norwegian soprano’s voice. Interpretatively the scene is outstanding. Few if any of the many others recordings and live performances of this Siegfried duet that I have heard can begin to rival, let along surpass, the Flatstad-Svanholm-Sebastian version.
At Its Best
I might mention that some time ago I gave a copy of this particular Flagstad recording to the distinguished Norwegian pianist, Einar Steen Nokleberg, a great admirer of Kirsten Flagstad.
When I chanced to see him a few months later in New York, the first thing Einar said to me was: “You were absolutely right! The recording is extraordinary.”
You should be all means try to get a copy, whether by purchase or by borrowing from a library.
When you do listen to this recording, my strong recommendation is to put on lots of bass (withouit distortion, of course) and lots of volume. If it’s too loud for you, as a distinguished musician once wisely advised me, go a room or two away to listen!
This, incidentally, is exactly what I did when I had to profound pleasure of hearing this selfsame recording in the very house in which Kirsten Flagstad was born. This house in Hamar (circa 75 miles north of Oslo) is now the Flagstad Museum. The 170-year-old edifice, named Strandstuen, was built of wood. Thus when I went to the opposite corner of the small house to hear Flagtstad in her glory, the sound enveloped me with the resonant warmth of a mellow, aged cello. Truly an experience to treasure.
Wealth of Flagstad Recordings
The operaphile truly has a rich cornuopia of widely available Flagstad recordings from which to choose. An excellent start would be the ten-CD Flagstad collection spanning the singer’s entire career, with over 130 selections – opera, including Wagner and much else), as well as German lieder, many of the circa 160 songs of Edvard Grieg and more music from Scandinavia, and a range of other music.
The 10-CD set was issued on the Simax label by Naxos of America, a major classical record company located in Frankfurt, Tennessee. Phone: (615) 771-9393. Customer Service: email@example.com
More about this CD set later.
Finally we would like to recommend two Flagstad recordings of one of her greatest roles, that in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The first is a composite of the 1936 and 1937 Covent Garden performances with Lauritz Melchior as Tristan under the baton of Sir Thomas Beecham, with all the excitement of live performances. The second, made 15 years later in the early 1950s, is a studio performance with Ludwig Suthaus as Tristan, with Wilhelm Furtwangler leading the Philharmonia Orchestra of London.
As Critic C.J. Luten wrote about the Furtwangler-Flagstad Tristan und Isolde: “Make no mistake, Flagstad is the central luminary of this recordings: her performance is so musically satisfying, so exquisite in dramatic detail, so grand in sound, so complete in projection…Who has known another singer who presented with such assurance and understanding the outraged passion of the Act I Isolde, the deeply felt mature ecstasy of the Act II beloved, the emotional strength of the transfigured Isolde of the final incomparable act?”
It is reported too that Flagstad herself took considerable pride in this studio recording of the complete Tristan und Isolde – and with good cause.
So now with many recordings of this legendary Norwegian you too can have your own individual commemoration of the centennial of the operatic debut of the great Kirsten Flagstad!
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2013 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.