Tristan triumphs despite a bumpy ride

By Raymond Beegle
Published: 3/18/2008
Photo credit: Mary Sohl, the Metropolitan Opera


Most of our readers have probably been entertained from time to time by the hilarious entries in Nicholas Slonimsky’s Lexicon of Musical Invective. When one has a strong negative opinion about a work or performance and, like Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw, a strong wit as well, the words seem to flow, the barbs fly, and the reader gets a chuckle. Ultimately, however, sarcasm must be the worst possible way to deal with the efforts of a dedicated artist. Artists, the objects under scrutiny, even when missing the mark by a large margin, have, after all, spent years of laborious study, and have dared, time after time to lay themselves open to the ridicule of onlookers who couldn’t begin to do what they do, or even begin to understand what relentless labor, sacrifice, pain and self-abnegation has gone into their presentation.      

It is not a pleasant task to review a performance of Tristan und Isolde when neither of the leads should have been cast by the Metropolitan Opera to sing these roles. Deborah Voigt, through many seasons of over singing, has lost the beauty and luster of her voice, and her very troubled performance was so vocally inadequate that it precludes any attempt to discus phrasing, acting, or interpretation. She valiantly fought to be heard from the opening Wer wagt mich zu höhnen,” and survived the evening, through the final höchste Lust” which did not spin, but was on pitch. It seemed a sheer act of will against all odds.

Gary Lehman, who replaced the chronically ailing Ben Hepner, has a beautiful golden trumpet voice. His phrasing was superb and his acting first-rate, but this voice is not quite big enough for Tristan in our cavernous opera house. It would be perfect, however, at Bayreuth and even the larger European theaters. He is one of today’s best, but he often sang past his limits, placing himself in danger of spoiling his wonderful, healthy instrument. This over singing was ultimately the fault of the conductor, who is often reluctant to reign in his orchestra to accommodate the particular dimensions of an artist’s voice. In regard to style, Maestro Levine often exaggerates the shape of the sub phrases occurring in chromatic sequence, and consequently erases the expansive longer lines they should collectively create.

The supporting cast was exemplary. Especially fine were Matthew Plenk’s singing of the unaccompanied Westwarts schweift der Blick, at the beginning of the drama, and Stephen Gaertner’s portrayal of Melot.  The veteran Matti Salminen had, perhaps, the only true Wagnerian voice on stage that night, but it moves in a cumbersome and circumspect fashion, conveying more concern for a safe vocal outcome than a convincing characterizing of King Mark. Michelle DeYoung gave a solid performance as Brangäne, underplaying with the beauty of her voice the dark sided elements of sorcery. One of her assets proved a drawback to the production in that her height and stature stunted the appearance of Isolde.

This was the evening of the sensational accident in the last act, where Tristan’s death-palate, with Tristan aboard, slid down the raked stage like a toboggan and struck the prompter’s box, bringing the performance to a halt. When it resumed, Mr.Lehman received the largest ovation of the evening. Throughout this episode, and indeed throughout the entire performance, Maestro Levine was the rock at the center. With James Levine, even with mishaps such as this, we always know we’re going to have a smooth ride.