Tristan und Isolde

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
9 January 1981
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanSpas Wenkoff
IsoldeGwyneth Jones
BrangäneTatiana Troyanos
KurwenalDonald McIntyre
König MarkeMatti Salminen
MelotTimothy Jenkins
Ein junger SeemannPhilip Creech
Ein HirtPaul Franke
SteuermannJulien Robbins

Some years ago Giorgio Gualerzi suggested in OPERA that “Tristan und Isolde” would be improved if it were heavily cut. James Levine obviously disagrees, since he decided at the revival of the 1971 Metropolitan Opera production on January 9 to present the work uncut for what appears to be the first time in the house’s history. August Everding and Gunther Schneider-Siemssen returned to refurbish their celebrated collaboration.

The deficiencies of the evening were, however, less its length than its length when hitched to the singers who undertook the title-roles. Gwyneth Jones and Spas Wenkoff may be in the forefront of today’s interpreters of the lovers, but neither – Miss Jones in particular – has voice enough to fill the roles, and without two voices the evening does extend. Miss Jones’s soft singing retains an affecting timbre and graceful lilt, but whenever the voice is pushed its pitch wavers, tremulousness appears, and the sounds turn ugly. Because of this, she cannot portray more than a sketch of Isolde. She eschewed the anger at the beginning of the first act, and never showed the febrile anxiety at the beginning of the second; thus Isolde shrank to a cipher rather than blossomed as a character. Her best singing came in the relatively placid portions of the love duet; by the “Liebestod” the sound had become shrill.

Mr. Wenkoff, making his house debut, has a baritonal tenor of proper heft, but one short on top and, though well used, not distinctive. He was ever careful so that the long third-act declamations could carry weight, but the voice’s lack of expressiveness and colouring, added to a stage deportment which was stolid and confined facially to a manic rictus meant that the uncut third act stretched “öd and leer.”

Levine’s conception of the work, in his first attempt, was interesting if not operatically appropriate. He sees Tristan as a slowly unfolding passion flower of musky perfumed langorousness – a Klingsor’s Magic Garden of sound – with the central portion of the love duet taken at almost a stasis of sound. This conception, beautifully elucidated by the orchestra, will have impact only if there are singers whose legato and whose expressiveness can match that of the orchestra’s strings. If not, its abstracted beauties are more orchestral than lirico-dramatic. It should be emphasized that the conducting did not lack drama in the proper places – Levine is too good an opera conductor – but given this cast the work needs more pace and urgency. The conducting, however, was in spirit with the unfolding changes of the visual projections devised by Everding and Schneider-Siemssen, and at its best in the second act. In fact, one felt as if Levine were responding more to the projections than to the voices.

Of the supporting cast, Matti Salminen’s debut as King Mark was outstanding. Indeed, when his clearly pitched and dominating bass began the traversal of the second-act address the evening came into sudden sharp focus — a focus aided by Salminen’s masterful enunciation and acting. Here is truly a major presence. Tatiana Troyanos’s Brangäne was well sung, but her overwrought acting in the first act contrasted unfavourably with Miss Jones’s placidity, as if two different schools were being presented on the one stage. Donald McIntyre’s Kurwenal was appropriately gruff and dog-like. Everding’s production is relatively straightforward, if a bit fussy and, as noted above, not uniform. He has, however, added for this revival a gratuitous touch. During his address, King Mark goes down on his knees before Tristan to show his despair. It is visually a telling moment, and makes its effect, but it is totally out of character and, in terms of the customs that surround any royal court – and this one specifically, as we know from Tristan’s first-act dialogue with Isolde – unthinkable. It is Tristan and Isolde who are meant to transcend the ephemera of this petty world, not Mark!

Patrick J. Smith

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 559 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording.
A production by August Everding (1971)
This was the first Metropolitan Opera performance of Tristan und Isolde without cuts.