WAGNER:  Tristan and Isolde
Lauritz Melchior, tenor (Tristan); Kirsten Flagstad, soprano (Isolde); Sabine Kalter, contralto (Brang”ne); Herbert Janssen, baritone (Kurwenal); Emanuel List, baritone (King Marke); Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; London Philharmonic Orch/Fritz Reiner, cond (recorded during performances May 18 and June 2, 1936)

NAXOS 8.110068/70 (3 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT:  78:23 / 63:54 / 68:03

A magnificent release, and at budget price!  The century's two greatest interpreters of  leading roles of Tristan are heard in a recording made during two live performances  in Covent Garden in 1936. The event was the Covent Garden debut of Flagstad, at the age of 40. Those who say she is a "cold" singer should listen to the passion of her singing in the second act -- and of course at this stage of her career vocal problems did not exist.  Melchior indeed earns the title of "Tristanissimo" given to him by Arturo Toscanini; his energy and effectiveness in this demanding role are astounding -- and it is incredible when one realizes that he sang Tristan 223 times during his long career, in addition to hundreds of other Wagner heldentenor roles.  He is as fresh in Act III as he was in Act I.  The supporting cast is first-rate, particularly Emanuel List as King Marke. This is a rare treat for opera lovers. You will not hear a performance like this in today's opera houses. 

This recording was made by HMV on fifty-two 78rpm sides, unreleased for decades because of contractual problems.  As you would expect from a recording made during a live staged performance, balancing among voices is not ideal; this is of little consequence -- the actual sound of the voices has been well-captured.  VAI Audio issued this same Ward Marston transfer (masterfully accomplished) about seven years ago, at full price.  Now we have it at budget price.  Naxos provides a synopsis of the plot but no libretto --- that would be expecting too much at this price.

This is the second complete live Tristan on the Naxos label.  The other, from a met broadcast of February 6, 1943, features Melchior as Tristan, Helen Traubel as Isolde, Kerstin Thorborg as Brang”ne, Alexander Kipnis as King Marke, Julius Huehn as Kurwenal and Emery Darcy as Melot, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting (8.110008/10).  It, too, is of enormous interest, giving us the opportunity to compare Traubel and Flagstad in live performances.  For copyright reasons, this set cannot be sold in the United States, but it is readily available for those who shop overseas via the internet. 

Naxos is to be commended for their enterprise in issuing this truly extraordinary Covent Garden performance.  Let us hope there will be many more live performances from the past issued at budget price with superb transfers from original sources.

R.E.B. (Nov. 2000)