Tristan und Isolde
The Metropolitan Opera
continued its series of HD simulcasts to movie theaters with a performance of Tristan und Isolde on Saturday. This year’s run of the opera is likely to end up in the annals of performances that are, in the diplomatic words of Met General Manager Peter Gelb, “somewhat star-crossed.” This was to have been (and may yet be) an epoch-making Tristan, starring two of the greatest Wagnerian singers of our time, Deborah Voight and Ben Heppner, conducted by one of the greatest of the composer’s contemporary interpreters, James Levine, in a starkly but beautifully simple production by director Dieter Dorn and designer Jürgen Rose. But it was not to be.

Ben Heppner took ill with a viral infection and had to cancel his appearances, although he may have recovered enough to sing the last two performances later this week. His initial replacement was deemed inadequate and removed after a single performance, and was replaced by Gary Lehman. Then, at the second performance, Deborah Voight became ill in the middle of the second act and had to leave the stage to be replaced by her understudy. In the third performance, because of a malfunction in the stage machinery, Mr. Lehman was thrown into the prompter’s box (!), but fortunately didn’t sustain any serious injuries, and the performance was resumed. (Amazingly, these circumstances pale in comparison with those of the opera’s 1865 premiere: the Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died of a heart attack soon after the premiere, although he was only 29, and Wagner blamed himself for writing a role so physically and psychologically grueling that it precipitated the singer’s death.)

It’s easy to imagine that tension was running high before the Saturday performance, which would be simulcast on radio and in hundreds of theaters, and was to feature yet another Tristan, Robert Dean Smith, who had not even seen the set before stepping onto it. But happily, the performance was a triumph, and any audience member who wasn’t aware of the circumstances might never have guessed that the performers went into it with anything but the utmost confidence. James Levine’s conducting of the beginning of the Prelude was conventional and unremarkable, but by its conclusion, he had stirred up a fiery urgency in the orchestra that he sustained throughout the rest of the opera. His sense of pacing is remarkably acute, and pacing is among the most critical elements in making Tristan so poignant.

Deborah Voight was a riveting presence as Isolde, seething with rage in the first act; it was impossible to take your eyes off her. After she drank the love potion and looked at Tristan, you could see all that fury draining out of her face and body, replaced by joy and pleasure. She sang with power and radiance throughout the opera, and embodied Isolde’s passions both vocally and dramatically. Far from just a stand-in, Robert Dean Smith was a revelation as Tristan -- someone who could grow into a great interpreter of the role. His voice is clarion-bright throughout his range, but with a wide range of colors that suit the shifting expressive demands of the role. He had the stamina to sing the third act with as much power as he had brought to the first two. He was somewhat adrift dramatically in the third act, which is entirely understandable given his lack of any rehearsal whatsoever, but there was genuine electricity (and obviously, spontaneity) in his tender moments with Isolde -- these were clearly characters who had never held each other’s bodies romantically or kissed before, and their fumbling embraces were completely realistic.

Michelle deYoung has a warm, soaring voice, and made a dramatically compelling Brangäne. Eike Wilm Schulte sang Kurvenal with solidity, but his acting was practically non-existent, and he never took his eyes off the prompter’s box. Matti Salminen made a sympathetic King Marke. His extended second act monologue, lamenting his betrayal by those dearest to him, may be the most embarrassing scene (for the characters) in all opera, and Salminen made the most of its excruciating painfulness.

Jürgen Rose’s set is exquisitely simple, and is effective for the most part, although it was hard to know what to make of the toy-sized horses, armor-clad knights and castles that dotted the landscape of the final act. It’s difficult to fully evaluate Dieter Dorn’s direction, since Mr. Smith had had no rehearsal, but it must have been sound, based on the complexity and strength of the bond he establishes between Isolde and Brangäne.

A serious flaw in the simulcast was the video direction. Getting opera right on video is always difficult, as the small number of truly effective video recordings of live performances attests. The error lay in too much intervention -- the audience was always so aware of the various video tricks going on that it was hard to focus on the drama and the music. The most distracting technique was shrinking the image from full screen to a small fraction of it, and often having multiple images, as many as six, playing simultaneously. These frequently centered on a close up of a single character, and while you wanted to see how they were physically relating to each other, you could only see them in isolation from each other. The most egregious misstep lay in the filming of the Liebestod. If there were ever a moment in opera when the composer’s intent was to transcend time and space and move the audience into a state of pure passion followed by pure serenity, this is it, but the camera work ruined it. In spite of Ms. Voight’s rapturous singing, the orchestra’s gorgeous playing, and the emotional intensity of the production up to this point, this was one of the least moving Liebestods I’ve experienced. Among audience members, there was far more talk about the videography than about the opera itself, and all of it was negative. There is obviously plenty of video material to work with; one hopes that before the Met releases a DVD, they will find a director who can give the material a shape that doesn’t diminish the impact of an extraordinary performance.