Tristan und Isolde

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
22 March 2008
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRobert Dean Smith
IsoldeDeborah Voigt
BrangäneMichelle DeYoung
KurwenalEike Wilm Schulte
König MarkeMatti Salminen
MelotStephen Gaertner
Ein junger SeemannMatthew Plenk
Ein HirtMark Schowalter
SteuermannJames Courtney

When I did some follow-up investigations after seeing Manon Lescaut recently I discovered that The Met Opera have been broadcasting to Picturehouse Cinemas since 2006 and that their relays are screened at most of these Picturehouse venues. There are also further screenings at Cineworld and numerous independents including Hampstead Everyman, Curzon Mayfair and of course the Barbican. It can be only anecdotal comment, but everyone I have asked at the Barbican was surprised to hear this and thought they had just begun with the season there. Opera in cinemas is soon to become a crowded market with the Bravo! season of (please note) recordings from La Scala and other Italian opera houses, hitting cinemas next month (for further details visit the website) and with our very own Royal Opera House just confirming the deal to allow pre-recorded, and later live, ROH productions to be shown in cinemas in this country and worldwide soon. All will be in High Definition and digital sound as at the Barbican.

My latest opera relay experience was this Tristan performance from The Met in a production by Dieter Dorn with sets and costumes by Jürgen Rose. The set was basically a pyramidal box where the lighting (by Max Keller) was very significant. Silhouettes were very important and the lighting underwent many changes of colour; including red after Tristan and Isolde drank the love potion, blue naturally in Act II and mainly white for Act III.

The six-performance run was blighted when tenor Ben Heppner came down with a virus, cancelling his first four performances. John Mac Master, his cover, replacing him on the first night and receiving mostly negative reviews, was himself replaced by Gary Lehman who made his Met debut singing opposite Deborah Voigt’s Isolde. At that performance however, Ms Voigt also fell ill with a stomach ailment during Act II which was stopped so that she could be replaced by Janice Baird, her cover, also making her Met debut. Then, on the third night the opera was interrupted in mid-act again, this time because of scenery. The bedlike part of the raked set on which Gary Lehman was stretched out at the start of Act III slid into the prompt box with the tenor on board causing the opera was to be interrupted while the singer was examined by a doctor: he was subsequently cleared to continue and the performance resumed. Robert Dean Smith, another making his Met debut, had flown in from Berlin and was Tristan in this matinee broadcast. Heppner was expected to return for the final two nights and indeed did so but on this first night Ms Voigt was sick with that stomach bug again, so Mr Heppner sang with Baird. They hope to unite him with Ms Voigt at the last performance!

Sarah Billinghurst – in charge of artistic matters at The Met – noted when talking during the relay interval to Susan Graham that there are ‘About 10 people in the world who can sing the role of Tristan but some would not sing the role at The Met’. She explained that the Met sends people to hear singers perform with other opera companies and that Eva Wagner-Pasquier is their European consultant. Asked if there were fewer Wagners singers now than formerly, she said ‘Not less Wagner singers just more Wagner being performed. A lot of the singers who are baritones now could be tenors in five years and many Brangänes may be Isoldes in five years. All opera casting is a gamble and we will be casting the new Ring with many younger singers in small roles who may sing larger ones eventually.’

Anything they showed in this relay would be better than the visually dire Glyndebourne DVD of their Tristan production which is basically a film without an audience using one camera and too many close-ups of unprepossessing people. At the Met, director Barbara Willis Sweete had multiple camera and viewing angles to work with and used her vision-mixing desk like a new toy. The audience’s eyes were rarely allowed to settle, not only was there split screen but there a split-split screen and multiple boxes with close-ups or long shots that could moved out or in; as when the ship comes closer from far away at the start, form example. In one of the chatty interval interviews – this time with The Met’s general manager Peter Gelb – Ms Sweete explained that the effects were there because of the ‘challenge of the stage concept, the silhouettes and large washes of colour’ and said that she decided ‘to have the audience choose what to look at’.

