Kirsten Flagstad in Gluck's Alceste, March 4, 1952

Review of Virgil Thomson in the Herald Tribune


GLUCK'S Alcestis in any language is a noble piece. As performed last night in the Metropolitan Opera House in a new English translation by John Gutman, it was no less so than is its custom. And the presence of Kirsten Flagstad, singing the lead, had sold out the house at a fifteen-dollar top for the benefit of the Production Fund of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

The production itself was handsome enough, though without real visual distinction. The sets were those designed by Richard Rychtarik for the production of 1941. The costumes were new. So were the stage movements and ballets. An effort had been made to keep the whole stylized and somewhat Greek. Munich Greek of about 1910, I should say, was the source, though a color scheme of mustards and mauves in the draped costumes suggested the Paris of a decade earlier. In any case, the show looked like an opera. It was clean; it was regulated; it was massive.

Orchestrally and chorally it was clean, too. With a little more subtlety in the pacing the musical background, as conducted by Alberto Erede, would have been really elegant. The musical foreground, of course, as occupied by Miss Flagstad, was an ultimate in stylishness. No singer living could have sung Alcestis's arias with a more sumptuous beauty of voice or a more impeccable respect for their classic line, their expressive rhetoric. Brian Sullivan, as Admetus, sang handsomely, too; and so did Paul Schoeffler as the High Priest: of Apollo. The smaller solo bits were flawlessly intoned. All round, the musical execution was a fine one.

But the evening belonged in glory to Miss Flagstad; and hers were the plaudits, the repeated recalls, the full gratitude. It is of no point at so late a date in this artist's career to analyze her vocal production, to describe the beauty of her vocal sound or the strength of her expressive power. She is unique among living vocal artists; and hearing her is a privilege, as remembering her will for all our lives be a pleasure. The privilege and pleasure were witnessed last night by demonstrations both out front, among the audience, and backstage, among her colleagues of the cast, unusual for length, for intensity and for warmth.

Review of Olin Downes in The New York Times

Near Retirement, Flagstad Excels singing Alcestis in English Here

The revival of Gluck's Alcestis, in English translation by John Gutman, last night at the Metropolitan Opera House, was memorable, indeed unique, for the performance of the name part by Mme. Flagstad. She will appear in this role four times more this season. It is a role she has under taken for the first time in her career for her last appearances. No artist could take a nobler farewell of the public.

It seems strange, indeed, that Mme. Flagstad has been so long in studying this part, for she seems to have been born for it. Her native dignity and simplicity in dramatic interpretation, her mastery not merely of the technique but of the finest principles of the vocal art qualify her especially for it. She sings it with simplicity and an emotion that are unforgettable and in the finest classic style.

This style unites grandeur and nobility with great intensity of feeling. There is no bravura singing. There are no magnificent histrionics such as offered by the Bruennhilde of Goetterdaemmerung, which Mme. Flagstad has interpreted so memorably. But there is a part that in range, in significance of every phrase, in the need of dramatic enunciation as well as vocal splendor, is one of the most demanding in the dramatic soprano's repertory.

And truth to tell, as Mme. Flagstad began last night, one was a trifle apprehensive. But the voice soon warmed, gained firmness and resonance, and impact. The first great climax was the famous invocation of the gods of the Styx, and was delivered with thrilling power and intensity, with the B-flat in itself a drama!

Yet this was the lesser of two historical achievements of the evening. The second was the pathetic air at the end of the second act, as Alcestis bids farewell to life and friends and children to be with her Admetus, and prepares herself for the sacrifice, while all lament her going. Everything, fortunately, helped the effect of this passage. The stage cleared – an exception – so that the figures of the veiled Alcestis and the sorrowing group about here were outlined poetically at last glimpse against a shadowy sky.

The chorus, admirably controlled by Mo. Erede, chanted as from a far distance – centuries away – its immemorable lament, very softly. And prior to this moment, which completed the effect of her song of farewell, Mme. Flagstad sang with a beauty of sustained song, a profound pathos and a consummate art that no one who heard her can forget.

