A Weekend at the Opera, Part II: Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde
Metropolitan Opera Company, November 28, 2008
Kurwenal…………….Gerd Grochowski [Debut]
King Marke…………..René Pape
Sailor’s Voice……….Matthew Plenk
English Horn Solo: Pedro R. Díaz
Conductor……………Daniel Barenboim [Debut]
Lighting designer…….Max Keller
Last season’s disastrous series of Tristan performances, of which I reviewed the March 14 evening, was bad enough to leave one with the feeling that its useful days in the mainstream repertory were coming to a close. Nothing seemed to work that night. The most physically adequate of today’s Tristans, unable to pull out of an extended illness due to misdiagnosis by his New York doctors, had to cancel. Deborah Voight’s shrill and unpleasant Isolde came to a premature halt because of a stomach ailment, we are told. Amidst the chaos, even Dieter Dorn and Jürgen Rose’s elegant minimal production was beginning to wear out its welcome. Only the great Matti Salminen seemed unfazed. However, I must emphasize that the contributions of the replacements, Gary Lehman as Tristan and Janice Baird as Isolde were highly creditable, considering that Mr. Lehman was singing the role for the first time in public, and that Ms. Baird, who has sung Isolde numerous times in France to high acclaim, had virtually no preparation. [I have read that Gary Lehman substituted for Peter Seiffert in the performance of Tuesday, December 2.]
This gave me a hint of a possible scenario for the future of Tristan und Isolde. The Ring was hard to find in the 1970s and 1980s. It went unperformed at the Met between 1975 and 1989, while some smaller houses in Germany took it into their repertory, and of course the Seattle Opera kept the flame burning, performing the Ring every year from 1975 to 1984. For a while, one wondered if the Ring would ever return to the Met. Tristan itself became even rarer at the Met, with pauses between 1974 and 1981 and between 1984 and 1999, when the current production premiered with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the title roles, and our current Isolde, Katarina Dalayman, making her Met debut as Brangäne. Heppner and Eaglen never quite fulfilled their promise of filling the niches left by Melchior and Flagstad. in spite of artful phrasing and strong, handsome voice, they fall short. Above all, these careful singers have never really captured people’s hearts in the roles, it seems. After two seasons and a five year gap, Ben Heppner was to share the stage with Deborah Voight, who is new to the part. As splendid as she has been in Strauss and lighter Wagnerian roles like Senta, Elisabeth, and Sieglinde, it is clear that Isolde is more of a stretch for her than it is for Jane Eaglen, and, to judge from the half-performance I heard, whether the cause was interpretive or gastric, her dyspeptic Isolde seemed all wrong. Her virago-Isolde was totally lacking in the sort of dignity which is an absolute necessity for the role, unless some brilliant stage director gets the idea of producing an underworld Isolde, in which King Mark and Tristan are pimps and Isolde a newly-fledged madame. Last spring Tristan und Isolde seemed due for a period in the smaller houses. As interesting and intelligent as some Isoldes, Tristans, Brünnhilde, and Siegfrieds have been, there is no doubt that the golden age of Wagnerian singing has long been over, and that in our present-day silver or bronze age, audiences have no choice but to accept compromises. In Tristan one can expect neither the vocal security of a Leider, a Flagstad, a Traubel, or a Melchior nor, for example, the consistent excellence of the soloists in the Boston Early Music Society operas just reviewed.
I’m not trying to encourage a cult of the past in these remarks. In music it is an unhealthy thing at best. We should also not forget that Melchior was not fond of rehearsals, and that his sloppiness in rhythm and phrasing would irritate a lot of people, if he were on the stage today. However, anyone who has listened to the old recordings know that the physical capabilities of these singers are all but extinct. (For more on past performances of Tristan, read Huntley Dent’s survey of the major recordings.)
This doesn’t mean that we can’t expect to hear great Tristans today, and the Met Tristan of Autumn 2008, in spite of a few flaws, is a splendid example of that. Tristan of course begins and ends with the conductor. I had never heard Daniel Barenboim conduct Tristan before, not even on disc, so I came with an open mind and a positive attitude. Many had great expectations of him, and he was greeting with enthusiastic applause. In the opening phrase, he made the contrast between its two halves especially clear: an unbalanced arch, but an arch, answered by a truncated, questioning rising phrase. Barenboim was very careful about rests. This analytical rigor added to the strength of the entire performance, and showed that he is as much a student of Klemperer as he is of Furtwängler. His well-known burnished sound was fully realized by the Met Orchestra, but its sheer beauty never comprised the clarity of Wagner’s textures. He also took pains to hold off any sort of climax until the end, and it was not the sort of a climax that would impede the prelude’s flow into the expectant, occasionally hesitant drama of the first act. In spite of his measured attitude toward the emotional peaks of the music and his analytical approach to its shape and voicing, Barenboim projected a particular warmth and sensitivity in his performance. One immediately became emotionally involved, although it would not be incorrect to describe Barenboim’s as an understated performance. Conductors don’t always practice what they preach, but Barenboim’s statement in the all too brief interview offered on the Met web site is not only a strong insight into Tristan, but a perfect description of his approach:
Each act has a different musical idiom. The first act is all discontinuous music, because it’s led by Isolde, who changes 180 degrees at the spur of the moment, while Tristan mostly remains silent. In the second act, on the other hand, you have a really long line, a continual uninterrupted flow. And the third act, because of the nature of Tristan’s monologue, presents the challenge of continual repeat. But it helps each moment be more feverish and exalted than the previous one. You cannot have 20 climaxes in each act. As a conductor, you need to lead the acts strategically, not tactically. Tactically, you would react as if a tactician in a military operation, you would react to the obstacles in your way. With Tristan you need a very clear strategic sense of structure so that you can build the piece from the first to the last note in one flow.
