[Met Performance] CID:183540
New production
Tristan und Isolde {368} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/18/1959.

(Debuts: Birgit Nilsson, Teo Otto
Review)


Metropolitan Opera House
December 18, 1959
Benefit sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
for the production funds
New production


TRISTAN UND ISOLDE {368}
Wagner-Wagner

Tristan.................Karl Liebl
Isolde..................Birgit Nilsson [Debut]
Kurwenal................Walter Cassel
Brangäne................Irene Dalis
King Marke..............Jerome Hines
Melot...................Calvin Marsh
Sailor's Voice..........Charles Anthony
Shepherd................Paul Franke
Steersman...............Louis Sgarro

Conductor...............Karl Böhm

Director................Herbert Graf
Designer................Teo Otto [Debut]

Production a gift of the four daughters of Mrs. Elon Huntington Hooker.

Tristan und Isolde received nine performances this season.

Review: Front Page account of The New York Times by Howard Taubman (This debut also was front page in The Herald Tribune)

BIRGIT NILSSON AS ISOLDE FLASHES LIKE NEW STAR IN 'MET' HEAVENS

Swedish soprano's voice in debut is compared with Kirsten Flagstad's Best

Birgit Nilsson filled the Metropolitan Opera House last night with the glory of the finest Isolde since the unforgettable days of Kirsten Flagstad two decades ago.

In her New York debut the Swedish soprano assumed one of the most demanding roles in the repertory and charged it with power and exaltation. With a voice of extraordinary size, suppleness and brilliance, she dominated the stage and the performance. Isolde's fury and Isolde's passion were as consuming as cataclysms of nature.

Before the first act was over a knowing audience at the Met's new production of "Tristan und Isolde" was aware that a great star was flashing in the operatic heavens. At the end of the act the crowd remained in their seats, waiting for Miss Nilsson to take a solo bow. And when she came out alone, they roared like the Stadium fans when Conerly throws a winning touchdown pass.

It was an audience that knew its Wagnerian manners. It did not break into applause during the performance, but again at the end of the second act it manifested its enthusiasm with sustained applause and cheers for the newcomer.

At the final curtain the audience began a thunderous demonstration. As the principals came out for repeated bows all eyes were on the soprano. An ovation was building up for her, and it broke out into a thunderous shout as she came out alone.

People seemed disinclined to go home. The lights in the theatre were dimmed, but men and women throughout the house remained near their seats, applauding for Miss Nilsson's return. After more than fifteen minutes of plaudits, the enthusiasts let Miss Nilsson return to her dressing room.

Like Miss Flagstad, who created a similar sensation in her 1935 debut, Miss Nilsson relied first and foremost on the voice. Her soprano has apparently limitless reserves of tone. In a range well over two octaves, no note loses its quality, and high C's emerge with stunning impact.

Although she is small and trim compared with the run of Wagnerian sopranos, Miss. Nilsson can make her voice soar over the fortissimos of a large orchestra in full cry as if it were jet-powered. Her singing is beautifully focused, always in the center of the tone. Not so darkly colored as Miss Flagstad's huge voice, Miss Nilsson's has a gleaming refulgence. It can be whitish, to use the jargon of the vocal trade, but it can glow with warmth.

Miss Nilsson can do just what she wishes with this instrument. She can subdue it to a wisp of tone and she can modulate phrases with subtlety. She has a sure grip on the emotional curve of one of opera's most challenging roles.

The new soprano, who has sung extensively in Europe, including Bayreuth, the Wagnerian shrine, as was as in San Francisco and Chicago, also knows how to act. She moves with poise and dignity. She does not stress the tenderness in Isolde, but even that element in the character comes through in the voice.

Miss Nilsson was born in Karup, grew up on a farm and studied music in Stockholm. She made her debut as Lady Macbeth in Verdi's "Macbeth" at the Royal Opera in Stockholm twelve years ago. From the Italian repertory she moved into German, turning eventually to the imposing Wagnerian roles, which her gifts as a dramatic soprano made almost imperative. In a time of limited candidates for the most difficult roles of the repertory, she stands as a dominant figure in the world of opera.

Miss Nilsson's arrival was bound to take precedence over all other elements in this new "Tristan," but there were other values. Most impressive of these was Karl Boehm's conducting.

His is a vigorous, dramatic conception. He is painstaking in his regard for instrumental textures and balances. One can hear subtleties in the pit often obscured in routine readings. And how the Met orchestra played! Rhythms are incisive. Some conductors favor more leisurely tempos, but Mr. Boehm's choice of a vivid pulse has its merits.

One's only reservation is that he holds the orchestra back just a shade at the climaxes. With an Isolde like Miss Nilsson he can let the thrilling Wagnerian waves of sound flood the theatre. This soprano will ride them triumphantly.

Mr. Boehm has restored some of the cuts usually made in "Tristan" at the Met, particularly one in the Love Duet. With an incandescent performer like Miss Nilsson this did not seem to lengthen a long, long opera at all.

The Tristan was Karl Liebl, a German tenor, who made an unimpressive debut last season and who stepped in on this occasion for the indisposed Ramon Vinay. Though he is no Heldentenor, Mr. Liebl did better than anyone had a right to expect. He managed his light voice with reasonable effectiveness. He has no magnetism as a performer, and his voice is not built for a long pull, but he bravely carried out his assignment.

In the first act duet the performance went well. In the Love Duet things were not ideal. Here the performance was occasionally like a ship that had lost its delicate equilibrium, riding proudly when Miss Nilsson sang and listing a little when Mr. Liebl took over or joined her.

The rest of the well-balanced cast was American. Irene Dalis was an intelligent, sensitive Brangaene; her naturally rich voice was a little hollow at times. Walter Cassel was a sturdy, affecting Kurvenal. Jerome Hines was both regal and movingly human as King Marke. Charles Anthony as the sailor, Paul Franke as Melot, and Louis Sgarro as the steersman made much of small parts.

Herbert Graf's staging had a notable and telling simplicity. Teo Otto's sets with their dash of surrealism were fundamentally old hat; for generations the Met has had a fatal tendency to opt for styles in design long after they became passé. The new production was a gift of Mrs. Elon Huntingon Hooker from her four daughters.

In recent years Wagner's music-dramas have had few performances at the Met. Cassandras declared that Wagner was finished. He is far from finished. There is nothing wrong with him that a sovereign singer like Miss Nilsson will not help to cure.


Photograph of Birgit Nilsson in Act I of Tristan und Isolde by Louis Melançon.
Birgit Nilsson Gallery



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