Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Full Circle?

Sam Shirakawa has been busy attending performances in New York of late. Here is his second review for us in the past week:
Tristan und Isolde - Season Premiere, March 10, 2008

A poignant reunion of sorts may have gone unnoticed at the Metropolitan Opera's season premiere of Tristan und Isolde last night (10 March). Twenty-seven years after Matti Salminen made his sensational house debut as King Marke, he returned to portray the cuckolded king under James Levine, who led his first Tristan that same evening, 9 January 1981.

The depredations of time may have taken their toll in various ways on both men, but not on their talents. Levine's on-going musical achievements need no reprise here, for they are neither surprising in their extent, nor unexpected in their proportions. He's a superstar. Salminen has trumped the odds for survival in the stellar regions of the lyric theater, where brilliant vocal talents blaze and burn out each season like Eoman candles.

At his debut, lo those nearly three decades ago, Salminen transformed Marke's usually interminable monologue from a dreary whine-fest into the pivotal moment of the performance, his glowering basso forging the old monarch's "why-me?" self-pity into a statement of Lear-like rage against the death of friendship and the dying of the light. At Monday's performance, Salminen ruled again, but differently this time, as he stood before the drug-addled lovers in their post-coital disarray, to render a heart-breaking requiem for Marke's hope -- his dreams of happiness in old age so cravenly destroyed. While usage and the passage of time have mellowed that bronze hue that captivated listeners at Salminen's debut, the essential plangency of his magnificent instrument has deepened and fermented nobly. Rare is the bass who can survive long enough to nurture his resources to endow this frequently tedious music with such supernal sorrow. Blessed is the listener who savors it.

The big buzz on the season premiere as an event, of course, was Deborah Voigt's first complete New York Isolde. She's already recorded the role and given us live bleeding chunks of her take on the "Irische Maid" at other local venues, so the first-night crowd had a good idea of what to expect.

If expectations centered on revelation, Ms. Voigt delivered disclosure. All the notes were there, and she looked better than ever, having shed a wardrobe's worth of weight. Voigt has always been an interesting listen but a rather dowdy look. That, mercifully, is changing. Girth loss has had no perceptible impact on her voice, but it has palpably enlivened her stage presence. Her figure has hardly become glamorous, but her movements have become more animated and her gestures more telling. Her Isolde is still a promising work in progress.

That progress was challenged by the last-minute substitution of John Mac Master as Tristan, who stepped in at the dress rehearsal for the indisposed Ben Heppner. Some jerk at the back of the house booed him at the curtain calls, but such disapprobation was both cruel and unwarranted. Mac Master has a way to go before he becomes a world-class Tristan, if indeed he strives toward that end. But he, unlike so many other newbies to the role, has the core material for it. It would be a stretch to call his voice big, but Mac Master makes no effort to stretch it either. Which is a good thing, for he had patches of near-distress while traversing Tristan's mad scene. Nonetheless, it is big enough to cut through the orchestra at full tilt. There is musicality in every note he sings, and thanks possibly to Levine's wise tutoring, he parses out the cantilena with enticing style. This is a voice with which one can abide comfortably over five hours (yes, the performance began at 7:00 pm and ended about midnight). But it would be churlish to cast a verdict prematurely on his future as a Wagner singer, as some critics have done already.

Levine's predilection for slow tempi in later Wagner appears to have ripened over his 30-some performances of Tristan at the Met, but they seem less listless than they used to be. At Monday's performance, in fact, his basic tempo -- despite some rhythmic quirks in keeping orchestra and singers together -- served to illuminate the score rather than belabor it. Reginald Goodall often cautioned conductors to wait until they mature sufficiently before tackling late Wagner. Levine has arrived at that point.

Rounding out Monday's cast, Michelle DeYoung was a thrilling Brangaene, and Eike Wilm Schulte, starting off a bit brusquely, turned in a surprisingly mellifluous Kurvenal, especially in the final act.

If the voices that inhabit the imperiled state of opera are meaningful to you, do not fail to attend the Met's current Tristan. Matti Salminen is a treasure. Hasn't the time come for New York to hear his Philip and Sachs?

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2008
[Editor's comment: Geoffrey was also at Monday evening's performance. He was likewise impressed by Salminen and Schulte. Having seen Salminen's debut as King Marke, his mastery of this role remained deeply satisfying, for which no surprise. The surprise of the evening was Schulte's final act -- by far the most intrinsically musical, most nuanced and most moving reading of Kurwenal's music Geoffrey has ever heard in person. It was also gratifying to hear an uncut Tristan, but was this a wise decision given that Mac Master was virtually untried in the role?]

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