La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Met in HD: Tristan und Isolde

The current run of Tristan und Isolde at the Met has had more than its share of high drama, and not always the desirable kind. It all began with the indisposition of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner. This was supposed to be the much anticipated reprise of his Tristan, one of his most celebrated roles. And he was paired with soprano Deborah Voigt in her first Met Isolde. With these two great singers, supported by Wagnerian luminaries Matti Salminen and Michelle DeYoung, it was a highly anticipated event.

But things did not go smoothly from the start in this ill-starred revival. Heppner was feeling unwell throughout the rehearsal period, suffering from chills and fever. Doctors in New York misdiagnosed it as a "simple" case of virus. According to news report, he flew back to Toronto to undergo tests at the North York General Hospital. He was subsequently diagnosed as having a blood-borne infection that has abscessed in his pelvic region, requiring heavy doses of antibiotics and a surgical procedure to drain the infection. Heppner is still scheduled for the remaining two performances this coming week, although the chance of his singing is unknown. He was replaced in the orchestra rehearsal and the final dress by another Canadian, tenor John Mac Master, who was picked to sing opening night. I heard the broadcast on Sirius Radio. Reportedly suffering from allergies, Mac Master struggled in the middle and lower parts his voice, particularly during the lengthy Act 2 Love Duet. He was able to summon sufficient resources and sang an honorable Act 3. In the end, he had to face, undeservedly, boos from a few members of the Met audience at the final curtain. However, it should be noted that the second solo curtain call, he was met with only cheers.

Given the unfortunate reception for Mac Master, the Met management felt it necessary to find another cover. American tenor Gary Lehman, who has had Wagner experiences but had not sung Tristan previously, was quickly pressed into service. He sang the second performance and was well received by the audience. Like a comedy of errors, it was Voigt's turn to get sick. She walked off the stage during the Act 2 Love Duet due to stomach upset. The curtain came down the the performance resumed shortly with her cover, American soprano Janice Baird. Baird is a well known Wagnerian in Europe and is scheduled to sing Brunnhilde for Seattle in summer 2009. Both leads had a success in the second performance, but the drama didn't end there. The staging of the opening of Act 3 has Tristan prostrate on a raked stage with his head pointed downstage. In the third performance, a malfunction of the stage machinery sent Lehman into the prompter's box, close to the open flame which was part of the staging. The performance came to a grinding halt. Lehman was not hurt and the performance resumed in about 8 minutes with no further incident, thankfully.

With the string of mishaps, the fourth performance yesterday, telecast in movie theatres worldwide, understandably put the production team and the more knowledgeable members of the audience on edge. I am happy to report that everything came together and the result was a terrific performance witnessed by a large international audience. Deborah Voigt appears to have regained a few pounds of the huge amount of weight she had lost. While not everyone agrees that weight and voice have any direct relationship, all I can say is that in her case, she sounds better than she has been since her gastric bypass surgery two years ago. For my money, her modest weight gain now may well have contributed to her improved vocal estate and overall stamina in this punishing role. The voice is better supported, and the top firmer and less shrill. The first of her two high Cs in the beginning of the love duet was particularly strong. Throughout the opera, she sang with gleaming tone, in crystal clear German (unlike the mushy German of Michelle DeYoung, the Brangaene), only tiring during the Liebestod. That last ten minutes found her struggling with flat intonation, particularly near the end, when she fought hard to stay on pitch and largely not succeeding. This is forgivable given the overall quality of her performance. Her acting was more involved than I had previously experienced. She was partnered by American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who has a notable career in Europe, including Bayreuth, in the heldentenor fach. Scheduled to make his Met debut as the Kaiser in Die Frau ohne Schatten in 2009, this performance marked his unscheduled debut, and it was an auspicious one. His Tristan combined beauty of tone with impressive stamina, unflagging in his vocalism throughout the lengthy delirium scene in Act 3. His acting was less interesting, but given he had no rehearsal, it was understandable.

The rest of the cast was strong. Eike Wilm Schulte sang firmly as Kurwenal; Michelle DeYoung an unusually youthful Brangaene, more sisterly than matronly. She started tentatively and sounded underpowered, but quickly warmed up to give an estimable performance. And it was a pleasure to hear the magnificent "black bass" of Matti Salminen as King Marke. It appears age is finally catching up with this great singer, evidenced by an incipient slow vibrato that has crept into his voice. But he is still head and shoulders above the others. James Levine has been much praised in Wagner and for good reason - his conducting has all the power and sweep one has come to expect and he managed to make the five and a half hour opera go by in a flash.

