Saturday, March 15, 2008

Is There a Tristan in the House? . . .

On second thought ... is there an ISOLDE in the house?

Last night's Tristan und Isolde was nothing if not an adventure. The audience was forewarned by Mr. Gelb before the curtain rose that Gary Lehman, the night's Tristan (and the second in as many performances) was singing the role, not only for the first time at the Met, but for the first time EVER. There was an audible "Ooph!" from the audience ... and then cathartic laughter. The Met has been doing its best to fill the ailing Ben Happner's shoes, but John Mac Master, who had sung Tristan on opening night, had been booed (something I don't think is ever justified when a cover singer is doing his best to fill in at the last moment).

Lehman was several cuts better than Mac Master, from comments I heard during the first intermission. His voice, while not the most beautiful instrument I have ever heard, was clear and large - at times he sounded bigger than Voigt. His German diction was excellent. Lehman looks good on stage. There were a few awkward moments, mostly due to his lack of proper rehearsal. But he was a stalwart stand-in. As the performance progressed, he became obviously more comfortable. I found his exchange in Act Two with King Marke, where Marke asks him to explain his betrayal, particularly moving. And best of all, he sang through all of his Act Three monologues with understandable caution, but without a hint of strain or fatigue. The circle of international Wagner tenors has just grown by one.

One wonders what was really in that potion Tristan and Isolde drank at the end of Act One. Overshadowing Mr. Lehman's impressive debut, however, was Deborah Voigt's sudden indisposition during their discussion of that potion toward the beginning of Act Two. Shortly after Brangaene had left the stage, as her Tristan continued to sing to her, Ms. Voigt ran off stage right, and shortly after that the curtain came down, the lights in the pit were doused, and the music came to a halt. Someone came out in front of the curtain to announce Ms. Voigt's indisposition and begged the audience's patience while her cover, Janice Baird, was put into her costume and makeup. Some ten minutes later, the house lights dimmed and the performance resumed.

Ms. Baird has a warm, ample sound, not quite large enough to surmount the loudest that James Levine's orchestra put out. But she never forced her voice and was always musical. Especially in the beginning, and in the Liebestod, when she was tiring a bit, she displayed some flatness. But her performance was overall a pleasure.

The first intermission seemed longer than usual, and when Levine only entered the pit several moments after the house lights went down, I assumed that he had been doing last-minute coaching with the evening's Tristan (still a third singer has been announced for the Tristan next Tuesday, March 18th). But the New York Times reports that Ms. Voigt told management after Act One that she might not be able to complete the performance. The cover was called and Ms. Voigt went on for the beginning of Act Two. I heard no hint of her indisposition in her singing, save for a couple of less than stellar top notes, usually the glory of her voice.

Overall, notwithstanding all the distractions, it was a successful Tristan. Matti Salminen continues to amaze as King Marke. In his mid-sixties, with occasional slight unsteadiness, he is still a musical force of nature. He conveys the gravitas and grief of the King better than any other singer I have heard in this role (including René Pape, who isn't old enough yet to entirely capture the exquisite grief of the aging and childless King). Eike Wilm Schulte, as Kurwenal, was also astounding. I have always enjoyed hearing him. Schulte is one of those rare singers who communicates the music without getting in the way of it. As one of my companions last night said, he's so natural you don't realize just how good he is.

The performance ended at 12:35 with generous ovations for all involved, especially the Tristan and Isolde, Lehman and Baird. I can only send the Met good wishes for the next performance of Tristan on Tuesday....

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