My wife, currently in Boston, thought I was crazy to even consider attending a second Tristan und Isolde in such close proximity to the one I reviewed on Saturday afternoon. And I have to admit that I came close to tossing in the towel when I got the news this afternoon that Deborah Voigt had canceled due to illness. There are only so many hours in a day, so many days of our lives, etc., etc.
What I witnessed tonight at the Met was the most potent reminder conceivable of why we attend live performances, why we bother to hear a different cast perform the same opera we already heard a few days (or a week, a month, a year) ago -- even, to a degree, the very reason why we value and preserve a classical repertoire.
That might sound hyperbolic, but I don't think so. Ben Heppner, the reason I made myself attend tonight's Tristan, ought to have been tentative after canceling his first four appearances in a six-performance run. Instead, he was effin' Muhammad Ali: floating, bobbing, weaving, taunting and making contact dead on, time after time after time. When he pushed his performance into the red during the second act, we -- that being me and my choice companion for the evening -- thought there was no way he could sustain that crazy energy through the third act. He didn't; he surpassed it. No kidding, this was a crazymaking performance, one you knew you were privileged to witness.
(And yes, for those who assumed that I somehow missed the fluffed final note of the Liebestod on Saturday because I didn't write about it: Heppner cracked a note in Act III. Let me repeat that for you: Heppner cracked a note in Act III.)
And if this was an exceptional showing for Heppner, the real discovery tonight was Janice Baird, the "substitute" Isolde: Here was an attractive woman who could deliver the goods over a Wagnerian orchestra at full roar, while also moving with grace and acting with insight. Her gestures approached silent-movie melodrama -- so much better to convey emotion to every level of the house -- and her vibrato verged on wobble. But I can't imagine a singing actor who could have brought more to this role in sound, gesture and motion combined. Baird was in character from Act One's Narrative and Curse onward. Her Liebestod, sung while kneeling before Heppner's prone body, completely gutted me: in the moment, it felt as if I'd discovered religion.
If Matti Salminen's performance as King Marke didn't devastate me quite as much as it had on Saturday afternoon, it was only because I knew what to expect: on first encounter I remember thinking, "In 40 years René Pape might touch this." A consummate artist.
Richard Paul Fink was a Kurwenal woolier in tone than Eike Wilm Schulte's steely interpretation, but no less moving. I wasn't entirely sold, on Saturday or tonight, by Michelle DeYoung's big ol' goofy girl characterization of Brangäne in Act One, but the rest of her performance tracks just fine.
James Levine's orchestra was exceptional, again. And I truly hope he'll consider commissioning a concerto for his remarkable English horn player Pedro M. Díaz, whose contributions in Tristan practically amount to a marquee role, and whose excellence I've noted on several previous occasions.