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.
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.