Saturday, December 13, 2008

Siegfried und Isolde

Waltraud Meier is... some large fraction of an ideal dramatic soprano. The remainder is some less hit-and-miss notes (mostly on top), some extra force, and a truly distinguished sheen to the sound. Nevertheless she's by far the most effective exponent of Isolde the current Met production has seen, and her debut last night in the part was the sort of huge success to make reprise performances superfluous. Well, maybe not quite superfluous.

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It should come as no surprise to any who've seen her that Meier, despite coming cold to the revival, was the most dramatically engaged performer on stage. For the first part of the opening act it felt a bit like she was feeling out the production and how to adapt her embodiment of the character to its frame. But by the time she sank limp and dead-eyed into Brangäne's support after uttering her wholehearted curse, Meier seemed completely at home -- and more Isolde than anyone in a long time.

If she's been worried about her voice in this big house, it worked -- at least for one evening. She finessed some bits, some notes did -- as for everyone -- get buried, and she had a tricky moment in the post-potion rapture, but she had telling notes from bottom to top, got to the finale with plenty of voice to sing it cleanly, and of course made the most of the notes that came out. Her individual portions of the three acts all naturally demanded and rewarded attention: an active and responsive Isolde, convincingly by turns proud, hurt, and angry, then impatient and in love, then -- by the end -- rapt in a not-at-all-lewdly orgasmic transfiguration.

Truly remarkable for someone who'd just flown into town to sing her very first Met Isolde.

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The rest of the cast was a mix. I almost feel ridiculous knocking the Tristan, Peter Seiffert, because in many years one would beg to have a tenor who can sing his way through the part without shouting and with an audible (because pingy) but pleasant and basically clear lyric sound (though not, to be sure, with the remarkable lyric beauty of early Heppner). But Meier's presence raises the stakes, and Seiffert's idea of his character is just impossible. His Act I Tristan is all "Tristan der Held", without a trace of the "Tantris" who came wounded to Isolde before that fatal and decisive moment in which their eyes first met (to which the action, language, and music of the opera ever seek to return). With the energetic and arrogant carelessness of a victorious athlete he bounds around, apparently buying his own PR. This befits the young Siegfried, but as Tristan it's nonsense: Tristan still, as he cryptically hints to Isolde before drinking the potion, loves her, but his return to the outside world bound him to duty and obligation. In Wagner's scheme the potion doesn't create the mutual love, it allows the characters to indulge it (or, more precisely, to attempt to recreate the world in its image). And yet no sign of love is audible or visible in Seiffert, and therefore no reason for him to be so unhappy as to accept the cup of (he thinks) poison.

The obvious contrast is Ben Heppner, whose portrayal this spring was not just well-sung but deeply conceived and inhabited. He begins grave, stoic: outwardly resolute, but -- plain to the audience -- as internally roiled by emotion as Isolde herself. The potion, as Tristan notes upon drinking, is a release: either way, one side will have won, whether by the external squashing the internal for good (by his death), or -- as he does not expect -- the internal being let upon the world and reasserting dominance, regardless of external consequences (by the philtre). And Heppner acts lightened, liberated from duality, and even more so as the long-impeded love shines out (not least from his all-important-to-the-story eyes). Seiffert, sad to say -- and perhaps assistant stage directors Gina Lapinski and Stephen Pickover are somewhat to blame -- just starts pawing and smooching Isolde without psychic revelation.

But let's say one goes along with the somewhat traditional misunderstanding of the potion as the origin of their love. Acts II and III still require a lovestruck Tristan, and it's not Seiffert. There is no night in him -- neither in his voice, nor his phrases, nor his actions -- and his fate of dying for love seems ever some cosmic joke, a thing picked for ultimate incongruity with his self, which never does change from Act I. His desire for Isolde seems some combination of randiness and self-satisfaction, his philosophizing thereon a humorous put-on. Did he brew the fatal potion himself, as Tristan at one point (metaphorically) claims in Act III? Not even a little bit. The whole business of falling in love and dying of it -- even to the very end, in his actual death -- seems some weird external compulsion in which he has no convincing part.

I've gone on too long. He did, I think, sing well, which is more than most Tristans can say.

Supporting players also sang well, particularly Michelle DeYoung as Brangäne -- warmer, I think, than in spring, and with a nice physical rapport with Meier -- and Kwangchul Youn as King Marke -- sound not as pointed as Rene Pape's, but very impressive in the house and used with surprising subtlety. No complaints there.

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Finally, conductor Daniel Barenboim. He got a huge ovation to start, after each intermission, and at curtain calls his noise outdid all but Meier's. On the other hand, a significant number of people at this run haven't been all that impressed.

Both sides may, in their way, be right. Barenboim's Wagner is quite far from James Levine' (and, indeed, Loren Maazel's -- the last guest Wagnerian). Levine shapes on the scale of a scene, even a Wagnerian Act, phrasing strongly but always keeping the proportion of the whole; but Barenboim gives each phrased gesture its independent completeness, piling these often disparate wholes together as building blocks for long forms in a sort of musical pointillism. The styles seem to appeal quite strongly to different ears: Barenboim's fans find his approach more natural and organic, while I (for example) find myself getting a bit seasick; Levine's detractors find his complementary focus on glowing sound dulling (I find in this music that the persistent evocation of a most transient thing -- sweet physical beauty in soundwaves -- induces the Wagnerian longing); as (you will have guessed) a Barenboim naysayer I find his characteristic sonic excitement (from the ever-shifting play of tempo, attack, and phrase) more obfuscation than revelation; etc.

In any case, the evening was, I think, a great success on Barenboim's terms. Were that my ears and brain better wired to appreciate it: to those unhappy with the Levine aesthetic, for example, it must have been a revelatory breath of fresh air.

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So, a remarkable one-off? Maybe. If I were Peter Gelb... Meier's now actually in town, and Queen of Spades is ending this afternoon. So if Seiffert and Dalayman were indisposed again for just one performance, couldn't...?

OK, probably not. But it would be something.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.