New York — The Metropolitan Opera's revival -- after an absence of seven seasons -- of its now-legendary "Tristan and Isolde" presents a gloom picture of the state of Wagner at that house.
At the end of the fourth performance there was booing, as there was at the premiere -- something that used to be unheard of at the Met, except for such specious things as the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of "Der fliegende Hollander."
It is not pleasant to hear an artist booed. Nevertheless, there was the aura of inevitability about the performance, -- a heavy, turgid aura that almost demanded this awful response for release from the frustration.
When this production was new, Birgit Nilsson was the world's reigning Isolde. Today, Gwyneth Jones is probably the most in demand in that role internationally. When this revival was first planned, Leonie Rysanek was to have portrayed the Irish princess for the first time in her career. When the withdrew (for personal reasons), Miss Jones was signed on.
Partnering her in this revival were Spas Wenkoff, Bayreuth's Tristan of the day, Donal McIntyre as Kurwenal, Tatiana Troyanos as Brangane, and the Finnish bass Matti Salminen as King Marke. In the pit, James Levine was conducting his first round of Met "Tristans."
No one need to be told how brilliant Levine can be. At his best, he has infused the house with new musical vitality and a level of excellence. By the same token, the first few nights of a run are rarely good for Levine in works he has not conducted frequently in the past.
Even by those standards, however, this "Tristan" marks some sort of grim nadir for the Met music director. For the first time, a Levine evening lacked viewpoint, any sense of something more than a straight run-through. It was all consistently too loud, too lacking in detail (a few marvelous things aside), too wanting in musical direction or purpose. Color, drama, even passion were simply not to be found. One could expect such a performance from a hack or a routinerm , but Levine is neither -- he is one of the most gifted opera conductors of the day.
Perhaps the grueling process of piecing together a poststrike season, while honoring his other requirements, has clearly put more of a burden on this amazingly energetic conductor than even Levine must have expected. His concert with the New York Philharmonic suffered from loudness of the unrelieved variety as well.
Berlioz's "Harold in Italy" was marvelously performed, but quite aggressive on the decibel side. The poetry one seeks in Brahms's First Symphony was to be heard only outside the United States. In the final movement, the haunting horn solos came forth like the klaxon of Armageddon, and for the rest of the night, the Philharmonic played just about as badly as one ever thought to hear a major orchestra with such a reputation play.
Some of the blame could be affixed to the orchestra, yet much had to go to Levine. The Met orchestra, too, had its raucous moments. But that could hardly account for the unrelieved loudness of Levine's conducting. What that loudness does to Wagner is lamentable. What it does to singers is unfair.
Miss Jones resorted to volume rather than poetry. She is indomitable -- the volume in the upper range never lets up (the low register barely exists), and only the pitch falters as the evening progresses. It is not pliant, at those volumes it is not all that expressive -- though she had her moments -- and her portrayal is rather frantic histrionically. What was most surprising was how often familiar passages sounded quite unfamiliarm with Miss Jone's vargaries of pitch.
If she offered a gutsy endurance test, Mr. Wenkoff presented a cipher -- a light sort of voice that never stood a chance in this house. His stage presence was also lacking this time, with only two expressions in his histrionic catalog. Mr. Salminen showed great force and imagination in his treatment of Marke, though the role lies a bit too high for him and he ran into severe problems near the end of his monologue. Still, the Finnish bass, making his Met debut in the role, has a voice of grand roundness at the bottom with a certain dryness up top. Miss Troyanos had one of her better recent nights, even if Brangane is not an ideal role for her (very few Wagner roles are in a house the size of the Met).
The production has been reworked by the director, August Everding, and the designer, Gunther Schneider-Siemssen. In the love music, when the pair rise into a starry eternal night, the projections are less numerous and less interesting than before, leading to a certain lack of magic, not to mention variety. Gil Wechsler's lighting is very dim -- at times characters look more like film projections than real people, and expressions are hard to discern. Even more odd, Tristan disappears before Isolde begins the "Liebestod," slightly distorting Wagner's intent. It remains a mighty fine production, and deserves a cast assembled because someone at the Met has heard the singers in their roles, not just because someone sings at Bayreuth or other European houses.
Indeed, this standard of vocalism is shocking. Roberta Knie and Richard Cassilly are the second-cast lovers. Cassilly has proved, as Tannhauser and Othello, that his voice has the size and stamina for a Tristan, and he should have been the first and only Metropolitan Tristan. Everyone would have benefited, including Wagner.