This also was notable; a character out of Greek mythology, a supplicant of the gods, a figure of fate, was singing. But never did the art of this singer seem more human in its communication. Mme Flagstad made a singularly appealing and womanly figure to the eye and in her deportment, and her song fulfilled completely the impression. There was something in the combination of complete sincerity, simplicity and artistic finish that made the figure in the old court opera of Gluck’s period the presence as well as the symbol of a very human being whose suffering we understood and knew.

Another feature of this passage enhanced its atmosphere. This was Mr. Darcy’s admirable singing and enunciation of the lines of Evanther –“Alcestis must now descend into the night.” Here in a word, was one of the rare moments when every accessory of a music drama is in place and functioning at the highest, so that nothing marred and everything added to the effect of the transfigural song.

It was unequivocally Mme. Flagstad's night. Brian Sullivan notwithstanding the warmth of his voice and his expressive intention was pardonably nervous and in any event could hardly be expected to have grasped the role of Admetus in all its significance at this stage in his career. He sang better as the evening went on, and was most fortunate in the scene with Alcestis in the last act. Paul Schoeffler, the High Priest, is always an accomplished artist. Lucine Amara sang a short solo passage more than competently. The chorus was excellent, though at one point, in the last act, too far back to balance properly with the orchestra. This was an accident easily corrected. In point of dramatic pronouncement and variety of tone color the ensemble singing was an essential and successful accomplishment.

Mr. Erede conducted, we thought, with a rare and excellent understanding of the music, which caused him neither to exaggerate nor to understate its wealth of color and of passion. A conductor may err in this latter direction in the name of classicism. But the orchestra pulsed and throbbed with color.

The largest fly in the evening’s ointment, for us, was the exaggerated and self-conscious ways of the stage evolutions, as directed by Mr. Graf. These detracted from the clearness and simplicity of the action, to say nothing of positively concealing essential persons and actions, at various points, from many of the beholders.

Nor is the device of a part of the chorus standing down in each end of the orchestra pit good practice or favorable to the sight-lines of those who sit close to the stage at the sides. This arrangement did have one virtue, probably involuntary. It caused the orchestra to be centered in front of the conductor, resulting in a great improvement in the sonority and carrying power, which it does not have in an equal degree when it is thinly strung out the length of the long pit.

The more or less inappropriate dancing of the ballet, which was not in one but in a variety of styles and certainly not in the manner of the classic ballet of the Seventeen Seventies in Paris, did not add to the occasion. But the opera for reasons above cited, triumphed.

Review of Irving Kolodin in the Hartford Times

Kirsten Flagstad’s Alcestis Triumphant Feat of Her Career

When Kirsten Flagstad’s career is but a memory, one special memory marked “Metropolitan" will endure -- her performance in title role of Christopher Gluck's Alcestis in which she returned to opera last night. She had not sung it anywhere previously, and if her intention to retire at this seasons end is fulfilled. She will not sing it elsewhere. There seems no reason to doubt it will be acclaimed one of triumphant feats of her career, as it sounded to these ears last night and to the packed house which gave the great Norse soprano her salute when the first act curtain fell on her tremendous singing of famous aria, “Divinités du Styx."

To be sure, Mme. Flagstad, looking a bit portlier than ever but handsome nevertheless in blond wig and white Grecian gown, sang nothing like this—what she sang, in English translation was "Gods of Eternal Night." But this, too, was part of the story — for her English was not merely meticulously clear and ever-understandable, but delivered with the sense and accent of a great tragic actress. Often enough, one felt, that Mme. Flagstad could hold attention just by speaking the words.

That, fortunately, is not necessary yet. In her traditional manner, she unlimbered her great voice slowly and with care; but once in stride, her lower and middle tones had all the power and thrust of old. For a while, her upper voice responded with ringing B-flats, but they came with an effort and left a shadowy feeling, "Why, she's human after all."

