Gary Lehman and Janice Baird Sing Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera
Tristan – Gary Lehman [Debut]
Isolde – Deborah Voigt, Acts I, II partial
Isolde – Janice Baird, Act II partial, Act III [Debut]
Kurwenal – Eike Wilm Schulte
Brangäne – Michelle DeYoung
King Marke – Matti Salminen
Melot – Stephen Gaertner
Sailor’s Voice – Tony Stevenson
Shepherd – Mark Schowalter
Steersman. – James Courtney
Pedro R. Díaz: English Horn Solo
Lighting designer…….Max Keller
About twenty minutes into Act II, Deborah Voigt became ill, left the stage, and the curtain was lowered. After a fifteen-minute delay, the act resumed at “Sehr lebhaft” with Janice Baird singing the role of Isolde.
The evening began with Peter Gelb’s suave announcement that Ben Heppner was ill and recovering at home in Canada. He reminded the audience that only perhaps five tenors in the world were able to sing Tristan, but a replacement had been found, a tenor named Gary Lehman, who would be singing the role for the first time in public. Great promises he did not make. It would be wonderful to say that Lehman electrified the house and became an instant star, just like in the movies—not so, unfortunately, but almost. As pleasing and appropriate as Lehman’s very attractive dark, baritonal voice was, and as thorough as his understanding of the role, and as elegant and intelligent his phrasing, especially in the quieter, more reflective passages, it might have been better for him to have sung the role for a few years in smaller opera houses—there must be some left in Germany or Scandinavia that would still tackle Tristan—before taking the plunge at the Met. What’s more, he is a tall, handsome fellow who actually looks like what we expect Tristan to look like. All he lacked was confidence and experience. He deservedly earned a powerful ovation for his effort, but I sincerely hope he will allow himself to develop a bit more, before, God willing, he returns as a master Heldentenor. In fact, he is a singer of considerable experience, although Heldentenor roles are a new direction for him. I thought it better to address the question which will be on everyone’s mind straight out at the beginning before continuing with the other convolutions of this rather strange night at the opera.
Ben Heppner was not the only singer to be replaced. Deborah Voigt also succumbed part way through her meeting with Tristan in the second act. It happened suddenly. The curtains closed; the lights went out; and an announcement was made. Janice Baird, another seasoned singer, better known in France than in North America, was to take over Isolde. The house lights went up and there was a pause during which some disappointed, even angered, members of the audience stalked out, and those who stayed rumbled in mild confusion in the hall. Again, an extremely attractive, slim, young-looking woman appeared on the stage opposite Gary Lehman. There was a moment of silence, which gave the audience time to appreciate that they were gazing at a Tristan and an Isolde who looked their parts. Ms. Baird actually projected an impression of innocence, which was instantly engaging. If her performance was not quite as developed as Mr. Lehman’s , she had even less time to prepare that he did. If her acting had its stiff moments, and she kept a close eye on the prompter, it is fully understandable. Her best passages showed a voice which was both bright and rich, and beautifully balanced between these qualities. As far as the circumstances permitted, she brought a warm-hearted sympathy to the part, which could not help win a response in kind from the audience. And she closed with an eloquent and well-proportioned Liebestod, in which she let her voice out enough to show how judiciously she had been conserving it earlier. Janice Baird did excellent work. I believed everyone in the enthusiastic audience was looking forward to hearing and seeing her in a part she had been able to prepare properly. I understand her Brünnhilde has been enthusiastically received in Europe.
However, as gratifying as it is to report the successes of two fine singers, it doesn’t quite get to the point of what actually happened during the course of this strange and subliminally chaotic evening. I must go back to the beginning. As James Levine made his way through the beginning of the Prelude, I was mildly surprised by his relatively fast tempo. In addition to that the music did not seem terribly involving. I began to wonder why Levine was doing this, since he has been tending towards such broad tempi in recent years. What’s more, his usual concentration seemed diluted, and there was a lurking feeling of things not coming quite together. Deborah Voigt made it through the first act and a fair bit of the second, but it is perhaps unfair to comment on her performance. After her splendid Salome last month’s final scene in concert, her voice did not seem on the same level in the more difficult role of Isolde. Her voice seemed more fragmented, especially her top seemed disconnected from her lower registers.
The real problem seemed to lie with her interpretation of Isolde, however. Wagner’s first act is essentially a study in pride. As readily as his characters behave badly through their short-sightedness, vice, or stupidity, their credibility depends on what overriding dignity their interpreters can convey. Perhaps it was easier for the audiences of earlier days—above all the 1920’s and 30’s—to believe in this, but a Leider, a Flagstad, or a Nilsson was able to comprehend this heroic quality, for which the pride which might lead one to murder or betrayal was basically a natural excess. Perhaps the result of her struggle with whatever indisposed her, Voigt’s Isolde was not much more than a bundle of nerves, or, simply said, a bitch. Her interpretation seemed to oscillate between the hysterical post-adolescent and the frustrated middle-aged housewife. In her characterization, Voigt put an edge on everything, with an ultimately alienating, even distracting, effect. Through the first act, Wagner’s music drama seemed like little more than the spectacle of the mutual self-destruction of two particularly unpleasant specimens of the class of thugs, legitimized as nobility, who ravaged the coasts of Britain, Ireland, and France in the middle ages. It came as quite a relief when Janice Baird took over (Lehmann certainly seemed much more comfortable with her than with the intense operatic superstar.), and the performance settled into the kind of alert solidity, which is characteristic of Levine on his off days. I have heard him serve Tristan better, much better, in fact, but perhaps it was enough simply to keep it all together on this evening. The audience certainly seemed to think so, and they gave him a rousing hand. In spite of the fine playing of the orchestra (The English horn solos were very eloquent indeed.), Levine’s reading recalled the routine conducting of the bad old days at the Met. His
Michelle de Young was a good, but rather limited Brangäne, showing appropriate sympathy with her mistress’ situation, but failing to explore the vocal and psychological peaks and valleys of her very important role. Eike Wilm Schulte went further in his vocal treatment of Kurwenal, but Dieter Dorn’s production, which is aging faster than one might have expected, prevented him from expressing the full depth of the character and his relation to Tristan. Kurwenal’s listless wandering among the knightly toys arranged about the stage almost suggested he was bored by Tristan’s raving and made him seem more fatalistic than he should. Even Schulte’s diminutive stature next to Lehman’s impressive height, made him seem more of a batman than a comrade-in-arms.
The great moment came with Matti Salminen’s entrance as King Mark. Huge in voice and concept, he gave the second act monologue all the deeply wounded nobility it requires. This was the sole trace in this performance of truly great Wagner, and it was fully realized in every way. Levine and the orchestra were galvanized by it into something that resembled a proper Tristan. Unfortunately it faded soon enough, as much as there was to appreciate in Baird and Lehman’s performances, and as much as I look forward to seeing and hearing them again.