This performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde was supposed to feature the dream team of Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt in the title roles. Heppner has performed in this production before at the Met, and is acclaimed around the world as a leading exponent of the role of Tristan. Voigt made her role debut as Isolde in Vienna in 2003 to great acclaim, but these performances in the Met's 2007-2008 season are her first in New York.
Many of the audience members will have bought their tickets on the reputations of these two fine singers, and must have experienced great consternation to discover that Heppner had been struck down with a virus and would not be singing. When Deborah Voigt subsequently took ill during the Act II love duet and left the stage, the result, once the show was able to continue, was a Tristan und Isolde with two completely different singers in the title roles from those originally billed. They had had very little rehearsal, neither of them had sung their roles at the Met before, and indeed Gary Lehman, Heppner's replacement, had not sung the role of Tristan before. The evening culminated in a fifteen minute standing ovation, and a major triumph for both artists.
It was a great shame that Voigt felt unable to continue, because I was enjoying her performance hugely. There is a certain impressive steeliness in the voice these days which makes me think the time has come for her to focus on her German roles, and perhaps relinquish some of her Italian roles. Although her voice sounded enormous, she appeared very much in control, and very well prepared, to the point of being almost too pristine, with every consonant and quaver perfectly placed. The whole voice was marshalled with great precision from top to bottom so that there was perhaps a slight lack of spontaneity and passion. Her acting was impressive in Act I however, and easily encompassed the range of emotions Isolde goes through, so her interpretation was still moving in spite of the business-like nature of the actual vocalism.
It was a shock to see her leave the stage not long into the Act II duet, and aside from two slightly wayward notes at the extreme top, during the emotional explosion when the lovers are first reunited, there had been no tell-tale signs of her illness in her singing. After a pause of around ten minutes to allow her cover to get into costume, the show continued with Janice Baird as Isolde, following a round of warm and enthusiastic applause from the Met audience. Although Baird initially had her eyes glued to James Levine in the pit, or possibly the prompt box, it did not take her long to relax somewhat, get into character and employ her immense professionalism to give what was ultimately a more than satisfactory account of what remained of the role. She suffered from pitch problems when singing softly, but when she gave her voice full reign she was truly thrilling, revealing a soft-grained but quintessentially dramatic soprano sound with a wonderfully easy top and no problems whatsoever riding the Wagnerian orchestral texture in such a large theatre. Scenically, she was everything one could wish for in an Isolde – slim, beautiful and youthful in aspect. Her acting was not the most compelling, but it was certainly not perfunctory, and given how little rehearsal time she had had, with even less warm-up time, and finding herself in the extraordinary position of having to play the role from just over a third of the way into the opera, it was better than one might have hoped for.
Gary Lehman's Tristan was the real vocal highlight of the evening. The role is one of the hardest to cast in the entire operatic repertoire for any voice type, and yet Lehman was ideal, with an authentic heldentenor sound, albeit at the lighter end of the spectrum, and great technical assurance. Impressive throughout, it was in the Act II love duet that his voice really shined. He had no difficulty with the breadth of the phrases, and was equally capable of floating his voice softly through the sinuous lines, and rising to huge, easy, passionate climaxes.
The fact that this was his first Tristan was more evident in Act III, where Lehman got a little carried away by the theatrical situation at the expense of his singing. Tristan has roughly an hour of near monologue, some of which is extremely declamatory. Unfortunately, some of the top notes were excessively forced, and had a certain hoarseness about them. But the fact that, very close to the end, he was still able to sing top notes softly and lend them the inflexion he wanted suggested to me that it is just his approach to the dramatic phrases in the music that needs to change. He has the capability to sing large easy top notes as evidenced in Act II, and was not excessively fatigued in Act III as evidenced by the beautifully approached piano top notes just mentioned. For once, the issue did not appear to be pacing, because Lehman apparently has quite remarkable stamina. Tempering his dramatic instincts slightly to allow himself to approach the top in Act III with the technical finesse employed earlier in the evening will, I believe, make him a significant interpreter of the role in years to come.
Both singers received excellent support and encouragement from James Levine, who must have been a comforting presence for them both. The way he helped them with his hand gestures was beautiful to watch. Baird was saved from flatness more than once by a wonderfully expansive arm movement from Levine, which encouraged her to give more generously with her voice in passages where many sopranos often hold back. The crowning glory of her performance was a Liebestod of great beauty and drive in which it almost seemed as if Levine was holding her hand.
The sheer sound coming from the orchestra was extremely exhilarating at times, and the clarity in the dense textures, thanks to the wonderful acoustic at the Met, was remarkable. Just occasionally I felt that the score could have done with a little more momentum from Levine, particularly in orchestral passages with no singing. The audience's concentration appeared to sag at such moments, leading to outbreaks of coughing.
The remaining cast members were a strong team. Michelle De Young was a very convincing Brangäne, playing her as hapless and girlish, rather than a rather nervy partner-in-crime to Isolde which is how she often comes across. De Young has developed an unfortunate habit of raising her shoulders for dramatic top notes which rather appears to negate the return she gets on the effort she expends, in terms of volume produced. That said, in her night watch music, delivered from off-stage, she produced a vast amount of very beautiful, relaxed sound with a mesmerising vibrato lending her instrument extreme richness. Matti Salminen was a very fine King Marke, despite some signs of age showing at the top of his voice. Eike Wilm Schulte's Kurwenal was notable for its volume and energy.
All in all, this was a rather eventful evening at the theatre which resulted in an impressive and moving performance despite far less than ideal circumstances. All cast members, including Voigt, did themselves great credit, but I believe the real success of the evening is down to Levine's vast knowledge and experience of singers which allowed him to draw strong performances worthy of the Met from the two eleventh hour replacements. The audience reaction at the final curtain was rapturous, and for sheer atmosphere alone, deservedly so.
By John Woods
Tristan und Isolde will be broadcast to cinemas worldwide on Saturday 22 March 2008. UK participants include Picturehouse Cinemas and the Barbican cinema.