Showdown: Birgit Nilsson vs. Jessye Norman

Jessye, You’re Goin’ Down.

There’s a little cocktail party game that we opera fanatics just love to play.  We’re sort of always playing it, whether we realize it or not.  It basically amounts to Who Sang It Best?

I got into it on Twitter not long ago when I declared that the very best Turandot is a 1965 recording with Birgit Nilsson, Franco Corelli, and Renata Scotto.  One of my followers replied declaring that I was wrong, the best was an earlier recording, also with Nilsson, but substituting in Jussi Björling and Renata Tebaldi for Corelli and Scotto.  (Oh, hell no.)

We do this all the time.  It’s kind of like our own casual version of Fantasy Football.

Now, the other day, my friend Rameen declared that his favorite Liebestod is sung by none other than Jessye Norman.

Excuse me?

Setting aside the fact that Birgit Nilsson is my spirit guide, I’d like to break down why there are many, many singers I’d rather hear sing the Liebestod than Jessye Norman.

First of all, I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t like Jessye Norman.  I just don’t think she’s suited to Wagner.  This excerpt from a 1973 recording of Aida is gorgeous.

But let’s talk about the Liebestod.

The term Liebestod refers to the finale of Wagner’s star-crossed lovers tale Tristan und Isolde, in which the heroine Isolde rapturously admires the visage of her beloved lying dead at her feet.  And it is also some of the most spine-tinglingly, toe-curlingly thrilling music in all of opera.

And there is a very specific reason for that.

You see, the ground breaking musical landscape of Tristan und Isolde is built around an unstable harmony that the composer leaves unresolved for about three hours, something unfathomable when the opera premiered in 1865.  This opera is musical foreplay, and when the harmony does finally resolve a very specific moment of the Liebestod, the result can be literally orgasmic.  (More detail is here)

Here’s my spirit guide performing it in a concert in 1962.

(WordPress isn’t allowing me to embed YouTube videos for some reason.  In the meanwhile here’s the link.)

Wagner starts to really tease you at 4:00 and then the moment comes at the 5:00 mark.


Now, here’s the thing, I talk a lot about vocal focus.  That is the idea that the voice sort of becomes a laser beam of sound.  Birgit Nilsson did this better than anyone.  I think this is so necessary in music like this because of how the thick, swirling orchestral texture contrasts with the steady, resolute vocal line.

Now listen to Miss Norman sing it.



The thing is, this music is already so, well, so Wagner.  So romantic.  So lush.  It doesn’t need anything extra.  The Liebestod is chocolate ganache cake with a scoop of hand churned vanilla ice cream, and Jessye Norman feels the need to add caramel, chocolate syrup, pecans, whipped cream, and a cherry.  And then all of that extra stuff just blurs the release in the crucial moment.

Rameen, here are five singers, in addition to La Nilsson, that can do it better than your wide-mouthed homegirl.

1.   Kirsten Flagstad, 1936

2.   Shirley Verett, 1977

3.   Deborah Voigt, 2003 (There used to be a live recording of this with video on YouTube, but it appears to have been yanked.)

4.  Waltraud Meier, 2007

5.  Nina Stemme, 2007   (If you ask me, she is the best one singing it today.)

So go listen to Jessye Norman sing Aida.  The bitch is fabulous.  But Isolde belongs to Nilsson.


One thought on “Showdown: Birgit Nilsson vs. Jessye Norman

  1. Rameen Chaharbaghi

    Before defending myself, I will say that that Kirsten Flagstad recording is really great, and probably on par with Jessye’s in my mind now.


    Musically, you cannot tell me that hers is less schmaltzy. She is scooping left and right, and there are more than one high note she clips clearly due to lack of comfort (I’m listening to the end), plus the tiny melismatic moments sound more belabored to my ear than Jessye’s singing. Kirsten’s musicality is probably a little more nuanced and well-crafted, but her voice just doesn’t sound as polished to me, and I don’t think it’s because of the recording. Just listen to both recordings – don’t watch. I think you might notice what I’m talking about. Also, for the record, the Jessye Norman recording I was actually talking about is this one: (again, DON’T watch)

    No idea why the conductor took the tempo so slow in the recording you posted. It should definitely have more momentum, like in the recording I ACTUALLY like.

    Onto the others…

    1. I already discussed. Great but not as vocally consistent as Norman.
    2. I love this recording, and I’ve always thought her voice is very beautiful, but she just doesn’t have the rich tone that I think this part requires, and her top sounds a little less shimmery to me.
    3. Deborah’s just really fucking amazing…this is probably the strongest contender against Norman for me. There’s no sense of urgency in her singing, though, and I’ll get to why that matters to me in a minute.
    4. Waltraud…something about her tone I find really grating, especially in the middle and lower registers. It’s not quite nasal…but it feels like she’s producing it all from her throat, with no breath or sense of clarity. It really feels like she’s pushing.
    5. She sounds beautiful, and this might sound like a cop-out, but I just don’t believe her. I don’t believe a word she’s singing. It sounds like she’s just singing it because the music is beautiful, and not because of anything the character herself is going through.

    Jessye isn’t really any vocally better on this than most of the people on her list, but what she brings – and what I think a lot of these ladies lack – is a real, intense, overwhelming passion for the text, the character, and the circumstances. What you consider to be schmaltz I think is real text clarity, and not in the “diction” sense, but in the dramatic sense. This text is so completely ripe, equally as ripe as the music, and the moment is so dramatically incredible. It’s the moment we learn that Isolde really loved Tristan the entire time – that she wasn’t just under a spell – and that, most importantly, love is stronger than war. These two countries have been at odds this entire time, and in this moment, Isolde proves that her love for another person is stronger than her patriotic, irrational hatred for his country. This is, to me, the great message of the opera (whether Nazi-ish Wagner intended it or not), and why the text must be treated with intensity.

    Jessye Norman may err on the side of schmaltz (and certainly in the recording you posted), but you absolutely cannot deny that vocally, musically, and dramatically, she is so connected to Isolde. This is a moment that needs to be outrageously, sobbingly ecstatic, because that ecstasy, that joy that Isolde has at the simultaneous realization that she loves him for real and that he is still with her, must be intense enough to conquer everything else that has happened in the opera. THAT, to me, is the real reason why the orgasmic resolution is here, and why it must be earned. I completely disagree; you CANNOT just “sing” this music and let it speak for itself, because Isolde must be fully, unbelievably engaged here, otherwise that resolution feels cheap and bland.

    And THAT is why Jessye Norman (in the recording I just linked) is a fucking badass in this. We can debate who is the best, but I refuse to believe that her version is anything but great (LISTEN to it, don’t watch it…this is from some weird concept album).

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