A big dramatic phrase toward end of Act 2 was wrenched out of her voice rather than sung, but it is hard to think of any contemporary 20 years younger than Mme. Flagstad's 57 who could come anywhere close to her magnificent repose, her sense of classic line. Others in the cast worked hard to match this kind of trance-like mesmeration of the audience, but scarcely came close. Brian Sullivan as King Admetus whose, impending death inspires his wife Alcestis to offer herself in his place, is a nice young tenor and conscientious artist, but he cannot yet master his own tones let alone match those of a Flagstad. The only other conspicuous part is the high priest, sung by Paul Schoeffler, who poured out voluminous tone and also a good Prater-likeness of English, with such garbled lines as "Ze Sun Comes Zu Zink" almost in Jack Pearl category.

All musical work was beautifully disciplined by Alberto Erede, including some wonderfully rich treatment of Gluck's big solemn effects for chorus. The 1940 production by Richard Rychtarik (in which Marjorie Lawrence and Rose Bampton sang Alcestis) came back in surprisingly impressive condition, with massive pillars and terraced levels aptly suggestive of Greek background.

Much less could be said for combined stage direction of Herbert Graf and Zachary Solov, the latter responsible for the considerable ballet action that wound in around principals, There was much too much "Oh, the pain of it" manner in shudderings of supers, the deep-frieze effects in which postures changed on down beat, and there was no rest for the weary ensemble whether action as in order or not. Solov's ballet performed its set numbers splendidly, but here too, the attitude seemed to be "Let's give the audience something to look at even if they can't appreciate Gluck." That's' hardly necessary when there's a Flagstad around.

Review of Miles Kastendieck in the New York Journal-American

Operatic History Made at the Metropolitan:

Flagstad’s Performance Great in Alcestis

What Gluck's Alcestis did for Kirsten Flagstad and what Flagstad did for Alcestis made operatic history at the Metropolitan last night, The oldest opera of the current repertory glowed in its revival under the magnificence of her singing. The greatest dramatic soprano of our day gave one of the most distinguished performances of her illustrious career.

However classic Alcestis may be, it achieved warmth of meaning in this performance. Its story of conjugal devotion lived through Flagstad's understanding interpretation of the role.

It became charged with feeling half way through the second act when Alcestis acknowledges that she has forfeited her life that her husband, Admetus, may live. It vibrated with fundamental emotion in the third as Alcestis reluctantly approached the gates of Hell.

No one could say that Alcestis was “cold and aristocratic" as Gatti Cazazza maintained Gluck's operas to be. The performance might have been more intense dramatically. It was a bit self-conscious last night.

Furthermore, Alberto Erede did not give Gluck's basic rhythms their full throbbing power in his duly respectful interpretation. He conducted knowingly and almost too lyrically.

To master a new role and an extremely difficult one at that on the eve of her definitely announced retirement classifies Flagstad's accomplishment as almost a believe-it-or-not story.

The quality of her sustained singing, its accuracy, and its tonal beauty made this performance memorable indeed. The role only further emphasized the natural loveliness of her voice, its impressive range with notes still even and strong in the extreme register, and her notable production of it.

That Flagstad matched the simplicity and classic purity of Gluck's music testifies to her greatness. Rudolf Bing showed how shrewd his judgment was in persuading her to sing this role. She has more than justified his confidence and in turn brought him one of the most artistic moments of his managerial term at the Met.

Herbert Graf has staged the production with due appreciation of the opera's classic background and of its pictorial possibilities. The scenic designs of Richard Rychtarik made for the initial American performances in 1941 remain handsome.

The emphasis on balletic movement has been most carefully studied and for the most part ingeniously worked out by both Zachary Solov and Dr. Graf. There is too much movement on stage at several moments in the first two acts. The dances themselves are tastefully performed. The ballet troupe is at its best in years.

As for the remainder of the cast, Paul Schoeffler as the High Priest and Emery Darcy as Evander had the voices to blend most satisfactorily with Flagstad.

