Bread and Jam
Rossini once exclaimed how wonderful opera would be if there were no singers, a thought that came to me forcibly when sitting through Tristan, maybe for the last time. When Wagner writes melodically for the voices I enjoy it: the Prize Song, the opening of the quintet in the same opera, act one of Walküre, the choruses in Götterdämerung and so on. But usually the vocal lines are not melodic but are notes from within the harmony. The orchestra has all the tunes. Take, for example, the very end of the Liebestod: the tunes are all in the pit while Isolde has notes compatible with the harmony; in other words, the orchestra has the jam whilst Isolde has to be content with the bread.
Of course the words are important but then why not give them a tune to put them over? After all, if the old man of Busseto could manage that, why not the old man of Bayreuth? Is it because writing melodically harks back to earlier works by Wagner and others (the majority) And what about the standard of Wagnerian singing? How rarely does a singer nowadays match the beauty of sound that a flute, a cello or a horn has. Singers now often rarely sing in the middle of the note: they wobble, they bulge, they are shrill, unlovely. If instrumentalists made the ugly sounds that Wagnerian singers make, they would get the sack, wouldn’t they? Sometimes my colleagues think I am old fashioned. O.K., I am; because the fashion I got used to years ago was one where singers sang in the middle of the note: Flagstad, Vickers, Baker, Shirley - Quirk, Teyte. Why should I be content with out-of-tuneness and wobbles? Of course, there are singers today who sing in tune: mostly in baroque or earlier music: singers like Emma Kirkby, Sansom and a few others.
But that doesn’t mean that I doubt for a moment that Wagner is /was a towering genius. The prelude to Lohengrin is a miracle of beauty and totally innovative. Those leit-motives in the Ring really dig deep into a magic world, the shadowy territory of the subconscious. At Glyndebourne (August 18) I was as usual thrilled to the depths of my being by the first entrance of Tristan, the prelude of the opera, the lead up to the love duet, the brooding darkness and shimmering light of the act three prelude – curiously enough, all passages without any voices! Juroski, the conductor, I thought marvellous, even if there was so much emotion in the prelude that it was almost a case of premature whatsit.