Wagner’s writing for soprano in his iconic Tristan und Isolde is probably both the most demanding and representative of his entire oeuvre. For the part’s full realization a singer of extraordinary power, art, and flexibility is required. The same requirements are needed for the the tenor who sings Tristan, but he’s for another day.

In the 20th century two sopranos towered above all the rest as Isolde, as well as in the entire Wagner repertory – Kirstin Flagstad (1895-1962) and Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005). They performed at such an exalted level that relative comparisons are beyond usefulness. They are past ranking.

Their Met debuts caused sensations. Flagstad first appeared at the New York house as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. There was little advance publicity as regards her extraordinary artistic ability. The performance was a Saturday afternoon broadcast (February 2, 1935) which dazzled both the live audience and listeners across the country. The Wagner repertoire thereafter was hers. She sang Isolde 73 times with the Met. New York audiences were outlandishly lucky that her Tristan for most of these shows was the equally gifted Lauritz Melchior. Toscanini dubbed Melchior ‘Tristanissimo’ in tribute to his excellence in the one of the most demanding roles in opera. Melchior used the title as that of his autobiography.

There are many recordings by Flagstad as Isolde. The one offered here was made after World War II under the direction of Wilhelm Furtwängler. Flagstad was in her late 50s and her voice was not the phenomenal instrument it had been; but her artistry combined with the deep insight of her conductor resulted in a memorable recording. The Liebestod concludes the opera. Tristan has died along with Melot and Kurwenal. Isolde describes her vision of Tristan risen and then also dies to join him in some sort of post mortem reunion. The words in German and English are below. Flagstad Liebestod

Nilsson made her Met debut as Isolde on December 18, 1959. So overwhelming was her singing that the reviews of her performance appeared on the front pages of both The New York Times and The Herald Tribune. I first heard her in recital in Columbus, Ohio in 1962. I was as overwhelmed as was the Met’s audience. She had a voice like a laser that was seamless over its entire range. Every note was powerful enough to move concrete, but also appeared to have a limitless reserve. I have yet to hear her equal. Alas, there was not a Melchior equivalent to partner her Isolde. She once sang the opera at the Met with a different Tristan in each of the three acts. Fortunately, she did have Franco Corelli as her partner is most of her appearances as Turandot. This recording was made in performance under the direction of Karl Bohm. Nilsson Liebestod

Jessye Norman (1945-2019) was an American soprano who sang a wide range of music. Tristan und Isolde was not part of her repertoire, though she did sing a concert performance of its second act. Her singing was characterized by dramatic aptness and vocal beauty. Her recording to the Liebestod is slower than than almost any other, but is drenched in aural gold. Norman Liebestod

Anna Netrebko (b 1971) is a Russian soprano who has moved from light roles to the big Verdi parts. She has also been caught up in international politics for being too soft on her native Russia by the politically dimwitted Metropolitan Opera under its soft thinking general manager Peter Gelb who seems determined to disassemble the company. Opera News is about to cease publishing after almost 90 years. Loading the Met’s calendar with new works that will likely not attract customers willing to pay the Met’s hefty ticket price will only further the downhill course. Of course, Vladimir Putin thinks her disloyal and has been equally harsh on the poor woman who just wants to sing. Her repertory has not yet reached the territory of Isolde, but she recently recorded the Liebestod. It’s an interesting performance, but not at the level of the three that precede it here. Netrebko Liebestod

Now an encore. The great pianist Vladimir Horowitz’s last recording made just four days before his death at age 86 from a heart attack was Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Liebestod. It’s a remarkable performance by one of the greatest pianists whoever played the instrument. It shows Horowitz still in command of his legendary powers right up to his last breath. Horowitz Liebestod

Mild und leise
wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet —
Seht ihr’s, Freunde?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Immer lichter
wie er leuchtet,
hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm
mutig schwillt,
voll und hehr
im Busen ihm quillt?
Wie den Lippen,
wonnig mild,
süßer Atem
sanft entweht —
Freunde! Seht!
Fühlt und seht ihr’s nicht?
Hör ich nur diese Weise,
die so wundervoll und leise,
Wonne klagend,
alles sagend,
mild versöhnend
aus ihm tönend,
in mich dringet,
auf sich schwinget,
hold erhallend
um mich klinget?
Heller schallend,
mich umwallend —
Sind es Wellen
sanfter Lüfte?
Sind es Wogen
wonniger Düfte?
Wie sie schwellen,
mich umrauschen,
soll ich atmen,
soll ich lauschen?
Soll ich schlürfen,
Süß in Düften
mich verhauchen?
In dem wogenden Schwall,
in dem tönenden Schall,
in des Welt-Atems wehendem All —
versinken —
unbewußt —
höchste Lust!

Mildly and gently,
how he smiles,
how the eye
he opens sweetly —
Do you see it, friends?
Don’t you see it?
Brighter and brighter
how he shines,
illuminated by stars
rises high?
Don’t you see it?
How his heart
boldly swells,
fully and nobly
wells in his breast?
How from his lips
delightfully, mildly,
sweet breath
softly wafts —
Friends! Look!
Don’t you feel and see it?
Do I alone hear this melody,
which wonderfully and softly,
lamenting delight,
telling it all,
mildly reconciling
sounds out of him,
invades me,
swings upwards,
sweetly resonating
rings around me?
Sounding more clearly,
wafting around me —
Are these waves
of soft airs?
Are these billows
of delightful fragrances?
How they swell,
how they sough around me,
shall I breathe,
Shall I listen?
Shall I drink,
Sweetly in fragrances
melt away?
In the billowing torrent,
in the resonating sound,
in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath —
be engulfed —