Brian Sullivan in the vital role of Admetus appeared too nervous to do his best. Vocally, he is undoubtedly equal to the part but artistically he falls short of being convincing. Stage-wise, he belongs to the outdated school of semaphoric acting. The smaller parts were capably filled, especially that sung by Lucine Amara.

To Kurt Adler must go much credit for the fine work of the chorus which fulfills an important role. To John Gutman goes praise for an excellent English translation. As the performance progressed the advantage of the English text became more apparent.

The first act yielded a minimum of clear diction. The second was better. Flagstad sang most clearly in the third, while Darcy contributed the single clearest delivery at the end of the second.

Those who appreciate the wonderful music of Gluck will rejoice at this revival. That it finds the Met on its loftiest plane is not only because of the score but also because of the painstaking production offered.

Review of Louis Biancolli in the New York world-Telegram

Flagstad Heads Star Alcestis Troupe

Having already touched several artistic peaks this season, the Metropolitan reached the highest of them all last night with a moving and beautiful revival in English of Gluck’s Alcestis.

Much of the beauty and poignancy of the revival centered in the portrayal of the title role by Kirsten Flagstad, the very last to be sung in this country by the phenomenal Norwegian soprano.

Eloquent Staging.

But Mme. Flagstad was only one among many compelling features in this new production. Herbert Graf’s staging was probably the most eloquent of his career; the lighting and décor were superb, and Alberto Erede conducted as if he had been nourished on Gluck’s music from infancy. Also, the dancing of Maria Karnilova and company were both good to watch and good for the opera.

Because of the way it combined all visual and audible factors toward the one goal of dramatic effect, Alcestis was revolutionary in its day. It is still revolutionary in the sense that it is time to restore those ideals to current use.

Last night’s performance was a complete vindication of Gluck’s thesis of the united arts. Singing and accompaniment were perfectly blended at all times and both the lighting and the plastic movements of the dancers were further extensions of the drama. Everything and everybody conspired toward heightening the central theme.

Alcestis is also a choral opera – perhaps the greatest ever written – and it is again a pleasure to report that Kurt Adler’s training of the chorus was a strong factor in the sustained impact of the three-act opera. Another source of strength was the smooth and highly singable translation of John Gutman.

Flagstad Magnificent.

Mme. Flagstad was magnificent in every respect. The tragic, heroic legend of the wife prepared to give her life to save her husband’s was mirrored at every moment in gesture, word and note. There was dignity and the kind of touching simplicity which is truly noble. And her English diction was a noble music in itself.

I have no hesitation in saying that her singing was not only the best I have ever heard her do, but the best I have ever heard in my life. The three B-flats of the great aria addressed to the Stygian gods burst like bright stars. Control, breadth and golden, glowing tone were there all the time.

Astonishingly good was the Admetus of Brian Sullivan, whose powerful voice held out sturdily in the taxing music allotted by Gluck to Alcestis’ husband. Paul Schoeffler was convincing as the High Priest, even though his words might just as well have been from Euripedes’ original play. They were Greek to me.

There was a terrific ovation for everyone at the end. But enthusiasm quite understandably concentrated on Mme. Flagstad. The “bravos” sounded like another chorus by Gluck, only bigger and louder, and if not as musical, certainly just as sincere. She has only made harder the prospect of her impending farewell.

Review of Douglas Watt in the Daily News

Flagstad Bids Adieu in Alcestis

John Gutman's English translation of Gluck's Alceste (now Alcestis), presented last night at the Met for the first time, is a good one; and the leading role is, all things considered, eminently suitable for the farewell appearances of the most gifted singer of the past couple of decades, Kristen Flagstad.

For although the soprano's voice was not entirely at ease last night in the grand and tranquil arias Gluck composed, it had size and nobility. The warmth of her singing and the gentle dignity of her acting, in this part of a wife who offered her life that her husband's might be spared, should leave a fond memory with those who see her in her last role.

Her English Best.

