Tuesday December 2, 2008 - Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, the opera that took me so many decades to appreciate, is back at the Met conducted by Daniel Barenboim. (Above: a Ken Howard/Met Opera production photo). It was surprising to see so many empty seats tonight; is the economic slump seriously affecting attendance? One would think that the combination of Barenboim and Wagner would produce a sold-out series regardless of who was singing. By the end the crowd had thinned even more but one good thing: Wagner audiences are always the most attentive. Unfortunately three rings of a cellphone just as the Liebestod was about to begin almost caused the opera's spell to be broken.
Maestro Barenboim's conducting was a revelation. His Prelude was so sensuous, the music surging and pulsating with erotic tension. He favors forward-flowing tempi and layered textures of sound allowing individual instrumental voices to leap to prominence and then recede into the orchestral floodtide. Despite Barenboim's passionate view of the score, he controls dynamics perfectly so that the singers do not have to struggle to be heard. One of his most memorable passages came after the drinking of the Potion where the sexual tension of the music became palpable. The Love Duet was an amazing panorama of gorgeous playing, the singers able to explore the nuances of vocal color as the orchestra cushioned them with a silken sheen. The Wesendonck prelude to Act III was yet another peak in this magnificent evening.
From our perch high above the pit we were able to watch Barenboim; he actually doesn't do much of anything. Seated, and conducting from memory, he gives a barely perceptible beat much of the time and sometimes stops conducting altogether. Almost languidly, he gives cues. But there's some kind of telepathic communication between him and his players for the result is fascinating. Barenboim's TRISTAN is a sensual experience.
Reports of Peter Seiffert's vocal struggle (to say nothing of his controversial earpiece) as Tristan at the prima caused me to wonder if I could endure the long mad scene that the title character must sing in Act III. However, this anticipated problem was mooted by an announcement at the Met website earlier in the day that Gary Lehman would be singing Tristan this evening in Mr. Seiffert's stead. Mr. Lehman was generally praised for his performances in the role last season (replacing Ben Heppner) as well as for his show-must-go-on heroics after a serious stage accident at one performance.
In the event, Mr.Lehman (above) was the hero of the evening with a compelling performance of one of opera's most arduous roles. Tall and good-looking, the tenor has the required power and range at his disposal, but moreover he feels the passion, tenderness and despair of the character and he has the vocal means to paint a full portrait. Not intrinsically beautiful of sound, Lehman's voice is capable of convincing you otherwise with his dynamic control and clarity of expression. His prolonged mad scene in Act III was superb, with reserves of vocal power being call upon as needed. Lehman's strong and vocally steadfast Tristan joins a list of exciting Wagnerian tenor performances that I have enjoyed at the Met since moving to New York: the Lohengrins of Johan Botha and Klaus Florian Vogt, the Siegmund of Simon O'Neil, and last season's Tristan: Robert Dean Smith. Hopefully the powers that be at the Met will give Gary Lehman more to do.
Rene Pape's King Marke was a sensation. In his long monolog, Pape (above) unfurled his grand, spacious and profound voice in a deluge of tone and of human despair as he suffered the betrayal by his most trusted friend. The voice is so plush and effortlessly resonant, and Pape used a remarkably beautiful mezza voce at a few key points, underlining Marke's intense grief. This is great singing, pure and simple.
Gerd Grochowski (above) was a tough-and-tender Kurwenal, his craggy and big-toned voice used to set the character in high relief, his love for Tristan always colouring his singing. The men in the cast were excellent right down the line: Matthew Plenk's hauntingy plaintive Sailor, Stephen Gaertner's dark and brooding Melot (more and larger opportunities for Stephen at the Met, please!), Mark Schowalter's characterful vocalism as the Shepherd and James Courtney's sturdy Steersman.
The women were less pleasing, and how I wished for an Isolde to equal Mr. Lehman in both vocal and interpretive authority. Katarina Dalayman, who previously sang Brangaene in this Met production, has switched to the role of Isolde. Previously I had only heard Ms. Dalayman as Marie in WOZZECK (twice) and was impressed by her - both vocally and in terms of emotional commitment to a very demanding role - while thinking all along that she really was more of a mezzo than a soprano. Singing Isolde is a very different test from singing Marie, however.
Dalayman and Lehman make a physically ideal pair of lovers: no fat, waddling divas or creaky old heldentenors here, but rather an attractive and utterly believable couple caught up in events beyond their control. Ms. Dalayman's sincerity and her earnest endeavor to deliver the music with warmth and clarity were undone by the fact that her voice is a shade too small to sing this big role in this big house, and that she is just a little shy on top to deliver the desired thrills. At mid-range her voice was both warm and expressive; much of the Love Duet was extremely appealing as was - for the most part - her Liebestod. But the tone did not really bloom and expand in those passages where you just want to hear more sound, more emotion. The topmost notes of the role which can be so thrilling when they ring into the darkened house were here slightly desperate and sometimes a little flat. I ended up admiring Dalayman while wishing someone else - and I don't really have a candidate - had been singing Isolde.
I do not understand the appeal of Michelle de Young, the evening's Brangaene. To me she sounds thin-toned, tense on top and too light of timbre in music that I think calls for a more contraltosih colouring. But she was very well-applauded so clearly this is a minority report.
At the end Ms. Dalayman brought Maestro Barenboim out but instead of walking forward and basking in a flood of applause, he made a bee-line for Gary Lehman, shook the tenor's hand enthusiastically and stood talking to him for several seconds. Then they all came forward and enjoyed a warm ovation.