Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ecstatic Wagner

Tristan und Isolde
Music by Richard Wagner
Production by Dieter Dorn
Conducted by James Levine
Starring Deborah Voigt, Gary Lehman, Matti Salminen, Michelle DeYoung, Eike Wilm Schulte

Metropolitan Opera
Performances March 10-28, 2008

Voigt and Lehman in
Tristan und Isolde
Conductor James Levine treats Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as the most ravishing opera ever written, and it certainly sounds that way at the Met. Every note is savored and lovingly caressed. There are those who carp that Levine’s fastidious conducting makes Wagner's gargantuan operas even more challenging endurance tests; at the performance I attended, Tristan clocked in at five and a half hours, although an Act III stage mishap added about 15 minutes to the total. But there’s no denying that Levine and the Met orchestra make beautiful music together when they play Wagner.

The opera's story is pared down to its essence, from Act I’s several characters and chorus to Act II’s handful of characters to only the lovers in their death throes for the finale, yet Wagner lingers over every detail. The legend of the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseult, from the original Celtic myth, is a tale of adulterous, magical, and ultimately eternal love. The famous, unresolved first chord of the opera is finally and sublimely answered in the ecstatic “Liebestod” (Love-Death), sung by Isolde over the body of Tristan.

Dieter Dorn’s minimalist Met production seems a no-brainer, since the opera itself is so sparsely populated; the few props and platforms he uses are acceptable, but the large walled backdrop that is lit intensely whenever primal emotions are unleashed in the lovers is a major mistake. In Act I, as Tristan and Isolde become lovers after drinking a potion that they mistakenly thought would kill them, the entire stage lights up in blood red. This has the effect of a giant Hallmark Valentine’s Day card, and it deservedly drew snickers from the audience.

That huge backdrop tends to dwarf the lovers, whose emotions should be larger-than-life. When the couple sits on a bench at center stage, they look like two teenagers seated on the hood of a car, watching a drive-in movie -- which is not the effect you want in Tristan und Isolde. At least Dorn keeps most of the action (such at it is) downstage, a good thing for such an intimate opera.

During this season's run of the opera, the Met has had trouble casting Tristan, a notoriously punishing part for even the most hearty-lunged tenor. Ben Heppner, the original choice, is now scheduled to sing only the final two performances due to illness. John MacMaster bravely stepped in on opening night, and American tenor Gary Lehman took over two subsequent performances. I caught the second of those and, except for patchiness in spots -- forgivable even under the best of circumstances -- he proved to be a strong singer and a compelling actor. He’s also a trouper: After the mechanism upon which the wounded Tristan lies in Act III malfunctioned, nearly sending Lehman crashing head-first into a small riser, the tenor returned following a short break and offered the grateful audience his most impassioned singing of the evening.

Matti Salminen is a powerful King Marke; his yearning, sorrowful Act II aria bemoaning the deceit of his nephew Tristan and his bride Isolde is heartrending. Eike Wilm Schulte sings with color and agility as Tristan’s friend Kurwenal, while mezzo Michelle DeYoung shows off her beautifully modulated voice as Isolde’s companion, Brangäne.

But the reason everyone was in attendance was to hear soprano Deborah Voigt take on the most taxing Wagner role of Isolde for the first time at the Met. Considering the merry go round of co-stars she’s had, not to mention a bout with sickness that had caused her to withdraw from the previous performance midway through, it wasn't surprising that Voigt saved her best for last. She gained strength as the evening wore on (and on). At the end, she let go with a “Liebestod” that was blissful, hair-raising, and spine-tingling in equal measure.

Through it all, the glorious sound of Levine and his orchestra make this Tristan und Isolde a major musical event, no matter who’s singing the lead roles.

originally posted on

No comments: