Sunday, April 13, 2008

Return to love

Tristan und Isolde is the story of a second meeting, so I'm not sure why I thought this year's Met revival would be a non-event. I -- having seen the much-anticipated 1999 premiere -- felt the same of Ben Heppner's first return to this production five years back, and skipped it. But that was with the disappointing Jane Eaglen; this run promised not only Heppner's reunion with this Tristan but with Deborah Voigt -- the two hadn't really sung together at the Met since the once-infamous Wilson Lohengrin's premiere a decade ago. (They were both in the 2003 Troyens triumph, but Cassandra and Enee don't actually interact.) Ah, the promise of that time! --What better way to enter Wagner's story?

For we hear it begin in the Prelude -- before the action proper -- and the opera moves mightily to return to and recreate that decisive point: where Isolde and the wounded Tristan first join eyes, recognize their love. Love, we discover, disarms Isolde's vengeance, but the two acknowledge it no further, and remain socially divided.

But neither much likes that practical course and its implications, and on their second meeting (the opera story proper) it's not long before we find each -- now believing the other no longer loves -- ready to die, willingly taking what they believe to be the death potion. But instead it's the drink that again reveals their love, and sets them on course for what they most want: a return, come what may, to that initial scene -- to undo their mistake in choosing against the love that there appeared. And so, at last, when Isolde and the wounded Tristan again join eyes...

*     *     *

But who knew it would be this arduous for the Heppner-Voigt reunion to in fact take place? Heppner again the victim of bizarre medical misadventures; Voigt another soprano acutely sick; a different cast every show; one replacement Tristan who didn't do well, another who did but had to shake off a nasty knock from stage malfunction, and a third flown in for a debut seen all over the world; and, in the end, one final performance with the two scheduled stars. What was in danger of becoming ugly farce turned, with Gary Lehman's stunningly unexpected success, into an offstage drama to remind all that the Met was still a place where things happened. And this last performance? Memorable for itself, in fact, though the remarkably focused and expectant audience surely helped.

On that night the performers, with help from Dieter Dorn's uncluttered production, presented Wagner's opera with remarkable clarity of sound and action. Levine and the orchestra, Voigt and Heppner, and the whole supporting cast -- including Michelle DeYoung, filling in for her sick cover, and Matti Salminen, in his apparently final Met performance (at age 62) -- seemed of one undistracted mind in setting the work forth from beginning to end, act by act in rapt, fiery lines.

That was the whole. Of the details, the leads' vocal states have generated the most commentary. It's of course true that neither sounds as they did a decade ago, perhaps the sonic peak for both singers. In those years Voigt's sound was almost hypnotically rich and calming, while the most successful of Heppner's 1999 Tristans were an assault of lyric beauty on the part such as may not have been heard before or (well, unless the mind-boggling Klaus Florian Vogt somehow gets there) since. Those are gone, with both now touched by not only age but vocal crisis and weight loss: for Voigt the weight loss caused the crisis, while for Heppner it was his response to stopping the crisis-inducing medication.

I am, as I've said, maybe the only person who likes the basic new Voigt sound. Its sharp edge gives her more chances to shape her sonic character, and Isolde seems to be the first time she takes advantage of it. Voigt unleashes Isolde's anger in a (mostly) unselfconscious way unthinkable in her placid old days, and it works -- the scale is right. But something in her singing of Isolde registers, I think, as less pleasant than it is -- the opposite of how Heppner's sound works for Tristan. Perhaps this is just to my ears. Or perhaps it's this: Heppner's remarkably happy way with Wagner's consonants covers many of the sins his killer part turns up, while Voigt's doesn't. Or something else... At any rate, though her Liebestod was excellent, Voigt's was a success savored more by others than by me.

Heppner sounded remarkably strong for someone who'd been sick for weeks and whose adjustment to his post-crisis voice had not yet, to my years, stabilized. In fact I think he finally has (perhaps, in part, by regaining weight) stabilized things, but whether or not this Tristan signals the future, it was remarkable: a greater performance than his originals. The voice finally just worked -- no longer just lyrically but with an expanded expressive range to go with the duller colors he's had to add. It's equal to Act I's stoicism, Act II's rapture, and Act III's madness; ringing and strong at climaxes and throughout the duet; and ever clear in word, phrase, and character. And though -- I assume on account of his real infection -- he didn't rip off the Act III bandages, Heppner used his body throughout more effectively than I remember him ever doing.

I think I'll be seeing the fall's Queen of Spades now.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.