Sunday, November 30, 2008

TRISTAN UND ISOLDE at the Metropolitan Opera

Sam Shirakawa has been to the Opening Night of the Met's run of Tristan und Isolde:

28 November 2008

A surprise saved Friday night's season premiere of Tristan und Isolde at the Met from terminal boredom:

René Pape has sung King Mark over a dozen times at the Met, and it would seem that he's old news. He is still too young for the part, but surprisingly, he is even more astonishing every time you hear him, and he turned out to be the glue that held a patchy performance together.

Headlining the new news, of course, was the house debut of Daniel Barenboim. It seems he's performed everywhere, except at the Met. He has recorded Tristan commercially, and numerous live performances and broadcasts of his forays into the work can be found on tape.

Remember that sampling of his way with Tristan back in 1989, when he assembled Hildegarde Behrens, Gary Lakes and L'Orchestre de Paris for a concert version of Act Two at Avery Fisher Hall?

If you don't remember, that may be the key to the disappointment I, at least, felt at Friday's performance. That long ago performance was not memorable, and neither was Friday night's.

Forget about those knee-jerk complaints that may come up: the orchestra was too loud, the sound synthesis was overly brass heavy, the textural contrasts were exaggerated. These are all signature characteristics of the Barenboim-the-Conductor brand. A lot of people love it and buy it, especially on CD where digital technology can produce aural miracles that have little to do with the source material. But no filter except denial can disguise the zits, warts and whoopsy-daisies exposing themselves mercilessly within the real-time exigencies of a live performance. On Friday, there was plenty of rhythmic smudging among the singers and vast stretches of listlessness that prevented the performance from taking off or shaping up into an organic whole. This, despite the Met orchestra playing as though its life depended on it. [During rehearsals several orchestra members commented on how exited they were to work with Barenboim.] Fabulous as the Met Orchestra always is, and no-less so for the wonderful English Horn solo by Pedro R. Diaz, it was left to Pape to provide rescue and respite.

Evidence of the Gestalt that Friday's performance was producing could best be seen in the droves of people departing, even during the first intermission. Does this say more about the departed than about brand DB? Barenboim brings them in, oh yes, but for those many who left, it apparently was not a night to remember.

Barenboim was not entirely to blame, unless he approved the casting, which he almost certainly must have. After all, he led the opera just two months ago with three of the principals -- Katarina Dalayman, Michelle DeYoung and Gerd Grochowski -- at Berlin's Staatsoper unter den Linden, where he is Music Director. (And another lead singer in that short string of performances is also in town at the moment.)

Let's face it folks: Dalayman is at best a B-line Isolde. Despite some attractive singing in the softer passages of the second act love duet, she failed to summon mortal rage in the cursing climax of the Narrative and delivered a diffident Liebestod. Her top notes were squally, her middle range middling, and her lower register thin. Dalayman was a laudable Brangaene when she made her Met debut in 1999, and I marveled at her Lisa in Pique Dame in Munich several years ago. Net-net though: Katya Darling, Isolde is not the way to go.

Peter Seiffert as Tristan is an appealing Wagner tenor and an effective stage personality, but he is developing a worrisome beat in his voice -- which also is showing signs of wear. He tired toward the end of his third act delirium. A few seasons ago, he sang one of the finest Tannhäusers that the Met has heard since the opera was revived in 1976. Why is he now palpably ruining his voice?

Michelle de Young reprises her well-received Brangaene from last season. She is one of the Met's brightest young singers, and she might well take a hard look at Dalayman's misstep in considering what roles she would be ill-advised to undertake.

Gerd Grochowski made an objection-free debut as Kurwenal. Stephen Gaertner was a serviceable Melot.

While Barenboim deservedly has won acclaim for his Wagner, I have always thought his true life resides at the piano. He is scheduled to perform Liszt's operatic transcriptions at the Met on 14 December. Now THAT should be a treat.

©Sam H. Shirakawa

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At 12/06/2008 1:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree with some points that were stated here, but I think all the singers were on a very high international level that evening. It was the first time for me that one could actually listen to a Wagner opera without having the feeling that the singers were overdoing it. It was sung so beautifully and intense in a more "inniger" sense. Not always the loudest singers are the best musicians....and as for Barenboim, he is a great great musician, not only on the piano but a genius concerning all music in any way performed.

At 12/09/2008 3:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i certainly hope so, i keep hearing about the lead roles' shortcomings, but i simply cannot compare these voices to the ultimate "tristan"s or "isoldes", I'm going this friday, the 12th, and i hope to hear the "very high international level" singing I expect and always get from the met

At 12/21/2008 7:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was there in the audience on the 28th. It was my first Tristan und Isolde. While I thought both Dalayman and Sieffert minimally met Met standards, Rene Pape was amazing.( I went home and bought his new album which is equally amazing). I was holding my breath in the last act, wondering if poor Mr. Sieffert's voice (it sounded like he was singing sotto voce in places) would leave him and us entirely. All in all, the orchestra played beautifully and I was in awe of Wagner's genius. What a glorious opera-orchestra, singers, libretto all balanced to achieve a masterpiece. The perfect opera perhaps? Any suggestions on which recording I should buy?

At 12/22/2008 12:42 AM, Blogger Liz said...

Sure. I've put up a page at

going over some of the more remarkable sets out there. I do hope you -- and other readers here -- find it useful.

Best wishes for the holiday season,

Geoffrey Riggs, Webmaster,


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