Tristan und Isolde, the Cursed Opera?

From the NYTimes:

Many Nights at the Opera Involve Emergency Room
Published: March 20, 2008 

When the tenor Gary Lehman slid down the raked stage into the prompter’s box on Tuesday night during Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Metropolitan Opera, stopping the show at the start of Act III, he entered a storied history of midperformance mishaps at the opera.

This was the second consecutive time in the six-performance “Tristan” revival that trouble halted the production. Last Friday, Deborah Voigt, who was singing Isolde, left the stage during Act II because of a stomach ailment and was replaced by Janice Baird, her cover, who made her Met debut.

Mr. Lehman made his Met debut on Friday, replacing John Mac Master. Mr. Mac Master, the original replacement for Ben Heppner, who had canceled his first four performances because of a viral infection, struggled with the role vocally, the Met said, because of allergies.

Mr. Lehman was not seriously injured in the incident on Tuesday and managed to finish the performance. But when “Tristan” returns on Saturday afternoon, in a performance to be broadcast live on radio and in movie theaters, Robert Dean Smith, will take over the male lead, fresh from rehearsals for Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” in Berlin.

“It seems this production’s run has been somewhat star-crossed,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “There are risks in any production, but certainly what happened was a fluke, and when you consider that the Met is a repertory theater, with so many different performances, it’s remarkable how few mishaps occur.”

However ill-fated the current “Tristan,” there is still time to turn things around. Mr. Heppner hopes to return for the final performances, on Tuesday and March 28.

“Tristan und Isolde” has long been a magnet for trouble. Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the first Tristan, died of a heart attack in Munich in 1865, at 29, within weeks of the premiere, leaving the first Isolde — his wife, Malvina — a widow.

In 1959, when each of three possible Tristans announced, one after another, that he was too ill to perform at the Met, Rudolf Bing, the opera’s legendary general manager, persuaded each to sing one of the three acts. The Tristan for Act I was Ramón Vinay; for Act II, Karl Liebl; and for Act III, Albert da Costa. Each took solo bows. Among the backstage jokes that evening was a report that the maestro, Karl Böhm, had refused to conduct with only one Isolde (Birgit Nilsson). Another suggested that the opera should be renamed “Der Sängerkrieg im Cornwall” (“The Song Contest in Cornwall”). And a stagehand’s voice was supposedly heard from the flies, asking: “You got somebody covering for me up here? I don’t feel so hot.”

Nor are mishaps limited to “Tristan und Isolde.” The soprano Hildegard Behrens got bonked on the head by a foam-rubber beam from the Immolation Scene in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung” at the Met in 1990. Ms. Behrens, playing Brünnhilde, had just finished the last notes of the six-hour opera. She withdrew from the final performance and was replaced by Gudrun Volkert.

And after singing the line “You can only live so long” from a ladder minutes into the Met premiere of Janacek’s “Makropulos Case” in 1996, Richard Versalle fell 10 feet to the stage, having suffered a fatal heart attack at 63. The show was canceled, and Mr. Versalle’s replacement, Ronald Naldi, did not climb the ladder in future performances.

“Everybody went into shock,” said Joseph Volpe, then the Met’s general manager. “They thought it was part of the staging.”

Asked to recount some of his run-ins with the tenor Luciano Pavarotti and his temperamental throat, as when Pavarotti failed to appear for his farewell performances at the Met, in “Tosca” in 2002, Mr. Volpe said, “I’m not going there.”

There continues to be debate as to whether, during the Met’s 2002 production of Prokofiev’s “War and Peace,” a supernumerary portraying one of Napoleon’s defeated soldiers fleeing Moscow (Simon Deonarian) fell or jumped into the pit. Mr. Volpe — who took the stage at the end to tell the audience that “our retreating French grenadier lost his way in the snowstorm” but was unhurt — said he jumped for publicity. Mr. Deonarian said he fell. In any case, the incident stopped the orchestra during the final scene for a delay of three minutes.

When American Ballet Theater was performing “Romeo and Juliet” on the Met stage in 1998, the front of the Capulet mansion came down from the flies and never stopped. “The set just kept grinding into the floor,” said Michael M. Kaiser, then the ballet’s artistic director. “No one’s ever seen me run so fast as I did backstage.”

As for conflagrations, the curtain came down in 2004 during Act II of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” because of a small fire above the stage that had to be extinguished.

The Metropolitan Opera House has also had its brush with murder. In 1981 a Met stagehand, Craig Crimmins, was sentenced to 20 years to life in prison for hurling a violinist, Helen Hagnes Mintiks, to her death down an airshaft from the roof of the opera house. Ms. Mintiks had disappeared during an intermission of a Berlin Ballet performance.

“Let me tell you why I’m having such a good time now,” said Mr. Volpe, who retired in 2006. “Because I don’t have this problem. I don’t have to deal with these things.”

Thankfully, Saturday’s live streaming performance from the Met went without incidence, with Dean Robert Smith stepping heroically into the role at the last possible minute, without any prior rehearsals with his Isolde, Deborah Voigt.

Three of us went to the AMC cinema theatre to catch the marathon performance (5.5 hours!). Needing substantial snacks to get us through the day, we’d packed three wine glasses and a bottle of wine, the 2005 Tintara Grenache from McLaren Vale, Australia, some cheeses and crackers, almond tarts, and a couple of heavy sandwiches. A veritable feast. The glasses of wine completely enhanced our experience, and completed the treat for all five senses. With hints of dark cherry, a whiff of cinnamon and other spices, and some oak and earth notes, the wine opened up over the course of the acts, and softened considerably – in marked contrast to the action on stage, which only heightened in intensity.

I have to say though, while Wagner’s operas are impressive – in their dramatic and big music, and the evident strain it puts on the singers to sing above the orchestra (according to the casting director of Tristan, there are only roughly only 10 people who can sing Tristan in the world, and she “knows where everyone of them is at the moment”) – I prefer the economy of Puccini’s music. He can get the message of a love aria across in a lot less than half the time Wagner needs.


0 thoughts on “Tristan und Isolde, the Cursed Opera?

  1. at least you get the streaming! singapore doesn’t have any at all; the nearest cities to watch the hd streaming are in australia and japan.

    i missed manon too, think i was out of town then. and i should have bought tickets for grimes beforehand; they were sold out. but i’ve already got tickets for la boheme. you should get them beforehand too, i bet the theatres will be packed for that.

  2. haha, there was a couple lines in the New Yorker (3/31/2008) that said, “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.” hehe, how true.

    latest (3/26/2008): “Truth remained stranger than even Wagnerian fiction for the Metropolitan Opera’s six-performance revival of “Tristan und Isolde” in its fifth outing, on Tuesday. With the tenor Ben Heppner recovered from illness and set to assume the role of Tristan for the first time in the run, the Met announced that the soprano Deborah Voigt, right, the Isolde, was ill and would be replaced by Janice Baird. In the first performance, on March 10, Mr. Heppner was replaced by John Mac Master, who was himself later reported to have been suffering from allergies and was coolly received by audience and critics alike. In the second, Gary Lehman took over to a better reception, but the curtain came down in midperformance when Ms. Voigt took ill and had to be replaced by Ms. Baird. In the third, Ms. Voigt returned, but the curtain again came down prematurely, when a stage mechanism malfunctioned and Mr. Lehman slid down the raked stage on a pallet into the prompter’s box. He returned after 10 minutes and finished the performance. In the fourth, Mr. Lehman, still with a lump on his head, was replaced by Robert Dean Smith. At press time the Met was still holding out hope that Mr. Heppner and Ms. Voigt would finally take the stage together for the last performance, on Friday.”

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