The only fault with her singing was certain heaviness in her voice that produced a labored quality in some of the more difficult phrases and especially among the high notes. But, wonder of wonders, her English was the easiest to understand. This was her first English part here, but she sang it as if she were at home in no other language.

With the exception of Brian Sullivan, who gave an excellent performance as the husband, King Admetus, the other principals found the new text tough going. Paul Schoeffler got nowhere with the words in the part of the high priest and Alois Pernerstorfer made a mighty poor Apollo, revealed in the sky toward the finish and rescuing the pair with a thick foreign accent and wobbly tones.

The most effective part of the performance was the last part of the second act, when Alcestis began her sacrificial journey to gates of hell. Here, a short but enormously touching piece of music beautifully sung by Emery Darcy, created a magical effect.

Excellent Staging.

This entire scene, with the figures of the singing and dancing choruses adopting attitudes expressive of the emotions of the principals and freezing in position, was beautifully handled. Alberto Erede conducted splendidly.

Elsewhere, Herbert Graf's staging and Zachary Solov's movement of the dancers were imaginatively intertwined, although the dancers had a bit too much to do. Ballet work cropped up in every scene, extended dance routines coming in the second act and in the last scene and a rather foolish chorus of hobgoblins besetting the husband and wife at the gates of hell.

If you're at all curious about the gates of hell, you have nothing to fear but rebuff. It was just like any place of importance, cold-looking and with nobody there to receive you. Nobody wanted you, nobody could be bothered; they had a thriving business and you could cool your heels outside. That's what Flagstad did, singing until her husband came along and someone sent those silly demons out to stop the noise.

Review of Robert Sabin in the Musical America of March 1952

Alcestis at the Metropolitan is Flagstad’s Final Vehicle

The glorious singing of Kirsten Flagstad was the dominating feature of the Metropolitan Opera's revival of Gluck's Alcestis, introduced on March 4, at a special performance for the benefit of the opera production fund sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild. Alcestis is an ideal role for Mme. Flagstad, and she could not bid farewell to the American operatic public more nobly and more unforgettably than by her appearances in this opera. In loftiness of style, mastery of technique, and dramatic truth, her performance as Alcestis was worthy of the greatest traditions of the Metropolitan.

It was as recently as Jan. 24, 1941 that the Metropolitan Opera gave the first performance in its history of Alcestis. The opera was performed in the second, or French, version, prepared by Gluck for a production in Paris in 1776. Herbert Graf was the Metropolitan's stage director in 1941, as he was for the present revival, and Richard Rychtarik designed the production. This time, the Metropolitan decided to perform Alcestis in English, and John Gutman prepared an English translation of the libretto that is singable and sensible, if marred with a few colloquialisms and unnecessary clichés.

The current production has a new conductor, Alberto Erede, and a new choreographer, Zachary Solov. The scenery remains the same, but the costumes are new, and Mr. Graf has restudied the production—in some respects to its disadvantage, if I remember the 1941 performances accurately. The new direction seems posier and more artificial in its stage groupings than the earlier one. But whatever its shortcomings, Mr. Graf's direction was dignified and consistent. Unfortunately, Mr. Solov's choreography was neither dignified nor consistent in style, and it was wretchedly executed, especially in the last scene of the opera, devoted to a pretentious ballet that was a blot on the production and could well be omitted entirely.

Alcestis is a work of such purity, classic simplicity, and overpowering inspiration that it comes as a shock and an admonition to an over-stimulated, aesthetically chaotic, and jaded modern world. The eighteenth-century conception of ancient Greece has long since been exploded by scholars; but it retains its unique artistic power even if it can no longer be accepted as historically valid. What Beethoven said of Handel (whom he considered the greatest of composers), that he achieved the greatest effect with the utmost simplicity of means, applies equally to Gluck. When Alcestis sings farewell to life, at the end of Act II, and wanders off towards the realms of death, while a chorus behind the scenes accompanies her journey with a chant of unearthly beauty, the spectator is overwhelmed. Nothing could be nobler, more convincing, or more universal in its significance. Yet the music does not contain a touch of complicated harmony or counterpoint, nor does it call for virtuosic display. It communicates a vision of irresistible grandeur and compassion in terms that a child could grasp. This is one of the supreme moments in all opera.

