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8.110058-60 - WAGNER, R.: Walkure (Die) (Traubel, Melchior) (1941)
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883)
A music drama in three acts to the composer's libretto, second of the four parts of Der Ring des Nibelungen
Saturday 6th December 1941 was a momentous afternoon in the history of the Metropolitan Opera
House, New York, The opera - Die Walkure - was well enough known to the theatre and radio audiences that day, but this particular performance was eagerly anticipated as it saw the role debut of Helen Traubel as Brunnhilde - itself an auspicious enough occasion. Making his first Met appearance in his role that day was Alexander Kipnis, singing Hunding, a part in which he had already been acclaimed in several European opera houses; undoubtedly that too caused much interest in New York operatic circles And as Sieglinde the audience was expecting to see Lotte Lehmann, widely admired for her vivid interpretation of this most lyrical of Wagnerian 'heroines'.
It was just a few hours before curtain-rise that Lehmann was taken ill and a replacement had to be found. The only available substitute was a 23-year-old soprano who had never before appeared on any stage and who had been studying singing for a mere four years; it was simply luck - what luck - that it was the operas of Wagner that had been her subject. Astrid Varnay was to make her world debut before a radio audience of millions, a debut that brought her immediate fame and was the starting point of a memorable forty-year career.
Apparently not content with singing her first Sieglinde, Varnay astounded the New York public when, six days later, she sang Brunnhilde in the same opera, this time replacing Helen Traubel - another first, of course!
Traubel herself made rather slower progress up the Wagnerian ladder. From 1935 until early 1941 Kirsten Flagstad had enjoyed almost complete supremacy in that repertoire at the Met and it was only on her departure that the field was opened for others. Traubel was waiting, and for the next fourteen years she performed Wagner with spectacular success, floods of glorious tone and some of the world's finest singers as her colleagues.
One such colleague was the bass Friedrich Schorr. Although only 53 at the time of this performance, his voice had already lost much of its earlier glow. It had become hard and unwieldy, but with sufficient moments of glory to remind today's listener, sixty years on, of what it had been at its best, which was magnificent. Another colleague that afternoon - Alexander Kipnis - was still at his peak His rich bass resonated uncharitably as Hunding, reluctantly welcoming his unexpected guest, Siegmund; in the 1940s at the Met, Siegmund almost invariably meant Lauritz Melchior. Here he is, as so often, on glorious form, disgraceful and endearing in the liberties he takes with his long-held 'Walse's in the first act. Perhaps he was determined not to be overshadowed by the debuts of his two leading ladies.
We are not allowed to forget that he is an experienced Siegmund. After all, he sang the role 83 times with the Met company alone. As Fricka, Kerstin Thorborg berates her Wotan as if well accustomed to it. It is a fine role if you are a great and imaginative mezzo and Thorborg certainly was.
So the operatic world moved on several stages that Saturday afternoon; and the real world moved on even more memorably the following day. On 7th December 1941 the United States was at war, following events at Pearl Harbour; an historic weekend indeed.
Die Walkure was first performed on 26th June 1870 at the Konigliches Hof - und Nationaltheater in Munich.
Helen Traubel was born in 1899 in St Louis, Missouri,
She became a concert singer, refusing the opportunity of a Metropolitan Opera debut in 1926, eventually appearing there in Damrosch's The Man without a Country in 1937. Following Flagstad's departure in 1941, Traubel successfully took over several of her roles but left the Met in 1953 after a disagreement over her professional cabaret appearances. Traubel died in 1972, remembered as the finest American-born Wagnerian soprano of the twentieth century.
The daughter of two singers, Astrid Varnay was born in Stockholm in 1918. After her brilliant 1941 Met debut (preserved on this recording) she sang there continuously for fifteen years, principally in Wagnerian roles, and later appeared at sixteen consecutive Bayreuth seasons Varnay first sang at Covent Garden in 1948 and thereafter in many major European houses; considered the most dramatically intense Isolde and Brunnhilde of her generation, in retirement Astrid Varnay moved to Munich where she still lives.
The mezzo-soprano Kerstin Thorborg (1896-1970) was born and studied in Stockholm. Following eight seasons with the Swedish Royal Opera she was invited to Berlin, Dresden, Nuremberg and Prague and, from 1936, to Covent Garden and the Met (where she sang for fifteen seasons). Bruno Walter engaged her for Salzburg in 1935, after which she also appeared at the Vienna Staatsoper. Mainly remembered for her success in Wagnerian roles, she sang Orpheus, Ulrica, Octavian, Marina and Dalila to equal acclaim.
Lauritz Melchior was born in Copenhagen in 1890 and made his debut as a baritone. After re-training, he emerged as a tenor, soon singing at Covent Garden, Bayreuth, Berlin and the Met in quick succession. From 1930-1950 he sang mainly in New York, and made guest appearances throughout Europe and in Buenos Aires In later years he acted successfully in films (including Luxury Liner) and took part in a number of Broadway shows Melchior died in California in 1973.
