Wagner’s Irish Opera

Tristan und Isolde, Metropolitan Opera, March 2008; Isolde: Deborah Voigt and Janice Baird; Tristan: Gary Lehman, Robert Dean Smith, and Ben Heppner; Brangäne: Michelle De Young; Kurwenal: Eike Wilm Schulte; König Marke: Matti Salminen; Melot: Stephen Gaertner; conductor: James Levine; staging: Dieter Dorn


Thanks to the ever-expanding outreach of the Metropolitan Opera through the Internet and its clever exploitation by the Met’s resourceful general manager, Peter Gelb, many Wag-nerians—not only those who can attend performances at Lincoln Center, but also those worldwide—had eagerly awaited the run of six performances of what, in retrospect, should be forever called Wagner’s Irish Opera. Much anticipation had built up over the supposed dream team of Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner as the two reigning artists, with the result that all six performances had long been sold out. Those who could not be in the house would at least enjoy the experience vicariously through the Saturday worldwide satellite transmission to over 600 movie theaters or hear the traditional radio broadcast. The bizarre and unexpected changes in casting over the entire run brought an altogether new auditory experience for the final performance; the Met chose to simulcast it gratis via the Internet using RealPlayer. This long-time devotee of Wagner’s Irish Opera had the good fortune to experience the work not only in the house (during the third performance) but also at the movie-theater rebroadcast on March 23, as well as the March 28 Internet transmission of what turned out to be the one and only performance with the supposedly legendary Voigt-Heppner duo.

The one abiding aural pleasure in all the performances was the superlative playing of the phenomenal Met orchestra under the magisterial leadership of Maestro James Levine. This conductor’s mastery of the music is transcendental in that Levine continues to find new details in the score and inspires ever greater playing, not only over the course of the run but also during his many years of experience with this exhausting and inexhaustible score. From the first yearning notes of the celli (marked schmachtend by the composer) to the final B-major chord (the best-scored and most satisfying chord in all of opera), the orchestra and Mr. Levine produced miracles of beauty and subtlety, of appropriate power when needed, as well as some incredibly delicate chamber music of almost embarrassing intimacy. Experiencing just this orchestral section alone would have been enough.

The vagaries of fortune when it comes to artists’ health, particularly in wintertime in New York, as well as some unexpected technical problems throughout the run of Wagner’s Irish Opera, are too well known to merit repetition here. The cell phone and the Internet have provided Wagnerians the world over with instantaneous reports of events. After the performance when Gary Lehman, the second Tristan cover, slid into the prompter’s box (I hope she ducked in time), it was not surprising that the Met’s technical department modified the placement of the “rug” that Robert Dean Smith, the third Tristan cover, lay on at the beginning of Act 3.

The visual experience of this work in the house was quite different from the telecast. In the house, one has a general and fixed view of the entire stage at all times. Audience members are free to look at whatever singer they want at any time. An appreciation of the intensity of “acting” correlates directly with one’s proximity to the stage. The telecasts, however, are created by an array of robotic cameras that capture a huge amount of the visual elements. The movements of these cameras can be, at least initially, distracting for the in-house audience. Previous television directors favored much more close-up work, which enhanced the singers’ acting. I wonder just how much of the director’s and singers’ work is planned for or altered by these multiple cameras. In this production not only was there the usual multiple camera work, but it was all in the service of providing the viewer with a central, general overall stage picture coupled with a virtually nonstop flow of simultaneous close-ups of most, if not all, the singers. At times there were even competing images of the same singer from different angles! One was free to choose what to watch from this menu of images. This new approach to televising an opera apparently won no fervent supporters. While the concept is not bad, in this particular instance the decisions as to which cameras to use for which singers and how long a particular view was to remain on the screen were poorly carried out. These decisions are not made on the spot. The performance I saw in house was actually a rehearsal for the telecast, with the distracting presence of the robotic cameras and apparently adjusted lighting levels. (The Met no longer apologizes for brighter lighting levels in season brochures or program booklets, so the in-house audience is perhaps not getting what it has paid for.) While the concept of a split-screen technique found some favor with me, at times the choice of camera placement and picture was not terribly well thought out. For much of the “Liebestod,” there was only one image: a long shot that very slowly and belatedly turned into the eventual (and needed) close-up.

