Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Under cover of the night

March 26, 2008

A vague general scene
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2008

In case you're wondering why I've chosen such a distant vague picture to go along with this post, it's because it's the only one I could find vague enough to represent all the various casting permutations that have plagued the Metropolitan Opera's run of Tristan und Isolde. I'll admit I was curious to see what would transpire after all of the unusual cancellations and replacements leading up to tonight's performance, but I didn't expect this surprise - Heppner actually showed up. Of course the down side is that Voigt didn't. Despite all the clucking from various quarters about whether or not she is an ideal Isolde, the Voigt/Heppner pairing was the major excuse for seeing this somewhat silly production in the first place, so I must admit I was a little bit disappointed to see that Janice Baird had been called in again to cover. Of course, on the bright side it appears that no one else has gotten to see what they initially paid to see in this run, though Friday may be yet another story entirely.

In any event, Heppner was back from Canada for the first time in the run and now apparently sans pelvic abscess. Now let it be said that nothing that results in a pelvic abscess is going to heal quickly. So considering Heppner had not been around to benefit from all of Isolde's magic healing potions over the last two weeks, it should be no surprise to anyone that he was less than stellar. By Act III he was quickly unraveling with lots of cracking throughout. He was obviously working very hard to pull this off and in some ways this played into his hands because this was one Tristan who clearly looked like he was hanging on for dear life. It was a relief when he made it to the end, and it must be said that his ability to manage the performance he did for the first two thirds of the evening is a testament to his stamina and mastery of this role.

Ironically, the evening will stand out more in my mind due to Janice Baird’s first complete performance of the opera in this particular run. Although she had previously gotten a couple of good acts in when Voigt bailed mid-way through last week, Baird had yet to get a chance to go all the way through here on the Met stage. She was an unknown quantity to me and, I imagine, most of the audience, and she was actually quite good. She hit the notes and had sufficient volume and staying power throughout. She is certainly better than some other Isoldes I’ve heard recently in that she is expressive despite the fact that her singing and acting are fairly mannered. She has a myriad of open-handed gestures that can be used as a rough guide to what’s about to come out of her mouth, but she did have plenty of honest-to-goodness feeling in there as well. Hell, I'd pay to hear her again.

Of course the supporting cast, which included Matti Salminen, Michelle DeYoung, and Richard Paul Fink were all excellent. James Levine and the orchestra were first class all the way and, as it has been noted by others, are the main reason to see the show at this point. The Diter Dorn production is a low-rent Robert Wilson knock-off that is evocative and modern in the most inoffensive way, which still makes it better than 80% of the Zeffirelli-like garbage that is regularly trotted out on the Met stage. So while it wasn’t the most engaging Tristan ever, it was far from painful or a waste of time. And who knows what surprises may lie in store for Friday’s audience in the last performance of the run.


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