The results, from beginning to end, were magnificent. I hung on every phrase and every bar, following Wagner’s musical argument as it unfolded. And Barenboim’s restraint doesn’t mean that he avoided real power when it was called for, say, at the end of the second and third acts. The dynamics of the prelude also seemed a trifle muted, but as the first act progressed, I could understand why: from the very beginning Barenboim adopted a dynamic that was right for his singers. Early in the first act and occasionally afterwards, an occasional phrase sank below the orchestra, but not often. I never heard any ad hoc adjustments made to accommodate a singer. Balance with the singers was all thought out beforehand, as were all the foundations of the performance. Yet it often had a spontaneous feeling, as if moments were improvised, notably in the intense outbursts of the third act. What’s more, this was the best playing I’ve heard from the Met Orchestra all season, perhaps ever (except for a few bars in the prelude to Act III when ensemble and intonation went awry for some strange reason). The musicians were deeply engaged in their playing, and their ensemble was graced with Barenboim’s own peculiar blend of gold and bronze. The sound of the all-important tremolos, always articulated with crystalline limpidity, was amazing.
Barenboim’s purpose was clearly to bring into balance all significant aspects of the music drama: timbre, voicing, phrasing, rhythm, action, and Wagner’s remarkable text, which seems so odd when read from the page but sounds inevitable when sung.
This particular timbre not only gave rich voice to the highlights and shadows of Wagner’s score, it meshed particularly well with all the singers. Cast and orchestra made music as an ensemble. The singers blended and resonated with the orchestra, as if they were all members of a seasoned chamber group, from Dalayman’s large, fruity soprano, Seiffert’s brilliant top and dusky bottom, De Young’s ample but focused mezzo, which was like very deep, very clear water, to Pape’s super-humanly resonant bass. I can’t remember ever hearing the voices on stage and the orchestra so well integrated.
After last spring, it was gratifying to hear and see Michelle DeYoung’s realization of Brangäne. As she plays her, the character is devoted, feeling, but intelligent and realistic. She doesn’t pour all Brangäne’s feelings out along the way, but leaves her with much pent-up, making her long periods of silence, especially as the curtain comes down, poignant and tragic. At the conclusion she is paired with King Mark, who grieves against the opposite side of the proscenium. René Pape portrayal of King Mark is a classic, as full of emotional nuances as his huge and infinitely nuanced voice. He is not the only singer in the cast to take Tristan very seriously as drama: his diction was immaculate throughout his role, as was Peter Seiffert’s. His Tristan, a weary but sturdy warrior, was entirely convincing dramatically and superbly sung, in spite of certain difficulties which plagued him through the evening. His voice is not enormous by Tristan standards, and his effort was occasionally apparent in wide vibrato or labored support. However, his top was extremely clear and well-produced, and his lower and middle registers had a dark finish and a sharp bite, which he used to fine dramatic effect. Now and then he seemed to have trouble getting into his lower register, emitting a rasp at the beginning of otherwise handsomely produced and phrased lines. This may have been due to the weather or a cold, but it was easy to tolerate, given his intelligent and carefully thought-out portrayal, in which he was always respectful of the text. Both he and Ms. Dalayman not only sang their words understandably, they understood the meaning of the words and their broader context.
I found Katarina Dalayman’s Isolde to be absolutely splendid. Her voice had a unique kind of complex resonance, which remained coherent in all registers and at all levels, except for an occasional thin or effortful and over-produced high note…but even these were beautiful in their own way. Like Seiffert’s Tristan, hers was a thoughtfully conceived, credible Isolde. She conveyed the character’s youth, pride, spirit, even a touch of the of thefiery Irish girl. Early in Act II, as Isolde waited for Tristan, Dalayman projected an obsession close to madness, which, after he arrived, became a warm, human passion, and Dalayman’s voice was a superb instrument for expressing it. Throughout the action Tristan and Isolde’s participation in their passionate love kept drawing them into a night-world they cannot integrate with the ordinary assumptions of life. They understand neither the process nor its destination. In the Liebestod, Isolde has been transported into another world. Dalayman’s otherworldly singing here expanded beyond the limitations of Isolde’s earlier yearning. Like everything else, she got it right, and it was a fitting consummation for a great Isolde.
Gerd Grochowski, making his debut at the Met, sang a lively, resourceful, and totally devoted Kurwenal. His voice was full of leathery color and nuance. In the Act III, his loving care for Tristan was deeply moving. All the lesser parts were superbly cast and made an indelible impression as vivid cameos. Above all, Stephen Gaertner used his baritonal, coal-grey tenor to portray a sinister, but conflicted Melot, and Mark Schowalter, with a brighter, beautifully balanced voice, sang a shepherd of touching sympathy. This fall in every Met production I have seen, Salome, Don Giovanni, La Damnation de Faust, and now Tristan, subsidiary roles have been cast with exceptionally fine actor-singers. I can remember ever seeing such a sequence of such consistently-cast productions, and it makes a real difference in the quality of the whole.
Thanks to Daniel Barenboim, his singers, and the Met Orchestra, this was a truly great Tristan, and the finest I have heard for many years. I could well live with this cast for quite a while, and I hope that Maestro Barenboim will return to the Met soon and often, and, to judge by the wild, unending applause and shouting at the final curtain, I am not alone in this. One other gratifying part of the evening was to run into a Williams senior I had met after Russell Sherman’s Liszt recital in Williamstown. He and his friend were aglow with excitement in the aftermath of their first Tristan. Mr. Barenboim has kindled another lifelong passsion for Tristan.