Flashback Friday - - *Tristan und Isolde,* Mar 2008
This was a high-drama night at the theatre, all kinds of wonky and strange things going on with the performance. And it was the first appearance, in my reviews, of the fabled Plaid Twins.
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I know it’s been a while since I’ve written one of these - - it’s not that I haven’t been seeing anything of note, it’s that the things I’ve been seeing haven’t been newsworthy. But this run of *Tristan* at the Met, yeesh! It’s cursed!
I’m a big Wagner fan, and had seen *Tristan* twice before I bought tix for the Met production - - I saw it in Seattle and Chicago with Ben Heppner and the faded-into-the-sunset Jane Eaglen in the leads. Heppner was back for this Met production, and the role of Isolde was being sung by Deborah Voigt, her first Met Isoldes, and only her second run of Isoldes anywhere. Sure to be a dazzling night, and for $15, how can you go wrong?
Well, about a week before the first performance on Monday 3/10, the Met announced that Heppner had withdrawn from the first four performances because of a viral infection. I wasn’t too upset, since I’d heard him do it twice before, but I felt bad for people who hadn’t. The role was sung on Monday 3/10 by John Mac Master. The Times didn’t think much of him, but was gracious enough to not mention that he was BOOED. It’s not often that you hear booing at the Met, so you know it had to be bad.
My tickets were for Friday 3/14, and I went with my buddy Paul Stoller and his friend Adriana, lovely young woman from Mexico City. I knew before I got to the theater that the Tristan du jour was someone named Gary Lehman. Never heard of him. Peter Gelb (the new guy who runs the Met) came in front of the curtain before the show and said that Lehman was singing the role. He also said (I’ll translate the audience’s reaction):
GELB: This is Mr. Lehman’s Met debut…
AUDIENCE: Hm! [“Oh, how festive!”]
GELB: …and this is also the first time he’s sung the role.
AUDIENCE: Gasp! [“I can’t believe that!”] Hm… [“This could be bad.”] Chuckle chuckle. [“Oh, I shouldn’t be so critical.”]
GELB: I’m sure he’ll do a wonderful performance, WITH OUR SUPPORT.
AUDIENCE: Chuckle chuckle [“Jeez, we are a tough bunch of bitches.”]
The first act went smoothly. Lehman has a strong handsome voice, and is slender by Wagnerian standards. But since he has comparatively little to do in the first act - - he sings much more in the second, and a hell of a lot more in the third - - it was too soon to tell. Stamina is the name of the game. It’s a Herculean task, singing this role.
Deborah Voigt was very good in the first act. I never had a problem hearing her (always an issue with Wagner), and she acted up a storm. Looked great in the wig. The problem was that there wasn’t any variance in her singing - - it was strong all the time, and there are plenty of moments where she could have done something sweet and quiet and artful, but she drove past those moments at her standard 65 miles an hour.
The second act started - - Isolde and her handmaiden Brangäne are waiting for Isolde’s husband to leave so she can have a tryst with Tristan. The husband left, Tristan came onstage, and the music got very excited. Isolde has a couple of high Cs, and Voigt sounded pretty bad on them. They were C minus.
The music calmed down, they went on singing and after a bit Voigt walked offstage. Briskly. I thought, “I guess Isolde’s going to get her nightie on.” Lehman looked after her, longingly, and went on singing. The curtain started to fall - - this had happened in the first act, they use the curtain to frame the action. But it fell all the way to the floor. I thought, “This is one screwy directorial concept.” The orchestra went on playing, Lehman went on singing, from behind the curtain. He stopped singing. The lights went out in the orchestra pit. The orchestra stopped playing. A few seconds went by, and a vague light came up on the curtain. Some unknown guy (not Gelb) came in front of the curtain and said, “Miss Voigt has suddenly taken ill. Janice Baird will take over the performance in a few minutes, she’ll be making her Met debut. Please stay in your seats, it’ll just be a few minutes.”
I’ve never heard such a hubbub at the opera before! Everyone started yakking their heads off, it was very exciting. I read online the next day (on parterre.com, a marvelous dishy opera queen website) that Voigt left the stage because she had to vomit! And in retrospect, it didn’t look like Isolde going to get her nightie on - - it looked like Deborah Voigt hurrying offstage, about to hurl.