Precisely at this point, the greatness of Mme. Flagstad's performance was most clear. She not only sang the heartrending aria with exquisite tone quality, but she moved with the dignity of a sanctified figure as she disappeared in her journey toward the gates of hell. The role of Alcestis is one of the most vocally exposed in the repertoire, yet Mme. Flagstad's voice grew fresher and more beautiful in quality the more she sang. She looked amazingly young, not merely because she was becomingly costumed and made-up, but because she was transfigured by inspiration. The highest tribute one can pay her is to state that the audience was never conscious of the tremendous powers required to perform the role as she did it. She seemed completely simple and spontaneous.

Brian Sullivan, as Admetus, was not happily cast. He revealed neither the command of style nor the quality of voice necessary to give the role its proper stature. But he sang and acted sincerely. with a pathos that was ingratiating if not stylistically apt in its expression. Paul Schoeffler, as the High Priest, produced pleasant, firm tones, and was an imposing stage figure, although he did not achieve the faultless purity and clarity of Mme. Flagstad's English. Alois Pernerstorfer was a less fortunate choice for the role of Apollo. His voice was wobbly and insecure, and his marked German accent suggested an untowardly teutonic infiltration of Olympus. Osie Hawkins, originally cast for the role of Thanatos, also substituted in the role of The Herald for Norman Scott, who was indisposed. Emery Darcy sang the part of Evander effectively; and Anne Bollinger, Lucine Amara, Margaret Roggero, Thomas Hayward, and Lubomir Vichegonov, in lesser roles, were all excellent.

Mr. Erede's conception of the score was unfailing in dramatic eloquence. He conducted the work with the obvious love and insight, but his technical control of the performance was at times uneven. His tempos wavered in the overture; some of his cues to the chorus were not sufficiently clear and decisive to insure entrances on time; and at some points he did not help the singers as he should have, notably in Mme. Flagstad's first aria, where she needed a slight accelerando to cover a momentary shortness of breath. Mr. Erede seemed unable or unwilling to hurry the orchestra along at this point, which he could have done without destroying the basic tempo. If not memorable or majestic, his interpretation of the opera was humanly sympathetic and full of imagination.

Mr. Graf worked a hardship on the members of the audience seated or standing down front at the sides by spreading the chorus out over the orchestra pit on both sides. This interfered with the sight lines and also destroyed the sense of separation of the stage from the audience. Within these living walls of singers a dramatic chorus on the stage, interspersed with solo figures and groups, mimed the emotional situations as the work was sung by the leading members of the cast. This conception was potentially effective, but Mr. Graf overdid the miming, often distracting attention from the singers when the music and the music alone should have absorbed the spectator. In Gluck, as in Wagner, immobility is a tremendous force, if properly used. Furthermore, the style of the chorus movement was dated. The strained arms and necks and pseudo-Grecian postures seemed needlessly unnatural and strained, and the transitional movements were awkwardly executed.

But all this was as nothing, compared with Mr. Solov's hodge-podge, inappropriate choreography, which was neither strictly balletic nor pseudo-classic nor modern but a jumble of all of them. The Metropolitan Opera ballet has always been bad (at least during the past twenty years) but somehow it seemed worse at the climax of Act III, Scene 2, when Socrates Birsky skirted disaster in a solo and several of the members of the corps stumbled about in a final tableau worthy of a vaudeville show.

These blemishes, however, could not efface the memory of a great performance and of music that remains unsurpassed in its beauty, meaningfulness, and economy of utterance. Mme. Flagstad's Alcestis, like her Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde, is one of the few really great performances of our times.

Kirsten Flagstad in the title role.
Photograph by Sedge LeBlang.