Various Artists, "Wagner at the Met: Legendary Performances from The Metropolitan Opera" (Sony Classical)
Yes, there really was a golden age, and this was it.
To mark the 200th anniversary of Richard Wagner's birth on May 22, a 25-disc set taken from the archives of Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts documents performances of nine of the composer's 10 mature works — "Parsifal" was excluded. The recordings date from 1936-54 and while some of these had appeared previously on CD, these are the first authorized releases. The sound from the original lacquers and tapes has been improved and cleaned markedly, but don't expect the clarity, depth and width of the digital era, especially from the 1930s broadcasts. And the conductors of the day made cuts that would be unacceptable to the 21st century Met audience.
But, oh, the singing.
Hans Hotter's booming Dutchman from "Die Fliegende Hollaender" is paired with Astrid Varnay's excitable Senta under Fritz Reiner's baton from 1950. George Szell's "Tannhaeuser" from 1954 shows interesting tempi choices in the overture, which includes a sudden speedup in the Venusberg theme.
Ramon Vinay's clarion tenor is featured as Tannhaeuser, this time matched with Varnay's sultry Venus, Margaret Harshaw's hefty Elisabeth and a young Roberta Peters as the Shepherd.
For a 1943 "Lohengrin," a fresher-sounding Varnay's Elsa is together with Lauritz Melchior in the title role under Erich Leinsdorf's baton that emphasized flow over energy. Melchior's "In fernem land (In a far-off land)" is a model of diction, breath control, pacing, color and inflection.
Melchior is a central part of the Ring Cycle, as Siegmund in a 1940 "Die Walkuere" with Marjorie Lawrence's Sieglinde, Flagstad's Bruennhilde and Julius Huehn's Wotan (under Leinsdorf), a 1937 "Siegfried" with Flagstad and Freidrich Schorr's Wanderer (under Bodanzsky) and a 1936 "Goetterdaemmerung" with Lawrence (again under Bodanzsky).
Melchior's seemingly effortless soft singing in "Winterstuerme (Wintry storms)" highlights how often the role is shouted these days by tenors lacking his technique, and Lawrence's "Du bist der Lenz (You are the spring)" builds tension and pace along with Sieglinde's ardor. Varnay combines iciness and affection in her opening "Siegmund! Sieh' auf mich! (Siegmund! Look at me!)" from the Todesverkuendigung (Annunciation of death). While Huehn's "Leb' wohl (Farewell)" is low on emotion, Flagstad and Melchior sparkle in the closing duet from "Siegfried."
A 1938 "Tristan und Isolde" with Melchior, Flagstad and Bodanzsky reveals an incendiary love duet that lifts the opera to an even higher level, and Flagstad follows with an ecstatic, mournful Liebestod (lovedeath), although here the thin sound of the recording detracts.
Finally, there is a "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" from 1953. Reiner carefully blended Hans Hopf's lyrical Walther, Paul Schoeffler's thick-voiced Sachs and Victoria de los Angeles' sweet and innocent Eva.
While Sony had released 20 individual sets of Met broadcasts in recent years, including a 1968 "Walkuere" and 1972 "Meistersinger," the historic recordings have far more impact when packaged together here. A similar Verdi set is planned for the fall.