And sure enough, ten minutes later, the curtain went up, and there was Janice Baird, in Isolde’s costume (I read on parterre that it was the very same dress that Voigt had on, but I don’t quite believe that), standing next to Lehman, ready to sing. The audience applauded them warmly, and it became a huge two-minute hollering ovation. So sweet! It’s like we wanted to welcome them and show them our support.
They rewound a few pages to get a running start at the point where Voigt did the vomit run. Baird has a strange voice - - I’d love to hear her as Brünnhilde, Ortrud, or Turandot, but Isolde isn’t the role for her. When she was singing at full tilt in the bottom or top of her voice, she was marvelous. But when she sang with less volume, or in the middle of her voice, she sounded patchy and often out of tune. The quiet beginning of the Liebestod, her aria at the very end of the opera, was dreadfully out of tune. I know how it goes, and it doesn’t go like that. So give her a role where she just has to sing loud all the time (and thankfully there are roles like that), and she’s your girl.
Lehman sounded good in the second act. But the star of the second act was Finnish bass Matti Salminen as Isolde’s husband. He doesn’t sing at all in the first act, and in the midst of all this mishegass with the singers playing Tristan and Isolde, I got the feeling that he came on the stage with the attitude of, “You people actually paid to hear me, and I’ve been singing this role for twenty years. Sit back, I’m gonna deliver.” I should say that the other two lead singers, Michelle de Young as Isolde’s handmaiden Brangäne and Eike Wilm Schulte as Tristan’s buddy Kurwenal, were both marvelous. I’d heard de Young in those two other productions in *Tristan*, and she’s fantastic. I think I heard Schulte in a small part in *Lohengrin* a couple of years ago, and he was a vocal standout in *Tristan*. Gorgeous full strong voice.
A lot more chit chat in the second intermission. Paul, Adriana, and I went down to meet my friends Jere and Dale, and they gave us the inside scoop - - they were sitting close enough so they were able to see James Levine conducting, and he said Jimmy was cueing Lehman and Baird all the time, and over and over again stretching his arm out to encourage them to sing with an “arc”. How cute is that?
I’m very happy to say that Lehman sounded great all the way to the end of the opera. He has a long, LONG solo scene at the beginning of the third act, and many a tenor has washed up on the shore after about five minutes of that business, and had to bark his way through the remaining fifteen minutes. Lehman sounded great. Baird, as I said, was shaky in spots, but at the end of the Liebestod, with all the brass at full holler, she was stunning. Plenty of slice in that sound.
Here's a cute photo of Lehman and Baird taking their bows, with a shell-shocked Levine in the background:
Huge piles of screaming for both Baird and Lehman. The curtain went down at about 12:25 AM, and we all went home.
The Plaid Twins
Sometime last fall, Richard and I were at some cultural event and spotted a gay couple, probably in their 60s, both of them shortish and gray-haired, both wearing identical jeans and identical plaid shirts. Richard had said to me, within a month of us first having started dating, that the day I suggest we wear matching outfits is the day it’s officially over, so these two were particularly memorable.
My friend Claudia and I saw them again at the Met, at *Iphigénie en Tauride*, and then Richard and I saw them at *Lulu* at BAM, then *Broadway Unplugged* at Town Hall. We told Karen about them at *Jerry Springer: the Opera* at Carnegie Hall, because they were sitting right in front of us, and she remarked that it seems creepy that in these enormous concert halls, they’re always sitting close to us. Let me hasten to add that they wear matching plaid shirts every time we see them. The shirts vary - - they may be a red plaid on white, or gray on blue, but they always match. Karen said that there’s something Twilight Zone-ish going on, that the two of them are actually Richard and I ten or twenty years from now, and this was supported when she and I went to *Manon Lescaut* at the Met two nights later: Richard wasn’t along for that show, and only ONE of the Plaid Twins was there. Richard and I decided that the next time we saw them, we’d have to say something.
Richard and I went to see *Peter Grimes* at the Met on Friday 3/7 (a week before I saw *Tristan*). We got up to the Family Circle, and there they were. I said, “Oh my God! Look, it’s them! We have to talk with them during the intermission.” Richard smiled at me, took my hand, and led me over to them. Karen gave them the priceless nicknames of Plaidledee and Plaidledum, which I will employ here:
RICHARD: Hello, you don’t know us, but we go to the theatre with you all the time!