Now to the production itself. I saw this in the house some years ago with Heppner and Eaglen; and that run was subsequenly telecast and released on DVD. I have to say I am not too fond of the Dieter Dorn-Jurgen Rose production, which I find idiosyncratic and visually unsuited to the video camera. With this new attempt which draws upon new HD technology, some of my original complaints have been dispelled. Canadian Barbara Sweete, hired by Peter Gelb to do the telecast, liberally employed split screens and multiple images. It has the effect of creating movement in the opera where there is none. Remember we are dealing with an essentially static work, accentuated by a minimalist, highly formalized production. Sweete succeeded in introducing a certain visual variety. When the multiple images first appeared in Act One, I found the effect striking. But by Act Two, its frequency had increased to such an extent that it was almost distracting - a case of too much of a good thing perhaps. Unlike others who have commented negatively on this, I *liked* the concept of multiple images when it is used judiciously, and in a way that does not impede the drama and the overall context of the piece. Given this technique is still in the experimental stage at the Met, some of these issues will likely be resolved out in future telecasts. On this occasion, there were breathtakingly beautiful moments throughout - particularly memorable was the closeup of the two lovers on a dimly lit stage during a quiet moment near the end of the love duet. Moments like that are simply not accessible to the audience in the theatre, no matter how powerful the opera glass! In the theatre when I last saw the production, the two lovers were seen in silhouette, given the back-lit stage. There was simply no visual nuance possible. In fact, one critic (who shall remain nameless) made the nasty remark that the silhouettes of Heppner and Eaglen looked like two large sacks of garden leaves! What I am driving at is that this production poses special challenges for the live audience and the TV camera. Given the constraints, I thought the videography of this telecast was superb.

Technically, this performance as seen at Cinema 6 at the Sheppard Grande represented the first time that the satellite transmission was flawless - no frozen picture, no distorted sound, just five and a half hours of pure enjoyment. If I were to quibble, strangely the sound in Act 3 was much louder than Acts 1 and 2, and near the upper limit of human tolerance. Other than that, I have no complaints. So kudos to the Met and Sheppard Grande. Let's hope this continues!

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  • It is interesting that you say that your HD presentation was "flawless" where you saw it. I attended a screening at the Regal Cineplex at Broadway and 13th Street in NYC, and the video was lost for a good 10 or 15 minutes near the start of Act III (I couldn't have chosen a better time if this had to happen). A theater spokesperson announced to the auditorium that the problem was with the transmission everywhere, not just in our theater, and that they were on the phone trying to work out the problem.
    I give the theater credit for telling the audience was was going on and, as we left, for giving each of us a free pass as a make-good to a film of our choice at one of their theaters in the future.

    But you say you experienced no problem. That is interesting. I wonder where else the transmission problem may have occurred.

    By the way, I agree with you that the multiple images technique was over used, but I also feel that with practice it could be done to very good effect. It seemed a little gratuitous at times, but with a tighter directing script and the use of fades, dissolves and pans (a la Ken Burns perhaps), or other less intrusive ways to transition to and from the multiple images, it could definitely compliment the presentation.

    I also agree that Robert Dean Smith deserved high praise. He was very much "in his league" at the Met. He produced a very Tristan-like sound, I thought, and wondered if that was because her reminded me of a previous singer known for that role. But finding that connection, if it exists, must await some research in my record collection.

    Thanks for your interesting post.

    Jeffrey Hildt
    New York City

    By Blogger Jeffrey, At 24 March 2008 at 03:03  

  • I was at the Sheppard Grande as well, cinema 1. There were some minor technical blips, but hardly as bad as in previous operas. What really bothers me is the casual tone of the event -- opera as picnic. Hey folks, this isn't Glyndeborne. And what's with the huge tubs of buttered popcorn? How revolting! Almost on a par with an audience that would boo a last minute replacement.


    By Blogger Brian, At 24 March 2008 at 15:48  

  • I thought the split screen effects were offensive, akin to power point 101.Wagner does not need enhancement such as this. I found the multi-images intrusive, ill-judged and typically ill-timed, splitting the great big screen and detracting from the simple, geometric, and well-lit set. Audience members were angry about it in the intermissions and booed the cinematographer during the credits.
    Please don't do this again!

    By Blogger Desiree, At 25 March 2008 at 13:59  

  • I attended in Montreal (Starcité) and the retransmission was almost flawless (a very short freezing at one point, but not 15 minutes like some other people experienced).
    It was mostly enjoyable but I have three complains.
    1) The sound in our cinema was much too loud. I’m sure a live performance doesn’t sound that loud even if you were in the middle of the orchestra. That said, that’s alas the standard in cinema theatres nowadays. Probably for the deaf iPod generation...
    2) The split screen was truly annoying. I like the way De Palma used it in “Phantom of the Paradise”, a polyphonic way to present simultaneous things happening. In Met’s Tristan the split screen looked like a retransmission of some sport event. This looked very amateurish in my opinion.
    3) The subtitles were only in English. I’m French speaking living in Montreal, I was expecting that somehow they could adapt subtitles to local languages. I feel comfortable with English but the strange vocabulary used in Tristan left me wondering sometimes. At least they were distributing French summaries of the 3 acts.
    The first one is the most serious one and I hope they will fix it for the next representations.
    The performers were all good, Tristan was a bit static but that was expected considering he had almost no rehearsal.

    By Anonymous Emmanuel, At 25 March 2008 at 15:30  

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