|Isolde ate my box of Doughnuts!|
30 March - 8 April 2000
I don't view Wagner dramas as entertainment, but as an essential part of my life in the here and now, as necessary as beer, cigarettes, potatoes and my daily dose of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 - my pre-bedtime chuckles. I feel a tremendous sense of relief when the lights dim and the sound wafting from the pit is undeniably the sound of Richard Wagner's imagination come to life. All the minor "events" that happen in my other life which consumes most of my time are forgotten entirely. I am awakened from a hazy dream, and my eyes open on a wonderful brave new world for as long as the Act lasts and then I am hurled back into a place where people want to talk and pee and drink and pee some more, while they talk on their cell phones...."hey, I'm at the urinal in the men's room of the Lyric-how's the reception?"
I am not one to talk much during intermissions of Wagner operas- I would rather they weren't necessary as they take me away from the music which had gripped me in its spell.
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During Lyric intermissions I make my way through the congested throng in the magnificent high ceilinged lobby to the smoking section out on Wacker Drive. It is often Polar-cold there and windy enough to blow the cigarette from your mouth unless you hold on with both hands. If it has been snowing and the intermission is long enough I build a small igloo to keep out the wind.
As I said, I saw three Tristans and saw each from a different part of the auditorium. My last show was from my regular subscription seat which is ten rows behind the conductor, dead center. Visually one is more involved here, as the stage fills your area of view, but most importantly, you can hear every note in the singer's compass. The seats cost a lot more than seats higher up and further back (go figure!)
So, when I recall the Lyric Tristans, much of what I recall is the beautiful sound on my third visit, which alas, did not have Ben Heppner in the cast. In his stead was a familiar name whose voice I was hearing for the first and perhaps last time- that of Jon Fredric West. He is a short stocky man with a very loud voice indeed, and stamina to burn. His German diction is crisp and he rolls his Rs with even more gusto than Eliades Ochoa (Buena Vista Social Club). Unfortunately he yells quite often and very loudly. It is unlikely that you will fall asleep while he is on stage. Ben Heppner as Tristan is a hard act to follow. I like his sound, his musicality, his control. Had Ben been there on my last night I might have witnessed the best performance of Tristan I might ever hear, as the rest of the cast was as fine as one could put on a stage.
Seen and heard up close I can have nothing negative to say about Jane Eaglen as Isolde -- none of her lower notes got lost in the orchestral fabric, nor did the high notes thin out as they can when heard from far back. The Lyric is a very large house with over 3000 seats and no side boxes. When you are close enough you can testify to her acting ability using facial expressions and body language.
The Tristan libretto doesn't call for any dancing or skipping or trapeze work. Is she my ideal Isolde? No, but I cannot bring back the dead nor those in retirement and past their prime. Jane is a fine singer but I recoil when people talk in terms of "the next Flagstad". I love to listen to Helen Traubel. I adore her voice even though it has flaws in some of the recordings I have. She has a warm thrilling sound of awesome power and emotion. She is dead, alas.
Wolf recently sent me a Berlin Tristan radio broadcast tape with the flawed but exciting Isolde of Deborah Polaski. Based on this recording I would travel a goodly distance to hear her in the flesh, even though, like Traubel, I might hear some milk-curdling high notes along the way. It cannot be an easy sing.
Michelle de Young IS Brangäne! You can take that to the bank. Hers is a lustrous voice, well schooled. She is also a handsome looking woman. Alan Held IS Kurwenal! You can take that to the post office and while you are there get me some stamps. I first became aware of him as Donner in the Met Ring video and am happy to see he will be singing in the 3rd cycle of the Ring at the Met. I will be there.....just one month away!! He is a tall commanding figure with a tall commanding voice, and were I to win the lottery or to carry off a successful jewelry heist (or "Jullery" if you are from Lawng Island), and had the means to put my own Tristan on the boards, I would immediately lean across my big desk (the Impressario model) and tell my secretary "Get me Held!"
Not for the first time, nor the last, I'll wager, before Act II I overheard some ladies behind me talking about King Marke and how "his long monologue will put you to sleep". Wagner is not famous for writing for people with a short attention span nor for people who can hardly wait for intermissions so that they might talk (and as you know they often don't wait until then to begin babbling).
When the König Marke is René Pape, his monologue seems all too brief. Even the ladies behind me were quiet as mice as this superb singer shared his artistry with us. Has it ever been sung as beautifully as this? Not in any recordings I have heard to date. When it came time, after the curtain had closed on Jane's "Mild und Leise" and the singers came forward to accept the applause of the audience it was Pape who received on all three occasions the most vociferous acclaim.
I barely speak during an evening of Wagner opera. I will join up with friends after my smoke break and stand amidst them with my glass of champagne or whisky, listening to their reactions to that which they had just witnessed. I may nod if someone looks my way but really have little to say. I don't go there to "review" the performance, I go there because I have no choice- I have to hear this music and see and hear the drama played out.
* * * *
The Tristans I heard recently in Chicago were the highlights of my last opera season which had begun in September and ended March 18th when I attended the final Carmen performance.
To be honest I don't go to the opera house expecting to hear a definitive Tristan performance or one which I will play at home repeatedly (from radio broadcasts) to the exclusion of older performances captured over the years in live performance. There are Tristan recordings a plenty, none of which I could describe as "perfect" aurally (and who knows what they looked like on a stage)
I shy away from anything with Lauritz Melchior as I don't like his sound at all, even though I have been trying to for the past five years. If I hear him at all it is because I have to in order to hear Kirsten Flagstad. I do listen to recordings with Nilsson as I like some of her tenor partners, namely Windgassen and Vickers.
