A Collision Course With Tristan

Opera Review: “Tristan und Isolde” @ The Met

The Met’s latest mounting of Dieter Dorn’s 1999 production of “Tristan und Isolde,” Wagner’s insanely genius love-death opera retelling an ancient Celtic myth of star-crossed lovers via some of the most gorgeous—and I mean gorgeous—music ever written for the theater, has met an unusually gratuitous series of challenges to the cast. Just before opening night last week, Ben Heppner, the husky tenor who was to partner with fellow heavy-weight Deborah Voigt for the six performance run, canceled last minute due to a virus that’s been sweeping the corps of Met singers. Then Voigt had to drop out mid-way through Friday’s performance due to a stomach problem, leaving two newbies, Gary Lehman and Janice Bairde to steer the juggernaut of love onward into the Wagnerian cosmos. Then, last night, THIS HAPPENED. But as dauntless as the lovers in this opera are about satiating their otherworldly lust, so this production barreled forward, culminating in a fiery third act that was as musically powerful as it was remarkable for its freshness.

Ms. Voigt, making her Met debut as Isolde, is something special as a Wagnerian singer. She does not have the preternatural booming resonance that the great Wagner sopranos seem to ooze without even trying, but her particular skill at tackling Wagner’s stretched and distressed vocal lines and making them, somehow, manageable is a marvel. She can push through the big notes with a tone that sounds, for lack of a better word, naked. It’s big because she’s pushing, but you don’t lose any of the tightness of focus just because she’s heaving out long-held notes above the top of the staff. You would think this voice wouldn’t be ideal for Wagner, but Voigt’s vocal transparency brings a freshness to Wagnerian vocalism, which can so often feel muffled and wobbly, even in the hands of great singers.

I will single out Voigt’s “Mild und leise,” also known as the “Leibestod,” as one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard on an opera stage. She sang stoically, but also with a child-like wonderment of genuine love. “How could you not love him? How could you not want to die for him?” is basically what she’s singing. And Voigt’s stripped-down phrasing was gripping. She didn’t overdo it, even as Dorn’s staging seems to urge her in that direction. Standing in place, she made this mythical moment of spiritual transubstantiation seem simple, humble even, and terribly moving.

Gary Lehman, singing only his second Tristan ever on-stage (his first being last Friday), made a close match to Voigt’s vocal simplicity. There is certainly room to grow here. Lehman isn’t yet a full-fledged heldentenor. But there were signs of heft, cutting ring, and, most importantly, stamina, even after careening head-first into the prompter’s box at the foot of the raked stage. By the end of his half-hour, culminating hallucinatory sequence where Tristan is envisioning a sea-bound Isolde coming toward him, Lehman showed only negligible signs of exhaustion, but more often used the exasperation to fuel Tristan’s fiery passion to quench his inextinguishable love.

As Brangäne, Isolde’s faithful confidant and cause-of-all-the-hoopla when she switches the death potion with the love potion that will unleash one of the fiercest and most inescapable loves of all time (at least, as it’s written), Michelle de Young proves once again that she’s the real deal. Although her body was often a little stiff (this worked to her advantage when she sang the domineering Fricka in “Die Walkyrie”), her voice was lush and warm. And when in Act II, offstage, she warns T&I about the dawn of morning and the doom to come, singing “Alone, I keep watch in the night,” you couldn’t imagine wanting to hear any other voice but hers gently lull you toward impending tragedy.

Eike Wilm Schulte as Kurwenal made a lasting impression. And veteran, Matti Salminen, as King Marke, made singing Wagner look effortless, although I wished that he would have been directed more to turn his attention toward Tristan in the second act, instead of playing out so much to the house. But this is a problem a lot of opera has, in that the directors seems to be more concerned with cultivating a relationship between the singers and the audience, rather than between the characters in the drama.

But there are moments when the singers take up the charge on their own. Last night, after the doomed pair have been fighting for thirty-minutes (that’s about the average for a Wagner moment) and have drunk the potion of love, and a deep red glow consumes them (kaleidoscopic lighting by Max Keller) and recedes, the pauses and brief exchange of glances between Voigt and Lehman were super hot. And when you finally see Voigt’s bewildered expression curl up into the hint of a knowing smile, and the music rises and reaches a climax that had been averted since the opera’s notorious prelude, you too want to make out with someone, or die, or both.

With Levine at the helm, the orchestra, after working out some initial timidity during the opening, really began to inhabit Wagner’s “modestly” scored drama. The dark, brooding strokes of the low strings were invigorating when Isolde is left alone in Act 1, awaiting Tristan so she can seek her revenge. In Act 2, the orchestra succored the hearts of the lovers with murmuring “spring winds,” executing Wagner’s proto-minimalist orchestrations with subtlety.

And at the beginning of the third act, when Wagner takes the “Tristan” chord (which at first sounds like a half-diminished ii chord, but is often analyzed as an augmented sixth chord—or French Sixth chord, in this case—with an upward resolving appoggiatura) and translates it into a minor iv-7 chord with an upward resolving appoggiatura (going from ii-6/5 to iv-7) without chromaticism and to a minor tonic (the bass relationship gives you the sense of a minor plagal cadence—or iv-i—which anticipates Isolde’s climactic major plagal cadence; aka the “Amen” cadence in church hymns), and by washing out the chromatic elements and opting for a more placid, diatonic structure, Wagner convey’s Tristan’s memory loss—and temporary loss of his love for Isolde—due to the coma he’s in because he got stabbed by his best friend Melot-

Well…The strings sounded fierce.

All theory aside, this Tristan offers a solid musical take on what is arguably one of the greatest operas ever written, or imagined. I would urge The Met to take a closer look at Jürgen Rose’s set, which is looking a little worse for wear with a handful of water stains and a frayed seam marring the backdrop.

At this point, this production has created enough melodrama to match its embattled lovers. There is still no word on who will sing Tristan for Saturday’s HD simulcast performance. Ben Heppner is slated to come back for the final two shows. My advice? Sit back and watch the ride. This is when Opera gets really interesting.

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