Saturday, March 15, 2008

TAG TRISTAN AND A TALE OF TWO ISOLDES

Herewith Sam Shirakawa's take on Friday evening's Tristan (and he had NOT read my post before sending this to me):

Friday, 14 March 2008

Opera distills mankind's noblest instincts. Opera harmonizes the cognizance of what lies within our innermost selves. Yadda yadda yadda. Mozart said so. So did Wagner.

Attending the first two performances of the Met's Tristan this season has made me cognizant about something of my innermost self: I'm a blood sport fan.

The indisposition of Ben Heppner last Monday (10 March) pushed a certain John Mac Master into the Coliseum of modern day opera. Nearly four thousand pairs of ears heard him come close to eviscerating his lovely fragile voice in the Killer Third Act.

John Mac Master emerged bloodied, but apparently not sufficiently able-bodied to be thrown to the lions again on Friday night (14 March). Heeding the implicit mumblings for fresh meat, the Met's management shoved one Gary Lehman onto its mopped-up stage. His Met debut (!) was preceded by an appeal for understanding for the intrepid Christian from guilt-edged Met General Manager Peter Gelb, doing his utmost to refrain from sounding like a carnival barker.

Lehman's first act went better than I, at least, expected. In fact, for someone who was singing the role for the first time professionally, he performed beyond expectations exceedingly. But Lehman's Trial by Tristan was far from over.

A seemingly long first intermission had some speculating that James Levine was furiously tickling the ivories backstage, taking Lehman through pesky parts of the next act. Maybe.

But another drama was unfolding.

Shortly before the love duet in the second act, the evening's franchise, Deborah Voigt, walked off, leaving Lehman to continue singing his part, even after the tabs were brought down. A stage manager or such promptly appeared to say that Voigt was feeling unwell, but the performance would continue shortly with Janice Baird.

The switch must have been pre-determined, because James Levine never left the podium, and the performance continued at roughly the same place where it had dribbled to a halt. When the curtain went up again, a huge round of applause greeted Lehman and his new Isolde. And just as though you were switching your remote from CD 9 to CD 10, Baird picked up as if she had been performing from the start.

Statuesque and exuding confidence, Baird went on to conquer. She already had created a buzz so positive in the unpaved parts of the operatic world over the past decade, that I've often tried to chase down her Salome, Bruhnnhilde, or ANYTHING at Chemnitz, Essen and a couple of other venues. But her schedule never coincided with my travel plans until last night.

Now, suddenly, I was confronted with an Isolde whose luminosity emanated from within, rather than from the real and metaphorical spotlights thrown on her. Voigt already had traversed the two ceiling-level Cs before Baird stepped in, but Baird evinced the requisite range and palate for adumbrating what remained with variety, flexibility and most appealing vulnerability. A few gaffes here and there centered mostly on patches of un-centered intonation. Eminently forgivable if you remember that some other Isoldes have shlepped through whole evenings under the note.

Baird is listed on the Met's current roster, but a search of the Met's website turned up no scheduled performances. If this was also her Met debut [editor's note: it was.] under most unusual or unique circumstances, didn't she too warrant a let's-give-it-up-for-Jan pep spiel from Gelb? But more substantively: If you're playing Tag Tristan with the guys, Pete, how about letting a gal join the game? There are four performances left in the current series.

Changing partners left Lehman unfazed, as he forged on to surmount the rigors of the love duet and the terrors of the third act with blazing thrusts of energy and voice. This was heady stuff -- about as close as opera is likely to come anytime soon to Manning and Tyree in that Unforgettable Fourth Quarter.

The vice that nearly trapped him a couple of times, though, was sporadic rhythmic sluggishness. No big deal. Before we get ahead of where he's possibly heading, though, let's realize that Lehman may be a herrliches Knabe, but he is no force of nature yet. Now that he's proven that he can do big Wagner in the Big Time right out of the box, he should stick to Erik and Parsifal for a while.

The rest of the cast sounded even better than on Monday night. Especially Salminen.

For the record, the performance drew to an end around half-past midnight, making it a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

All in all, my thirst for blood sport, or just blood, was certainly aroused on Friday but left largely unquenched. But then, there's next week...

That's when it's said that a tenor who has sung Tristan more than once will face the lions. If Robert Dean Smith does as well as he's been doing in Europe of late -- and he has done well every time I have heard him in person -- nobody will be confusing him with Harry Dean Smith.

© SAM H. SHIRAKAWA 2008

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