by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 31, 2008.
When you think of how many things could go wrong in the course of an average evening of opera—a mighty dungeon wall might totter to one side, a spear-toting extra might step on a diva’s ten-foot train, trombones of fate might bleat out of tune—you have to be a little amazed that the Metropolitan Opera and other leading houses so routinely rise to a level of dull excellence. Opera is a high-risk entertainment in which the shame of failure is heightened by the solemnity of the proceedings: the frozen attitudes of nobility and passion, the towering sets of pseudo-antique character, the expectant hush before the curtain rises. And, as singers are well aware, the hush is never entirely innocent in nature. Any true fan who claims to attend opera solely in the hope of encountering sublime displays of vocal and dramatic mastery is putting you on. Certainly, operagoers cherish those rare occasions when all variables intersect to create the appearance of perfection; but they hold just as dearly to the memory of those unmagical nights when it all falls spectacularly apart. The gladiatorial aspect of opera is as old as opera itself. No other art form is so exquisitely contrived to create fiasco.
The official canon of opera debacles includes such episodes as Leo Slezak missing the swan boat in “Lohengrin” and asking, “When does the next swan leave?”; Birgit Nilsson singing Isolde opposite three different Tristans, one per act; and a heavyset Tosca jumping off the parapet and bouncing back up from a hidden trampoline (an apocryphal but irresistible story). Last season, at La Scala, Roberto Alagna wrote himself into the book of opera chaos by storming offstage after the opening aria in “Aida,” his pride wounded by scattered boos. Thanks to YouTube, such moments will live on forever, or however long YouTube lasts. The most priceless aspect of the “Aida” imbroglio was the double take delivered by Ildikó Komlósi, the mezzo singing Amneris, as she turned around to find a replacement tenor embodying Radames, his rumpled gray blouse suggesting a change of scene from ancient Egypt to the bargain floor at H & M.
The other night at the Met, I witnessed a performance of “Tristan und Isolde” that belongs in a category of its own. For a few hypnotically awful minutes, it flirted with farce, and then it somehow righted itself, so that listeners forgot whatever backstage hysteria they had been conjuring in their minds. Despite the fact that the celebrity tenor originally advertised for Tristan could not appear, that his substitute had never sung the part, that the hyper-orgasmic duet in Act II was interrupted by an awkward ten-minute pause, and that two different women portrayed Isolde, Wagner’s masterpiece remained intact. Fans got their money’s worth: disaster and triumph in one night.
There were wry grins in the audience before the performance began. It was the second night of the run; on the first, the tenor John Mac Master had substituted for the ailing Ben Heppner, and had reportedly fallen somewhat short of adequacy, facing La Scala-style boos at curtain call. Now a forty-four-year-old singer named Gary Lehman, who recently made successful appearances at the Los Angeles Opera, would have a crack at Tristan, which is often considered the most taxing tenor part in the repertory. Just after seven o’clock, Peter Gelb, the general manager, walked before the curtain, his face betraying a half-rueful, half-gleeful expression, to announce that this would be not only Lehman’s Met début but also his first attempt at the role. Let’s hope that the tenor didn’t hear the subsequent gasps and laughter.
Act I came and went; Lehman survived. He is a tall, lanky, lightly bearded man who looked the part of the doomed hero. He showed a sure command of the music and shaped phrases with a feeling for the pungent rise and fall of Wagner’s poetry. His voice had a dry, slightly rough quality that turned edgy at the top of the range, but in softer, lower-lying passages he succeeded in bringing out the character’s tenderness. Deborah Voigt, as Isolde, wasn’t in her best voice, but she sailed through Isolde’s high-flying passages with her usual zest. The dynamic between the singers was fun to watch: the star guided the newcomer until he could hold his own.
The first intermission ran longer than expected. Was Lehman already in trouble? No, he launched into the huge Act II duet more confidently than before. Voigt let loose two questionable, almost shouted high Cs, but she, too, seemed liberated. Then, a few minutes into the duet, as Tristan rages against the day for taking his lover away, Voigt suddenly blanched, bent over, and dashed off the stage. Lehman, obviously confused, continued singing. The curtain descended, blocking him out completely. Even after the orchestra had stopped, there were still a few stray notes from behind the curtain. The houselights came on. A stage manager announced that Voigt had been taken ill—it was reported the next day that she was suffering from a stomach flu—and that Janice Baird, her cover, would take over. The ten-minute interruptus followed. Then the curtain rose to reveal Baird in costume, not quite beaming with excitement. An enormous round of applause from the audience must have steadied her nerves.
Baird is a slender, striking dramatic soprano with a considerable reputation in Europe; she will sing Brünnhilde at the Seattle Opera next year. She, too, had never appeared at the Met. It would be unfair to compare her with Voigt, who has long been a favorite with the house. And there is surely no crazier place to begin a performance than in the midst of Act II, during the most tumultuous love scene in opera. All things considered, Baird did exceptional work. From the start, she sang with an innate sense of the long line. Although her voice tended flat for much of the night, it had a fundamentally lovely sheen, dark yet glowing. Her voice may not be quite big enough for Isolde or Brünnhilde at the Met, but it might shine in the lighter Wagner soprano roles. Lehman, meanwhile, maintained a subtle intensity. His voice was seldom purely beautiful, but it held the attention and never gave out, even during the gruelling monologues of Act III. In the end, he delivered an earthy, honest, and, under the circumstances, very brave performance. I’m curious to hear what he does next. He might make an arresting Peter Grimes; he already has the weathered, haunted look.
As the two leads made their way through the endless Act II duet, they kept their eyes fixed on James Levine rather than on each other. You had the touching impression that the conductor was the true object of their outpourings of love. And with good reason. Seemingly unfazed by the impromptu intermission, Levine maintained dramatic momentum through the remainder of the act and thereafter to the end. He declined to tailor his interpretation to the crisis at hand and confronted Lehman with some perilously slow tempos in Act III. At times, the orchestra swamped the singers, but the power of Levine’s conception gave the evening a singleness of purpose that would otherwise have been unobtainable. He was the rock against which sparks flew.
The performance ended at twenty-five minutes past midnight. In all, it fell somewhere between the Marx Brothers’ “A Night at the Opera” and “A Star Is Born,” though it was neither as ridiculous as the former nor as sentimental as the latter. The Met is an institution wealthy enough to hire richly gifted singers as covers. Whether or not Lehman and Baird go on to have major careers at the Met, they joyously upended, for at least one evening, the company’s carefully tended star system. As Gelb’s Met lays greater emphasis on marketing stars, it shouldn’t forget the primitive thrill of the unexpected, which causes the most devoted fans to return night after night. At the following performance of “Tristan,” more mayhem ensued; as an eyewitness reported on the Web site Parterre Box, a mat on which Lehman was lying in Act III suddenly coasted down the raked stage, sending him “sliding like a toboggan, headfirst upside down, right into the prompter’s box.” After another interruption, the intrepid Lehman carried on, earning himself another unscheduled eruption of applause.