‘I’m a classical girl, you know,’ wrote the legendary soprano Flagstad, Kirsten in her memoirs, The Flagstad Manuscript, co-authored with Louis Biancolli. ‘Whatever Wagner may be, other music gives a different satisfaction: the music of Gluck, for example, or Handel. It’s the precise and orderly mind of these composers that I think appeals to me. The balanced style, the regular sections, everything in place. All of that appealed to my sense of tidiness.’
Though her return to the Met during the 1950-51 season was announced as her farewell, the new general manager, Rudolf Bing (later Sir Rudolf) lured her back for one more season by offering her Alceste, one day at lunch. ‘It was too great a temptation, and Mr. Bing knew it,’ she later recalled. Opening night, 4 March 1952, was a triumph. The composer Virgil Thomson reviewed it for the New York Herald Tribune and found her the ‘ultimate in stylishness. No singer living could have sung Alcestis’s arias with more sumptuous beauty of voice or a more impeccable respect for the classic line, their expressive rhetoric.’
In April 1956 Flagstad relearned the role for a BBC broadcast of the Italian version. Decca decided to record the opera a few days later using the same cast and version. Unfortunately Flagstad was suffering from a very heavy cold and was not at her best. The producer of this recording, John Culshaw, wrote in his book Putting the Record Straight, ‘I tried to persuade her to abandon Alceste despite the considerable expense to Decca of such a write-off, but her loyalty to her fellow artists prevailed.’
Flagstad in, perhaps, less that her usual stellar voice is still an extraordinary, mesmerizing artist, as listeners to Decca’s classic recording can attest. This reissue features an informative note by Paul Thomason on the genesis of the Gluck opera in Flagstad’s many and multi-lingual performances of this opera.