Kirsten Flagstad (1895-1962) was one of the preeminent Wagnerian Sopranos in the 20th century, yet she really didn’t sing heavy, Wagnerian roles until she was in her 40s. In pre-war recordings, it is easy to hear her golden-toned voice. Her placement of the breath and the sound was very high, and in the recordings below, you can hear that the voice seems to be beaming out of the top of her head. In order words, the voice is free, with no constrictions or pressure. Richard Strauss asked Flagstad to give the first performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder. Like Strauss, Flagstad was vilified as a Nazi collaborator after the war, and severely struggled to restart her career. It was out of sympathy for her difficulties that Strauss wrote, “I would like to make that possible that the songs should be at your disposal for a world premiere in the course of a concert with a first-class conductor and orchestra.”

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Libestod. It is very hard to translate “Liebestod” into English. It literally means “Love Death”. I think that a more appropriate rendering would be “Love through Death”.

Mild und leise
wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet —
Seht ihr’s, Freunde?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Immer lichter
wie er leuchtet,
stern-umstrahlet
hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm
mutig schwillt,
voll und hehr
im Busen ihm quillt?
Wie den Lippen,
wonnig mild,
süßer Atem
sanft entweht —
Freunde! Seht!
Fühlt und seht ihr’s nicht?
Hör ich nur diese Weise,
die so wundervoll und leise,
Wonne klagend,
alles sagend,
mild versöhnend
aus ihm tönend,
in mich dringet,
auf sich schwinget,
hold erhallend
um mich klinget?
Heller schallend,
mich umwallend —
Sind es Wellen
sanfter Lüfte?
Sind es Wogen
wonniger Düfte?
Wie sie schwellen,
mich umrauschen,
soll ich atmen,
soll ich lauschen?
Soll ich schlürfen,
untertauchen?
Süß in Düften
mich verhauchen?
In dem wogenden Schwall,
in dem tönenden Schall,
in des Welt-Atems wehendem All —
ertrinken,
versinken —
unbewußt —
höchste Lust!

 

Mildly and gently,
how he smiles,
how the eye
he opens sweetly —
Do you see it, friends?
Don’t you see it?
Brighter and brighter
how he shines,
illuminated by stars
rises high?
Don’t you see it?
How his heart
boldly swells,
fully and nobly
wells in his breast?
How from his lips
delightfully, mildly,
sweet breath
softly wafts —
Friends! Look!
Don’t you feel and see it?
Do I alone hear this melody,
which wonderfully and softly,
lamenting delight,
telling it all,
mildly reconciling
sounds out of him,
invades me,
swings upwards,
sweetly resonating
rings around me?
Sounding more clearly,
wafting around me —
Are these waves
of soft airs?
Are these billows
of delightful fragrances?
How they swell,
how they surge around me,
shall I breathe,
Shall I listen?
Shall I drink,
immerse?
Sweetly in fragrances
melt away?
In the billowing torrent,
in the resonating sound,
in the wafting Universe of the World-Spirit —
drown,
be engulfed —
unconscious —
supreme delight!

Elektra
This is the recognition scene from Richard Strauss’ Elektra. Here Elektra is reunited with Oretes, who will revenge the murder of their father, Agamemnon.

Orest! Orest! Orest!
Es rührt sich niemand! O lass
deine Augen mich sehn,
Traumbild, mir geschenktes
Traumbild, schooner als alle Träume!
Hehres, unbegreifliches,
Erhabenes Gesicht, o bleib’ bei mir!
Lös’ nicht in Luft dich auf,
vergeh’ mir nicht,
es sei denn, dass ich jetzt gleich
sterben muss und du dich anzeigst
und mich holen kommst: dann
sterbe ich seliger, als ich gelebt!
Orest! Orest! Orest!

Recognition scene from Elektra by R. Strauss

 

Orestes! Orestes! Orestes!
No one is stirring! Oh let
me gaze at you,
a vision in a dream,
a vision given to me, fairer than any dream!
noble, ineffable,
sublime features, Oh, stay by me!
Do not melt into air,
do not vanish from my sight,
unless I now must die,
and you have shown yourself to me
to come and join you.
Then I will die happier than I have lived!
Orestes! Orestes! Orestes!

Träume, from the Wesendonck Lieder

The story behind Wagner’s “Wesendonck Lieder” is very messy. It involves scandal, infatuation, money and one of Wagner’s greatest operas, Tristan und Isolde,WWV 90 (1856-1859). I won’t say much more, but the history of this work is nothing if not entertaining.

If you are interested in the sturm und drang that led to the creation of this work, I suggest that you visit the following site: Wagner and the Wesendonck Lieder

Träume

Sag, welch wunderbare Träume
Halten meinen Sinn umfangen,
Daß sie nicht wie leere Schäume
Sind in ödes Nichts vergangen?