A native Hungarian, Friedrich Schorr was born in 1888, making both his American and European debuts in 1912. He achieved particular success in Berlin where he appeared from 1923, and was subsequently heard at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and the Met (from 1924) where he gave over four hundred performances. Schorr sang in a wide range of operas but his supremacy in the Wagnerian repertory - Hans Sachs, the Flying Dutchman, Amfortas and Wotan - was undisputed. He died in 1953.
After training as a conductor, Alexander Kipnis, born in the Ukraine in 1891, studied singing in Berlin; he became principal at the Stadtische Oper in 1919 and later at the Berlin Staatsoper and Vienna. Regular appearances at Bayreuth, Covent Garden and Chicago preceded his 1940 Metropolitan debut, where his refined bass was highly praised. Kipnis was as much admired in Lieder as in opera and made many recordings of both. Naturalised an American in 1931, he died in 1978.
Erich Leinsdorf was born in Vienna in 1912: after studying composition, piano and cello he assisted Toscanini and Walter at several pre-war Salzburg Festivals. He first conducted at the Metropolitan in 1938 (Die Walkure), remaining there until 1943 but later returning as guest and musical consultant Briefly director of New York City Opera, Leinsdorf also worked extensively with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra and Boston Symphony Orchestra, and conducted both opera and orchestral works throughout Europe and the Americas. He died in 1993.
 The prelude to Die Walkure represents a storm, with horn-calls heard through the turbulence. The storm subsides as the curtain rises to reveal the house of Hunding, Sieglinde's husband, built round an ash tree.  Siegmund staggers in and falls, tired out, by the hearth. Sieglinde, who had thought her husband had returned home, comes into the room, surprised to find a seeming stranger there. She bends tenderly over him, wondering if he is dead or alive He raises his head and calls for water, which Sieglinde hastens to fetch for him. Refreshed he looks steadily at her and asks who she is.
She tells him that she is the wife of Hunding and as he looks at her he forgets the battle from which he has taken refuge, now without weapons, exhausted but otherwise unharmed Sieglinde gives him mead and he drinks, but then sadly lowers his eyes.  He realises that he must leave, since he knows he brings misfortune with him. He rises and makes to go, but Sieglinde stops him, for she too is unhappy.
 The sound of Hunding leading his horse to its stall is heard. Armed with shield and spear, he comes in, but stops when he sees Siegmund, then offers a traditional welcome to his house. Sieglinde hastens to serve them food, while Hunding notices the likeness of Siegmund and his wife and questions the stranger, seeking to know his name, supported by Sieglinde.  Siegmund tells how his father called him Wolfe, not revealing his real name: he wandered through the woods with his father, after his mother had been killed and his twin sister abducted. When his father too disappeared, he knew he must call himself Wehwalt (Woeful), with all the misfortunes that have been his. Sieglinde seeks to know about his recent battle, and he explains how badly that too had turned out for the maiden he had tried to help  Hunding, however, tells him that the battle had been with men of his kin and that the next day he will seek revenge He orders Sieglinde to bring him drink, before he retires for the night, and she lingers as she goes, trying to guide Siegmund's gaze to the ash tree. Hunding follows her out, taking his weapons with him.
 Siegmund is left alone. He remembers how his father had promised him a weapon when he most needed it. He calls out to Walse, the name by which he knew his father, and light suddenly shines from a point on the ash tree. The fire in the hearth bums low and soon he is left in darkness  Now Sieglinde returns, having drugged her husband, asking if her guest sleeps and seeking to show him the weapon that awaits him, a sword embedded in the trunk of the tree. She tells him that when she was, against her will, married to Hunding, and his kinsmen were there for the wedding feast, an old man with one eye had walked in, looking angrily at the men but at her with kindness. The old man then drove a sword into the tree, a gift for the one who could pull it out again No-one had been able to do this and so she understood who the old man was. Now she hopes that Siegmund will be the one to succeed and to rescue her.  Siegmund rejoices that Spring has come into the house, with Spring's sister, Love. Sieglinde, however, sees Siegmund as the Spring, bringing the light and love for which she has waited  As she looks at him, she realises how alike they are, one the reflection of the other, his voice like hers and his eyes like that of the old man who had brought the sword She asks him if Walse was his father and if it was for him the sword was left. His name is Siegmund  He grasps the sword, declaring himself now Siegmund the Volsung, and draws it out of the tree, giving the weapon the name Nothung (Need) He will take his bride away into the Spring night. She, for her part, reveals herself as Sieglinde, his twin sister.