There were other visual problems too. Characters climbed in and out of trap doors, there was also a quite huge phallic tower rising up in Act II on top of which we found Brangäne (or her double). The tower also had doors that opened to give a golden glow to King Marke’s pronouncements. In Act III there were strange toy castles and jousting knights popping up perhaps to symbolise Tristan’s delirium. But there is an urge for clear story-telling in the production that is very appealing: around her neck, Isolde wears the piece from Tantris’s sword which was embedded in her lover Morold’s head and which later matches with Tristan’s sword. Brangäne makes a great dumb-show of pouring the poison from the black vial into some flames, before to using the love potion instead. In its own way, all of this was quite gripping though there was often too much going on to engage the brain and there were definitely times when having just a single shot of an individual singer performing would have been preferable to all the selection boxes.

Deborah Voigt was asked how she was feeling after Act II and replied, ‘Two down and one to go!’ She had had not rehearsed with any of her alternative Tristans but added ‘At least Bob [Smith] and I knew one another from singing in Chicago, because it makes for interesting love scenes if you do not know the other singer.’ When asked what is needed to be a Wagner singer, she said ‘To pace yourself … and good shoes, as Birgit Nilsson said’. Replying to the same question, Michelle DeYoung (Brangäne) said that she wanted to say shoes too but added ‘Big Lungs also help’. DeYoung was a very tall and imposing figure and upset the dynamic somewhat beside Voigt’s somewhat smaller Isolde. She is a natural actress and said that she preferred to be ‘a sister to Isolde rather than the Nanny, ’ and this she did very well. Her voice seemed large in the broadcast and she may be on her way to Wagner soprano roles because of her physique and because she describes her voice as ‘a higher mezzo but not a bombastic lower voice’.

The veteran Matti Salminen is unsurpassable as a baleful King Marke and the smaller roles were creditably characterised and sung apart from Eike Wilm Schulte’s stentorian Kurwenal. He had a nervous, insecure look in his eyes, which were glued to the prompt box every time he sang. It was hard to tell if Robert Dean Smith’s voice would have been large enough to fill The Met though he seemed to get a good reception at his curtain call. For me, he is one of the most reliable – and lyrical – of the current crop of heldentenors and seems incapable of an ugly sound. When James Levine whipped up quite a storm in Act III it seemed almost too much for Smith in his fevered outcries but he got to the end quite wonderfully to sing a peerless ‘Isolde!’ before ‘dying’ in front of her. While Isolde (who had previously been dressed in lapis lazuli and gold) was now in scarlet, Tristan himself looked a bit like a terracotta warrior throughout.

Deborah Voigt won the acting ‘Oscar’ on this occasion but eyes – so wonderfully expressive on screen when the camera was directly on her – cannot have made much of an impression in the theatre. Her restrained, elegant, voice seemed equal to the tasks of the Act I rage and humiliation, Act II’s white-hot passion and the strange take she had on her Act III late-entry where she seemed to be blaming Tristan for dying and leaving her alone. Her Liebestod, though full of pathos, sounded less than incandescent.

James Levine has apparently conducted all the performances of this opera since 1981 (though Daniel Barenboim gets a go in the next Met season) and while the relay also said that he has conducted 349 Wagner performances, it was not clear whether this was his 350th. Speaking about the piece, he used words like ‘exhilarating’ and ‘rewarding’ and commented that it had ‘so many details’. Surprisingly however, he was willing to admit there is ‘Never enough rehearsal time and what we do is a mosaic. Sometimes we go back in the middle of something else to work on something we might have missed’. Everything that is intrinsically important about Tristan emanated from the pit on this occasion even if it was experienced in over-bright digital sound rather than live in the opera house.

Jim Pritchard

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 559 MByte (MP3)
A production by Dieter Dorn (1999)
Also available as video