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Fabulous Friday - - "Liebestod"

Today I'm highlighting Bernstein as a conductor. Below you will hear him conducting Hildegard Behrens in a performance of the finale to Wagner's *Tristan und Isolde.* The aria is officially titled "Mild und leise" but it's popularly known as Isolde's Liebestod, or love/death. Please allow me to tell a story about Behrens. It does not involve Bernstein!

I heard Behrens with the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, a summer music festival outside Chicago, in 1995. I was living in Madison and didn't have a car (have never owned a car, actually) so I was on the hunt for a date. Someone with a car. I settled on my beau no mo', my first boyfriend, Alan. He likes a little opera now and then, I thought he'd enjoy it.

It was a Beethoven and Wagner program, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach. Here's the program:

Beethoven: Symphony #1

Wagner: Prelude to *Tristan und Isolde*

Wagner: "Liebestod" from *Tristan und Isolde* (with Behrens)


Beethoven: Overture to *Egmont*

Beethoven: "Ah, perfido!" (with Behrens)

Wagner: Siegfried's funeral music from *Götterdämmerung*

Wagner: Brünnhilde's immolation scene from *Götterdämmerung* (with Behrens)

The orchestra sounded warm and buoyant in the Beethoven symphony. They finished, we applauded, and about thirty additional instrumentalists came out onstage, most of them with brass instruments. Alan said, "She has to sing against all of THAT?" Oh yeah, honey! A Wagner singer is a freak of nature!

But the next person to walk out onstage was not Behrens, it was some officious looking guy in a suit. There were groans from the audience. I'll paraphrase his speech:

"Good evening. We're all very much looking forward to Miss Behrens's singing tonight, and she has been excited to make her Ravinia debut. But summer is a tricky time of year for the voice, with the heat and humidity, and the dry air on a transatlantic flight. Miss Behrens is not feeling her best - - she will still perform, but she begs the audience's indulgence."

I think this was the first time I heard that phrase. You don't need to beg for my indulgence, you just need to ask nicely. She came out onstage, bowed, and sat down in a chair at the front of the stage. The orchestra played the prelude to *Tristan.* This was the first time I had ever heard Wagner live, and I thought I was going to DIE. The power of the music, it totally knocked me out.

She stood and sang the "Liebestod." She seemed a little tentative and short of breath and was clearly trying to push the tempo forward, take it a little faster. She made it through it but it was a little unnerving.

I have to say that she was wearing before I tell you what Alan said. She had red, curly hair, which she put in an upswept 'do, with a cluster of curls at the crown of her head. And she was wearing a floral chiffon dress. I thought she looked pretty. I asked Alan what he thought Behrens and he said, "She looks like Eunice from *Mama's Family.*"

I am still laughing at that.

The overture to *Egmont* was unmemorable. The concert aria "Ah, perfido!" is a real tour de force. She sounded great in the opening recitative but her voice sounded more and more distressed as she went on. There are lots of descending scales at the end and in each of them the high voice was there, the low voice was there, but the middle voice was absent. It was a little scary. All I could think of was, "Jesus Lord, she has to come out and sing the freaking immolation scene in twenty minutes."

Again, in the transition from the Beethoven to the Wagner, all those brass players came out onstage. They played Siegfried's funeral music, and again, I was blown away. Overpowering. Behrens strode out when they finished and I don't know if she had an injection directly into her vocal cords or what, but she sounded SENSATIONAL. Strong, secure, even from top to bottom, blazing, fearless, intense artistry, endless breath, just plain glorious. It was astonishing.

So, back to my original point - - here she is singing the "Liebestod" with Bernstein and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Yvonne Minton is the mezzo singing in the beginning.

And why not.

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