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The best "Liebestods" from the golden age of Wagner

A sort of love-death deathmatch

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde
Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde

I’m not sure how the conversation started, but an opera friend of mine asked if I had ever heard soprano Leontyne Price's rendition of “The Liebestod” or “Love-Death” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I admitted that I had not and that I was surprised Price had recorded it.

As far as I knew, Leontyne Price had never performed any German opera, let alone anything by Wagner. I gave her version of “The Liebestod” a listen. It was pretty, but I thought it sounded overly careful and lacked character. However, the experience launched me on a search for the ultimate “Liebestod" — a love-death deathmatch, if you will.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde: Act III: Mild und leise (Liebestod)

I decided to find a soprano for the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s: that pretty much covers the golden age of Wagnerian singing. Each version of the “Liebestod” presented here comes at the end of a complete performance of the role.

Kirsten Flagstad dominated the Wagnerian repertoire in the 1930s. Her performances opposite heldentenor Lauritz Melchior are the stuff of legend. But the recordings from the 1930s require an ear that is acclimated to the hazy sound quality, and that might keep many from enjoying the miracle of Flagstad’s singing. Also missing from all those recordings is the size of the voice. Flagstad had, by all accounts, the biggest voice of the 20th Century. Her fame was such that she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even though her presence in the movies was almost nonexistent.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde: Act Three, "Mild und leise wie er lächelt" (Isolde)

After Flagstad’s controversial decision to return to her native (and then Nazi-controlled) Norway in 1941, the Missouri-born Helen Traubel stepped into the gap at The Met. There can be no denying the power of her voice. Traubel’s voice has more steel in the tone than Flagstad’s warmer sound, but that does not diminish her accomplishments. But Met general director Rudolph Bing did not renew Traubel’s contract in 1953 because he thought she was making too many Radio and TV appearances. That seems counterintuitive on Bing’s part, as Traubel became a household name by singing cabaret and popular songs of the day.

Video:

R.Wagner - Tristan und Isolde - Mild und leise, Isoldes Liebestod

The 1952 recording of Tristan und Isolde live from The Bayreuth Festival is, by far, my favorite. When I first listened to it, I thought, I would have no problem paying $10,000 and traveling halfway around the world to hear that kind of singing live. Money aside, the real problem is that no one can sing like Martha Mödl these days.

Mödl’s career was more diverse than Traubel's and Flagstad’s. She often sang Italian opera in addition to the great Wagner heroines. So it is no surprise that her version of the “Liebestod” sounds more Italian. The 1952 sound quality can still be a challenge, but the beauty of Mödl’s singing stands out from the harsher tones of many Wagnerian singers.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90, Act III: Act III Scene 3: Mild und leise wie er lachelt

Finally: I do not consider myself to be a big Birgit Nilsson fan, as her high notes are often icy and cold. However, I have never heard anything more impressive than her “Liebestod” from Bayreuth in 1966. The voice sounds warmer here. The orchestra attempts to overwhelm her but Nilsson’s voice bowed to no orchestra. Hers is the most impressive of the “Liebestods,” even though Martha Mödl remains my favorite.

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Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde
Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde

I’m not sure how the conversation started, but an opera friend of mine asked if I had ever heard soprano Leontyne Price's rendition of “The Liebestod” or “Love-Death” from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. I admitted that I had not and that I was surprised Price had recorded it.

As far as I knew, Leontyne Price had never performed any German opera, let alone anything by Wagner. I gave her version of “The Liebestod” a listen. It was pretty, but I thought it sounded overly careful and lacked character. However, the experience launched me on a search for the ultimate “Liebestod" — a love-death deathmatch, if you will.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde: Act III: Mild und leise (Liebestod)

I decided to find a soprano for the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s: that pretty much covers the golden age of Wagnerian singing. Each version of the “Liebestod” presented here comes at the end of a complete performance of the role.

Kirsten Flagstad dominated the Wagnerian repertoire in the 1930s. Her performances opposite heldentenor Lauritz Melchior are the stuff of legend. But the recordings from the 1930s require an ear that is acclimated to the hazy sound quality, and that might keep many from enjoying the miracle of Flagstad’s singing. Also missing from all those recordings is the size of the voice. Flagstad had, by all accounts, the biggest voice of the 20th Century. Her fame was such that she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, even though her presence in the movies was almost nonexistent.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde: Act Three, "Mild und leise wie er lächelt" (Isolde)

After Flagstad’s controversial decision to return to her native (and then Nazi-controlled) Norway in 1941, the Missouri-born Helen Traubel stepped into the gap at The Met. There can be no denying the power of her voice. Traubel’s voice has more steel in the tone than Flagstad’s warmer sound, but that does not diminish her accomplishments. But Met general director Rudolph Bing did not renew Traubel’s contract in 1953 because he thought she was making too many Radio and TV appearances. That seems counterintuitive on Bing’s part, as Traubel became a household name by singing cabaret and popular songs of the day.

Video:

R.Wagner - Tristan und Isolde - Mild und leise, Isoldes Liebestod

The 1952 recording of Tristan und Isolde live from The Bayreuth Festival is, by far, my favorite. When I first listened to it, I thought, I would have no problem paying $10,000 and traveling halfway around the world to hear that kind of singing live. Money aside, the real problem is that no one can sing like Martha Mödl these days.

Mödl’s career was more diverse than Traubel's and Flagstad’s. She often sang Italian opera in addition to the great Wagner heroines. So it is no surprise that her version of the “Liebestod” sounds more Italian. The 1952 sound quality can still be a challenge, but the beauty of Mödl’s singing stands out from the harsher tones of many Wagnerian singers.

Video:

Tristan und Isolde, WWV 90, Act III: Act III Scene 3: Mild und leise wie er lachelt

Finally: I do not consider myself to be a big Birgit Nilsson fan, as her high notes are often icy and cold. However, I have never heard anything more impressive than her “Liebestod” from Bayreuth in 1966. The voice sounds warmer here. The orchestra attempts to overwhelm her but Nilsson’s voice bowed to no orchestra. Hers is the most impressive of the “Liebestods,” even though Martha Mödl remains my favorite.

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