The 1999 Dieter Dorn production is modern for the Met; and yet it in no way approaches the latest perverted kink of the Eurotrash Regietheater that so many Americans loathe. While the lighting levels may have been slightly boosted for the telecast, the production retained the same absurdities of blocking of live characters (excessive profile views) and the disposal of dead ones. (Melot and Kurwenal really did fall off the steeply raked acting area onto a real floor and remained there until the end of the opera. I am surprised there have been no complaints by the American Guild of Musical Artists over such physical dangers.) Once again, the stage director showed not the slightest respect or consideration for the health, well-being, and tonal production of the singers when they were asked to sing while climbing up or down a ladder. (I still remember the ill-fated Richard Versalle, who fell to his death in the 1996 Makropoulos Case.)

I saw Ms. Voigt in the house and in the movie theater and heard her on the Internet transmission. While I have great admiration for her artistry in most roles, I cannot say with much enthusiasm that Isolde is a role she should continue to sing. In the house she sounded perpetually angry and unhappy. The “Liebestod,” despite the superlative conducting of Levine and the magnificent orchestra, was not the catharsis it needed to be. How could it when she failed to ride over the orchestral crest and never once sang the final note (the F# on the word “Lust”) in tune? Voigt’s commitment to the score and her attractive and slimmer physical presence were undeniable. She had success in the Narrative and Curse, and the two lightning-high Cs were spot-on. But taken as a whole, the hochdramatische Sopran part of Isolde is not for her. (And neither is Brünnhilde, a fact of which the Met is now aware; she is not listed in the 2009 final Schenk Ring outing.)

Having heard three different tenors in the title role over a span of about 10 days, I can happily report that Gary Lehman more than saved the day (and performance) with his interpretation of the title role. I was very impressed with the fine singing and the intensity of his acting in Acts 1 and 2, and I was even more impressed that he could finish the opera as well as he did following the unexpected rug problems and the resulting stoppage of the performance. It was a shame that the Met administration did not choose to reward his noble and fine efforts by letting him sing in the telecast. Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself very well in the telecast, which is why he seems to be the Tristan du jour,at least in Europe. Both Smith and Lehman offered an additional bonus in that they are not physically large. In his one and only performance in the current run, Ben Heppner was his usual self, having recovered from a serious illness. (He sounded even better when he replaced Johan Botha at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Levine-led performances of Das Lied von der Erde. This can only bode well for his upcoming performances in the title role of Siegfried at the Aix-en-Provence festival this summer.)

Matti Salminen’s Marke was splendidly sonorous and powerful. It may have lacked the elegance and sheer tonal beauty of René Pape, but his performance was certainly on a par with any of the various Tristans and Isoldes this time around. (Pape sings only the first two performances of Wagner’s Irish Opera next season; make haste and secure your tickets well in advance, regardless of who is singing the title roles—he is the only Marke I have ever seen to steal the entire opera away from the two leads.) Michelle De Young’s beautiful singing made me wish that she was singing Isolde. Her “Ruf” was ravishing. She made for a very sympathetic and subservient Brangäne. Eike Wilm Schulte’s Kurwenal was just fine. Like Telramund, this is not a particularly ingratiating role, but he makes the most of it. One does not attend any performance of this work to hear Kurwenal, so the fact that his singing and character were secure and everything that was needed only enhanced the experience of Wagner’s Irish Opera.

–Jeffrey Brody

Jeffrey Brody, the Music Adviser of the Boston Wagner Society, is a composer, conductor, vocal coach, pianist, and organist.