Träume, die in jeder Stunde,
Jedem Tage schöner blühn,
Und mit ihrer Himmelskunde
Selig durchs Gemüte ziehn!

Träume, die wie hehre Strahlen
In die Seele sich versenken,
Dort ein ewig Bild zu malen:
Allvergessen, Eingedenken!

Träume, wie wenn Frühlingssonne
Aus dem Schnee die Blüten küßt,
Daß zu nie geahnter Wonne
Sie der neue Tag begrüßt,

Daß sie wachsen, daß sie blühen,
Träumend spenden ihren Duft,
Sanft an deiner Brust verglühen,
Und dann sinken in die Gruft.

Dreams

Say, what wondrous dreams are these
Holding my mind in thrall,
That they, like insubstantial foam,
Don’t barren emptiness recall?

Dreams that flower with greater beauty
With every hour of every day,
And blissful intimations of heaven
Throughout my inner self convey.

Dreams that like the rays of glory
Run through me to the very core,
Creating a picture there, effacing
All but one, for evermore.

Dreams as whenever the spring-time sun
Frees snowbound flowers with a kiss
So that the new day welcomes them
With unimaginable bliss,

So they may grow and bloom,
Dreaming exude their scent,
Their glow gently fading on your breast
Until their life is spent.

English Baroque composer Henry Purcell wrote his first opera based on the story of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Prince of Troy, Aeneas, based on a libretto by Nahum Tate. It was first performed in 1689.

Based on book IV of Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, Henry Purcell may have composed his first and only all-sung work around 1685, or perhaps even earlier.

The English composer John Blow produced his opera Venus and Adonis, which was partly based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with a text by Aphra Behn. It was first performed at the court of Charles II and Purcell was almost certainly sitting in the audience taking it all in. He substituted Virgil for Ovid and the Aeneid for Metamorphoses. Librettist Nahum Tate, rather than Aphra Behn, wrote the text. And instead of the court of Charles II, he favoured the unlikely venue of Josias Priest’s Boarding School for Girls, in Chelsea. Dido and Aeneas was first performed there around December 1689.

This very famous aria is sung at the moment of Dido’s death.

Purcell:  Dido’s Lament from Dido and Aeneas

When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
no trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.

Kirsten Flagstad

July 12, 1895 – Hamar, Norway to December 7, 1962 – Oslo, Norway

Norwegian soprano, Kirsten Flagstad’s father was a conductor, and her mother was a singing coach and pianist as well as her first teacher. She continued her studies in Oslo with Ellen Schyte-Jacobsen and in Stockholm with Dr. Gillis Bratt.

While still a student, Kirsten Flagstad made her début at the National Theater in Oslo in 1913 as Nuri in Eugen d’Albert’s Tiefland. For the next 18 years she sang exclusively in Scandinavia, performing in opera, operetta and musical comedy. Her first Isolde in Oslo in 1932 led to Bayreuth engagements in minor parts in 1933 and to roles as Sieglinde and Gutrune in 1934.

Later in 1934, Kirsten Flagstad turned her sights on North America and auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera to succeed the reigning Wagnerian soprano Frida Leider. Her unheralded Met debut as Sieglinde, broadcast nationwide on February 2, 1935, created a sensation. Four days later, she sang Isolde, and later that month, she performed Brünhilde in Die Walküre and Die Götterdämmerung for the first time. Almost overnight she was regarded as the pre-eminent Wagnerian soprano of her generation. Later that season, Flagstad also sang Elsa, Elisabeth, and her first Kundry. Fidelio (1936) was her only non-Wagnerian role at the Met before the war. She sang the same repertory in San Francisco in 1935-1938 and in Chicago in 1937.

In 1936 and 1937 Kirsten Flagstad performed the roles of Isolde, Brünhilde and Senta at Covent Garden under Sir Thomas Beecham, Fritz Reiner and Wilhelm Furtwängler, arousing as much enthusiasm there as in New York. In 1941 she returned to Nazi-occupied Norway to join her second husband, whose collaboration with the Nazis led to his arrest after World War II. Although her own wartime record was free from controversy, her return to Norway during the war and a certain political naïvété in her nature created much ill-feeling towards her, particularly in the USA.

During four consecutive Covent Garden seasons, from 1948 to 1951, Kirsten Flagstad repeated all her regular Wagnerian roles, including Kundry and Sieglinde. She returned to San Francisco in 1948 but was not invited back to the Metropolitan Opera until Sir Rudolph Bing became manager. In the 1950-1951 season, although she was well into her 50’s, Flagstad showed herself still in remarkable form as Isolde, Brünnhilde and Fidelio. Flagstad’s final role at the Metropolitan Opera was as Alceste in Gluck’s opera. Her final operatic performances were as Purcell’s Dido at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1953. Flagstad continued to record and sing concerts, and was director of the Norwegian National Opera from 1958 to 1960.