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Subject: Re: Helen Traubel
From: Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Max Paley <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Fri, 30 Mar 2012 13:58:00 -0700
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I agree with you about Traubel's greatness.  I'm a big Flagstad fan, but I also can't help but agree with Toscanini's comment when listening to a playback of the recording he made with Traubel of the Immolation Scene: "Che bella voce!"  

I think there's a degree that a certain placidity about career, similar to Eileen Farrell, may have played into it.   Flagstad may have talked the story of being a simple housewife who just sang because they asked her, but it's clear she was also extremely driven in this regard.  Traubel seemed to have no patience with the pretentiousness and hype the went along with opera life.

Both Traubel and Flagstad were relatively late to arrive into international prominence.  Nilsson, actually, also although more people are likely to have had a good idea who Nilsson was prior to her Met debut.  Flagstad was 40 when she made her Met debut in 1935, Traubel was 41 when she made her Met debut (both of them as Sieglinde) in 1939 and Nilsson was 41 when she Met her Met debut as Isolde.

I don't quite go along with the comparison between Flagstad and Traubel with regard to high Cs, but neither slammed them out the way Nilsson did, most likely to the very end.  Flagstad's high Cs, during her first years at the Met, were electrifying, not least because they were produced with such ease that they could have been an octave lower.  You can hear them in the 1935 Bodanzky Tristan and, even more spectacularly, in the Beecham performance from London in 1937.  Traubel never seemed to be on good speaking terms with that note and, to my knowledge, the only one bit of recorded evidence live or studio of Traubel singing a high C is the Götterdämmerung Prologue Duet with Melchior with the NBCSO and Toscanini.

In the Act 2 Tristan scene in which the lovers finally reconnect, Flagstad always sang the first C, even in her last performances of the role, both at the Met and in London.  As early as 1940, she started dropping the second one, but even in her last stage performances she would have days where she felt like it and she'd sing the second one and really let rip on it.  George Topinges, if he's reading, can chime in with his memories of seeing her concert Isolde in Chicago in 1947 in which he's commented that, when she sang that first C "opened her mouth wider than I've ever seen a human mouth open."  Listen very carefully with as good equipment as you can to the Furtwängler studio Tristan in which Schwarzkopf famously (or notoriously) "helped" with those notes.  On the first one, you'll still hear Flagstad sing the note, but as a unison duet with Schwarzkopf.  On the second one, Schwarzkopf is on her own.

But high C's and even high B's clearly weren't what made or broke a reputation.  Leider continued to be a major interpreter of Isolde and Brünnhilde for at least a half dozen years after those notes were no longer her friends, and her reputation still sits securely on the pinnacle.

But back to the base question and I really don't' have a good answer.  Anyone who would question Traubel as a serious artistry and didn't want to just count Wagner needed only listen to her Brahms and Strauss songs or her rendition of Alceste's "Divinites du Styx" to know he is hearing one of the all-time greats.  

Maybe the fact that Traubel had no significant European career?

Max Paley

On Mar 30, 2012, at 10:21 AM, Les Mitnick wrote:

> Got into a discussion with a fellow-Opera L poster, and we were discussing 
> Helen Traubel, a singer whom I admire greatly, but one whom I regret is not 
> really remembered as being the great dramatic soprano she was.  It seems to 
> me that she's been relegated to "also ran" status in the giant lights cast by 
> Kirsten Flagstad and Birgit Nilsson, two great dramatic sopranos whom I also 
> hold in lofty regard.  
> 
>     Why the reason for Traubel's being so eclipsed?  Is it because opera snobs 
> didn't consider her a "serious" artist because she went into popular 
> entertainment (shows with Jimmy Durante, movies with Jerry Lewis, guest 
> shots on "Peter Gunn" on TV??  Or possibly because she was a "one composer 
> singer" who kept Wagner going during Flagstad's absence?   Or possibly 
> because of that rather self-depreciating biography she penned in 1959?  
> 
>      Just listened to her Wagner Scenes with Toscanini (Walkure Act I and the 
> Prologue Duet and Immolation from Gotterdammerung) and was actually 
> thinking to myself, "Can it get better than this?"  Of course, both she AND 
> Flagstad experienced serious difficulties with high C's early on (which Nilsson 
> most emphatically did NOT!), and both Traubel and Flagstad had no choice but 
> to omit them (Flagstad sang them early on, but already as early as 1940, was 
> already taking lower alternatives in the Prologue Duet from Gotterdammerung 
> as well as leaving out the top C's in the Tristan/Isolde meeting in Act II.
> 
>      Still, Flagstad and Traubel had such beauty, power, and amplitude that 
> their respective deficiencies of high C's made little difference in the totality of 
> their performances.  Of course, Nilsson took these top notes with the freedom 
> of a wildcat in a tree, and of course, had her own special abilities.  
> 
>      Still after hearing Traubel in these two Toscanini performances from the 
> NBC symphony, I can't help thinking that she's been rather "dissed" by 
> subsequent operatic history.
> 
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