PLAIDLEDEE: [laughs] Oh really?
RICHARD: Yes. We saw you at *Jerry Springer*…
ME: And *Lulu* at BAM…
ME: And I saw one of you at *Manon Lescaut*.
PLAIDLEDUM: No, we were both there.
PLAIDLEDEE: Yes, we were both there.
ME: Hm, I guess I just saw one of you.
RICHARD: Well, we just wanted to say hello.
PLAIDLEDEE: Isn’t it funny. In such a big city, you feel like you’re anonymous.
ME: Well, you two are very distinctive.
PLAIDLEDEE: I suppose so, with the shirts. But it’s funny how you run into the same people all the time.
RICHARD: Yes, it’s a small world.
ME: It’s a small town!
RICHARD: Anyway, we just wanted to say hello. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.
PLAIDLEDEE: [laughs] Yes, I’m sure we will. Nice to meet you.
PLAIDLEDUM: Enjoy the show.
RICHARD: Thank you, you too.
I was so over the moon with Richard at that moment, he handled it so deftly. And who are they kidding, thinking they’re anonymous? You don’t just happen to wear matching shirts every time you go out in public.
Paul and Adriana and I had dinner before *Tristan*, and I told them about The Plaid Twins, and said that we’d have to keep an eye out for them. We needn’t have bothered, because they were right across the aisle from us. I talked with Plaidledee before the opera, Plaidledum must have been in the men’s room. We had a very nice chat. And I talked with them during both the intermissions, with all that drama going on. Here’s the end of the second act intermission conversation (I’ll quote it in full, so you can hear what three old opera queens sound like):
ME: So I guess I’ll see you guys at *Satyagraha* next month?
PLAIDLEDEE: Yes, we’re seeing that on the 25th.
ME: Oh, I’m seeing the premiere, on the 11th.
PLAIDLEDUM: You’re not seeing *Ernani*?
ME: No, I’m not. But Giordani is in that, I love him.
PLAIDLEDUM: I’m not so wild for him, but we love Radvanovsky.
ME: I haven’t heard her yet.
PLAIDLEDEE: She’s wonderful.
PLAIDLEDUM: A real Verdi soprano.
ME: She’s doing *Trovatore* next year, I’ll see her in that.
PLAIDLEDUM: She’ll be great in that.
ME: Anyway, I have to go. They asked me to sing Isolde in the third act, so I have to get my makeup on.
PLAIDLEDEE: Break a leg!
My friend Susie saw the following performance of *Tristan*, on Tuesday 3/18. Our boy Gary Lehman was back as Tristan, and Debbie Voigt made it through the whole performance without hurling or soiling herself. But they had a scenic mishap in the third act. The set is built on what we call a rake, which means the back of the stage is higher up than the front, it’s built on an angle. And this set was on a steep rake. Tristan is dying at the start of the third act, and they stage it so he comes onstage lying on a black sort of mat, head facing the audience. The mat is on some sort of mechanized track, and it slowly moves to the front of the stage over the course of the prelude. It was a hypnotic effect when I saw it last Friday.
This Tuesday was another story. The mat somehow came dislodged from the track and poor Gary Lehman (who’s been through so much already) fell head first into the prompter’s box. Susie, in Row K, had a prime viewing spot, and said it was very scary. She said if he’d been a bit to the side, he would have fallen into the orchestra pit. Scariest of all, there’s a bowl of actual fire at the front of the stage, and his head knocked into that and nearly tipped it over.
A few people rushed onto the stage, they lowered the curtain, an announcement was made that he was being seen by a doctor, and ten minutes later he was onstage finishing the performance. Susie said he was even more involved and intense after the mishap, maybe getting knocked in the head was the best thing for him.
Tomorrow (Saturday 3/22) *Tristan* is not just on the radio, it’s being telecast live to screens in movie theaters around the world. Lehman isn’t doing the performance, which is a shame - - the Met has hired an American tenor named Robert Dean Smith, who’s making his Met debut in the role. Let’s all hope there’s no trouble with this performance!