As my expectations for a magnificent "Tristan for the Ages" are usually not high, I am seldom bitterly disapponted. There are always some great singing performances, even if only among the smaller roles and above all, the band can usually make the glorious music come to life and make the evening worthwhile.
When you hold a ticket to an opera you should feel privileged for many people have not discovered opera and do not have it to enrich their lives. Many, were they to hear and love the music, have not the means to pay for the tickets nor a house in which to enjoy an opera within hundreds of miles. Many people don't have electricity to power a CD player nor an indoor toilet on which to read the latest issue of Opera News.
If you can read this you at least have electricity and enough money to buy a computer and can count yourself lucky.
It is no crime to continually seek perfection, only folly to expect it around every corner and be disappointed when it is not there. I go to the Opera because I like how it feels to enjoy a performance. Like everyone else, it was at one time a completely NEW experience to me. Now, with 200 or more live performances attended since July 1993 I am far from jaded.
Many of the singers I love to listen to at home stopped singing before I joined the party but you won't hear me whimpering and yearning for the "Golden Age" or the "good old days" for I am practical and living in the here and now.
I would love to be able to go "back in time" but every Time Machine I have bought from magazines or web adverts has been absolutely useless and when I call to complain the number has been disconnected.
Still, I mustn't grumble. I have recordings of singers no longer with us, thanks to the miracle of recorded sound and I get to leave the house and hear the contemporary singers who are out there working. Many of them may grow and learn and become better singers, making good choices in repertoire and working with conductors who will foster their growth. Some may even lose weight as that seems to be a major concern for many Opera lovers.
I am slim and always have been and yet have a considerable appetite for food. While I often wonder how really heavy people, whose skeletal shape is in no way apparent, can move around and function, I would never dream of hiding their box of doughnuts. They can look in the mirror and see how they look and if they are comfortable with the image or are resigned to looking that way, despite being unhappy about it, it is up to them and not me, to change their appearance.
If, for instance, Jane Eaglen's appearance "bothered" me and I found it impossible to look at her while singing Isolde, then I would perhaps do the smart thing and stay at home (or sit with my eyes closed) as opposed to going to the theatre and then whining about her weight to anyone who would listen when I got home.
Even if she were to have a voice that would make your Flagstad records gather dust she will always (unless she loses weight) have the stigma of being heavier than ye or me. It is likely to be a talking point in every review she will ever have, but I think it says more about the reviewer than about her.
Lauritz Melchior enjoys a great reputation, an almost blind devotion among many. Have you seen the photographs of him in a Lohengrin costume? Is this the ideal voice and persona combination? Is Caruso how you imagine Rodolfo? (Is Callas the ideal Tosca? You Betcha!! )
Jane Eaglen at this point is NOT the "next Kirsten Flagstad" but she may develop, and the voice may grow upon you more. Or it may not. She is a working singer who has, simply put, "a job to do", and she has to do it with the body shape she has. If she could lose her excess weight I am sure she would.
Visually Waltraud Meier fits the bill as Isolde, but having seen her last July in Bayreuth, I wished she had had Jane's voice. Jane's voice doesn't get to my heart the way say, Traubel's or Harshaw's does, but she is a good singer, who has earned her place on the world's Opera stages. Thanks to her study of the role of Isolde, I get to hear Tristan and Isolde performed in America.
I hope to hear a more incendiary Isolde and see one who is as shapely as the Isolde of my imagination in a production that makes me suspend disbelief, with a band that is on fire, and for that reason I will continue to seek out live performances of this wonderful creation.
In the meantime I give thanks to people like Jane Eaglen who have had the courage to get on a stage and give it their best shot. She obviously loves to sing Wagner and the fact that she is well paid for her work is fine by me. Good luck to her.
Now, with a fresh glass of beer and a new pack of Marlboro Lights 100s I am off to listen to Helen Traubel sing "Mild und Leise", before putting the cat out for the night.
I don't even know how much Helen weighed....and yet...I could care less!
* * * *
I no longer take notes during the performance. My typewriter was confiscated in Bayreuth. I just sit there and let myself be moved by the music, often toward the bar or toward a taxi. I wish it were not so: I get little pleasure from leaving an opera early but even less from sitting there, numb to the proceedings.
A good performance though, makes up for the few disappointments and keeps me coming back for more.
The Chicago Tristan performances in January, February and March more than washed away the memory of less stellar nights at the hands of lesser composers and lesser singers.
My last performance of the season was March 18th- a Carmen featuring the delectable and sensuous D Graves and R Leech, who was in better voice than I have heard him of late and as Carmens go it was a fine night indeed, even though I missed the spoken recitative which I prefer. The star of the show was the Michaela of Carla Maria Izzo, who sounds as good as she looks. We were however treated to a pantomime execution of Jose in Act 1 and again in Act IV, this time with some very noisy stage guns....really....what's the point?
I believe in capital punishment, but usually after the trial, not before. Lyric Opera of Chicago next year brings us The Flying Dutchman and of course I will be there. Whether or not I care for the Operas they produce in a season is open to debate, I have to tip my hat to the Lyric company for their professionalism, their creative abilities, both in the pit and in putting the opera onstage, and for their chorus, second to none in the USA.
They also have the two coolest guys selling librettos in the lobby.
If you have never visited the Lyric in Chicago, it is never too late!
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