Cher Public

Deine Divadienste will die Frau

I recall a televised concert of young voices hosted by Leontyne Price in which she introduced “the marvelous Marvis Martin.”  Today, I wish to introduce our younger Parterrians to the magical Martha Mödl to commemorate the opening of the Bayreuther Festspiele which opens tomorrow afternoon.  

This week’s upload is the festival’s very first post-war Tristan und Isolde in which Herbert von Karajan leads Mödl, Ramon Vinay, Ira Malaniuk, Ludwig Weber and Hans Hotter from 1952.

Mödl was one of my earliest influences as Brünnhilde on the first complete opera LP set that I owned as a child, the 1954 EMI Wilhelm Furtwängler Die Walküre which also ignited my lifelong obsession with Leonie Rysanek.

Furtwänger said, “Other singers can sing what they like; you’ll always recognize them.  With Martha Mödl, her voice identifies so closely with the role that you are only aware of the character on stage.”

She was never quite a Stimmdiva.  Of one of her dozen Met performances between 1957 and 1960, a critic for Musical America wrote of her Kundry, “Her voice caused her trouble in top phrases in Act II—but then, it always does.  Miss Mödl is a shining example of an artist whose dramatic and musical intelligence triumph over fundamental vocal weaknesses, making us forgive them through the sheer magnetism of her performances.”

Among her other Met roles were Isolde and the three Brünnhildes.

She was much happier in Germany and Austria.  In her 44 years at Wiener Staatsoper—from 1948 through 1992—she reigned in the Wagner and Strauss repertoire, but eventually began a transition into mezzo and character roles.  She also created roles in world premieres and showed no fear of contemporary opera.

In the first week of her Wien debut, she sang Carmen, Octavian, and Maddalena in Rigoletto (all with Helge Roswaenge).  Her final performances on the House on the Ring were as The Countess in Pikovaya dama with Vladimir Atlantov and Mirella Freni.  She was 80-years-old at the time.

Born in Nürnberg in 1912, she worked as a bookkeeper and secretary, waiting till age 28 to begin vocal studies.  After quickly establishing herself at Germany’s regional companies she was invited to Covent Garden for Carmen in 1949.  All the major houses—from Hamburg and Bayreuth to La Scala and the Met—booked her in the following decade.

While starting with lighter roles such as Hänsel and Cherubino, her move into the dramatic repertoire began with Kundry in 1949.  Wieland Wagner heard her in the role in Hamburg and invited her to repeat it Bayreuth for the reopening of the Festspiele in 1951.  She sang the Brünnhildes, Kundry, Isolde, Gutrune, and the Third Norn auf dem Grünen Hügel every summer through 1960.  She thereafter appeared sporadically as Waltraute and Fricka through 1967.

Elsewhere she delved into Verdi as Lady Macbeth, Ulrica, and Preziosilla.  Leonore in Fidelio was another favorite role, which she also recorded with Furtwängler.

In the 1960s she became known for roles such as Klytämnestra, die Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Waltraute, and Leokadja Begbick in Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny.

Little is known of her personal life.  She never married and lived with her mother.  Until her final years, she remained a creature of the stage, singing Tchaikovsky’s Countess at age 87 in Mannheim.  She died two years later in Stuttgart in 2001.

Post scriptum:  If Wagner isn’t your thing, you may enjoy last Thursday’s night’s opening of the Bregenzer Festspiele with Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto.

  • One of the greatest live Wagner recordings. And possibly the most exciting Tristan on record. I first heard it years ago through a parterre Unnatural Act (have since bought it on CD) and I envy those hearing it for the first time.

  • Luvtennis

    I urge anyone who hasn’t heard this recording to do so asap. It is extraordinary. And I say that as someone who came very late to the Modl party. An imperfect singer but a stunning performer.

  • fletcher

    At the risk of blasphemy… I think Hotter sounds pretty terrible in the first act. Hoping he warms up by Act III.

  • Leontiny

    Blessings on your head for this. You have ruined my evening. I love this recording, and her. And Karajan before the mannered set in. The icing on the cake would be Mrs JC commenting. Please.

    • Christian Ocier

      I too would appreciate wisdom from the wise Claggart!

  • Ivy Lin

    Thank you JML. I love the warmth of Modl’s voice. I feel like over time the emphasis in Wagnerian sopranos has turned towards a large, penetrating, wall of sound. That was how Birgit Nilsson sounded. Modl sounds more like Frida Leider, with the warm timbre and fast vibrato.

  • Christian Ocier

    Unparalleled moments in this Tristan:
    1. The way Karajan and the Bayreuth ensemble pull everything together at the conclusion of act 1.
    2. Modl’s remarkable shaping of Isolde’s phrases when she and Tristan imbibe the love potion. Apart from herself and Nina Stemme, I cannot recall any other soprano who are able to mine Wagner’s libretto with the same incisive phrasing and depth.
    3. The exchange at the end of Act 2 (O konig, das kann ich dir nicht sagen….Als fur ein fremdes Land).
    4. The prelude to act 3.
    5. Vinay’s remarkable delirium and Modl’s radiant Liebestod. Vinay have roots in the Spanish-Italian tradition, but his sense of phrasing in line are so much more idiomatic than Domingo.