 Motifs of the sword, rapture, love and flight lead to that of the ride of the Valkyries, in a Prelude.  Wotan, in armour, stands on a rocky crag with the Valkyrie Brunnhilde before him. He bids her make sure of Siegmund's victory over Hunding in the coming battle, a command she joyfully accepts. From a nearby rock she calls to Wotan, warning him of the approach of his wife, before riding away.  Fricka is angry. Hunding has appealed to her, as the guardian of marriage, and she has promised to help him. Wotan urges the cause of true love, even if the couple are brother and sister; Sieglinde's union with Hunding was a loveless match.  Fricka angrily denounces Wotan, asking if all is over with the eternal gods since he fathered the Volsung and, even worse, two mortals, seemingly more important than his wife. Wotan explains that he needs a mortal hero to accomplish the deed that he himself is bound by oath not to carry out. Fricka, however, points out that Siegmund is still dependent on the gods, his agent, with the sword that Wotan had left for him.  She demands that he cease to support the Volsung, turn away from Brunnhilde and withdraw the magic power of the sword.  Fricka goes, leaving Wotan dejected. Brunnhilde returns and seeks to know the reason for his sorrow and he explains his own desire for power and love and the greed of Alberich the Nibelung, who forged the ring with stolen gold. Wotan had taken the ring from him, through trickery, to pay for the building of Valhalla, in spite of Erda's warning. With Erda he fathered the nine Valkyries, charged with the task of gathering fallen heroes from the field of battle.  He needs a mortal hero, independent of the gods, to bring him the ring and prevent Alberich from regaining it, with its power. Erda had foretold that when Alberich, in hatred, fathered a son, then the end of the gods was near. Now he is forced to abandon Siegmund and he commands Brunnhilde to see that Siegmund fall in combat with Hunding he demurs, but must finally give way.  Left alone, she is saddened by the charge laid upon her.
 Brunnhilde withdraws into a cave, while Siegmund and Sieglinde approach. She is in haste, but he tries to delay.  Sieglinde feels guilty that she had submitted to Hunding, whom Siegmund promises to kill. Hunding's hunting-horns are heard and Sieglinde imagines Siegmund's death, savaged by Hunding's dogs She faints
 Leading her horse, Brunnhilde emerges from the cave and tells Siegmund that he will die and she will take him to join the other heroes in Valhalla  He asks if Sieglinde too will be there, but she tells him that Sieglinde must stay on earth. He still has confidence in the sword, Nothung, but Brunnhilde tells him that its magic has gone. In anger at Wotan, he makes to kill Sieglinde, but is prevented by the Valkyrie, who promises to change the outcome of the battle. She moves back again, among the rocks.
 Siegmund watches Sieglinde, as she seems to sleep, and draws his sword, ready to meet Hunding, whose horn-call is heard, as the scene grows darker with approaching storm-clouds Sieglinde wakes and calls out for Siegmund.  She hears the voice of Hunding, shouting for Wehwalt, the name by which he knows Siegmund.
The men meet in combat and Sieglinde runs forward to intervene, but is prevented by a bright light, the shield of Brunnhilde, offering protection to Siegmund. As he is about to kill Hunding, Wotan appears, breaking the sword with his spear and allowing triumph to Hunding Brunnhilde gathers up Sieglinde and rides away, while Wotan, with a movement of his hand, kills Hunding and in anger follows Brunnhilde.
 The Valkyries are riding to meet at Brunnhilde's rock. They greet each other  and await their sister Brunnhilde arrives, bearing Sieglinde with her instead of a hero. She seeks help from her sisters, which they are unwilling to give.  Sieglinde wants to die, but Brunnhilde tells her she must live and give birth to Siegmund's child. Wotan is seen approaching and Sieglinde must escape to the wood, where the giant Fafner guards the treasure of the Nibelung Brunnhilde foretells the birth of a hero to Sieglinde and gives her pieces of Siegmund's broken sword that she has gathered from the field of combat. The boy must be called Siegfried. Happy at what she hears, Sieglinde flees.
 Wotan appears, angry and seeking Brunnhilde, whom the others try to shield.  She comes forward and he condemns her to punishment by depriving her of her powers as a Valkyrie, to lie sleeping and helpless on a rock until a man wakes her and takes her to himself. Wotan's decision is immutable, and the others, threatened with the same fate, flee.
 Left alone with Wotan, Brunnhilde asks whether what she has done is so shameful, since she did what he really wanted, although his orders contradicted his true wishes, She explains how she was moved by Siegmund's sorrow and selflessness  He tells her that while he has lost everything, she has followed the voice of love and must continue to do the same Brunnhilde only asks that the man who wakes her be noble and not a coward, the son to be born to Sieglinde, defended by his father's sword.  Wotan sadly confirms her punishment and agrees that her rock may be defended by fire that only the bravest will dare to breach.  He bids her farewell, leaving her to her fate with a mortal. His final kiss takes her divine powers away  Brunnhilde falls into a sleep and Wotan gently lays her on the ground, covering her with his shield for protection.  Raising his spear, he calls to Loge to turn into fire again and guard the rock where Brunnhilde sleeps and vows that none fearful of his spear shall pass through the flames. He looks back at her sadly as he disappears through the fire.
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