    • Camille

      Yes, absolutely. These have been posted numerous times on parterre but they can never be seen enough.

      If Mödl had never done anything else this alone would be enough to ensure her place in the pantheon.

      • Christian Ocier

        I’d add her Kundry and her Rome Brunnhildes to that list of greats as well.

  • cielo e mar

    As addenda to this immense performance, for anyone who hasn’t seen them, there are two YouTube clips that give us a chance to see Mödl and Vinay “in action” — singing Tristan excerpts with Bernstein conducting in one of his TV presentations. The program was shot on the stage of the Old Met in 1958, the season Mödl sang her only three Met Isoldes. She and Vinay get a bit lost midway through the duet excerpt (who knows what Lenny was doing at that moment), but somehow find their way back.
    From the Act II duet:

    From Act III:

  • Camille

    This is a treasure. Thank you so much.

    Imagining Marthe Mödl as Cherubino just seems about as plausible as Leonie singing Musetta. Hard to stretch one’s head around it.

    • Among the roles in Leonie’s early career was Gilda in Rigoletto. Oh, for a recording of that!

      • CKurwenal

        Struggling to imagine why one might want to hear that.

        • A. To hear the size and color of the voice during the earliest days of her career
          B. We know how she dealt with the demands of Lady Macbeth during the height of her career but the ornamentation in Gilda’s music is more demanding and I would be curious to hear how she managed it.
          C. Simply to have a full picture of the trajectory of the career of an artist I loved and whose performances I attended whenever possible.

          • Camille

            I have to say this about the early Verdi I’ve heard from Leonie--auf Deutsch--both Lady Macbeth and Aïda, she did very well by them both and Gilda, although generally sung by lighter lirico-coloratura voices in the main, doesn’t necessarily preclude a slightly heavier voice, nor does it have anything as fearsome as that infernal Brindisi. Yes, the flights of scales in Caro nome are very showy but that’s about it. And Gilda’s music changes considerably as her character evolves --Tutte le feste al tempio, as example here — and let us not forget the famous instance of Toscanini having Zinka Milanov sing the last act of Rigoletto (in a famous recording or performance so you may hear it).

            Also, the difference is mainly in the fact that Verdi wanted so much of the role of Lady Macbeth to be “spoken”, in a manner of speaking, and when he wanted her to “sing” he does so by indicating it with “canto spianato”. Particularly in the Gran Duetto with Macbeth which he considered the centerpiece of the opera.

            What I would love to hear from Leonie would be the mythical Innsbruck Brünnehilde or the utterly to-be-imagined Isolde, alas, never to be born.

            • No Gilda, but Leonie’s Brünnhilde can be
              heard here!

              Predating the weekly “Montag mit Marianne” Mixcloud uploads is one of three-and-a-half hours of early and rare Rysanek recordings:

              The majority if it was taken from radio broadcasts between 1950 and 1956. While everything is sung in German, it includes (among the non-German operas) excerpts from “Macbeth,” “Otello,” “Turandot,” “Aida,” and “La forza del destino.”

              While none of these roles comes close to the demands of Gilda (that is, they are all demanding roles, but in very different ways), it may offer some fuel for the imagination as to what her Gilda – sung at age 22 in Innsbruck – might have sounded like.

              There is also a complete “Don Giovanni” with Rysanek as Donna Elvira, in Italian, from Aix in 1952 (three years after the Gilda), which may give a better idea of how she approached florid writing (although “Mi tradi” was cut by conductor Hans Rosbaud, for unexplained reasons):

              You are probably aware that tiny bits of
              Rysank singing the “Ho-ho-to-ho!,” the end of the “Immolation Scene” from “Götterdämmerung,” as well as the final scene from “Holländer” (with Otto Edelmann) are included on the soundtrack album to the Wagner bio-pic “Magic Fire,” released in 1956 ( Erich Wolfgang Korngold crafted the musical arrangements (and makes an uncredited cameo as Hans Richter), but many of which were drastically cut according to notes by his son, George, on the Varese Sarabande LP reissue which is on deposit in the Leitmetzerin Sammlung (and when are you coming to Wien to catalogue it?). Apparently director William Dieterle’s final cut of the film ran 150 minutes; the studio slashed it down to 93 minutes with the majority of the cuts being staged opera sequences (the entire “Ring” is presented in just under five minutes!). Alas, I don’t have the equipment to transfer LPs to the digital domain. BUT: someone uploaded the “Ring” sequence to YouTube! Even though there are several Walküren shown, only one sings, and that’s the voice of our girl (none of the singers actually appear in the film):

            • Camille

              Liebste Jungfer-
              Sie sind die Güte selbst.

              Auf morgen--wie die Kundry, ich muß jetzt schlafen

            • I’ve had that recording since a child.

  • fred smith

    Met her in late life -- a charming, modest lady with an inner grandeur!