[Met Performance] CID:187000
Tristan und Isolde {378} Metropolitan Opera House: 01/31/1961.


Metropolitan Opera House
January 31, 1961


Tristan.................Ramon Vinay
Isolde..................Birgit Nilsson
Kurwenal................Walter Cassel
Brangäne................Irene Dalis
King Marke..............Jerome Hines
Melot...................Hermann Uhde
Sailor's Voice..........Charles Anthony
Shepherd................Paul Franke
Steersman...............Louis Sgarro

Conductor...............Joseph Rosenstock

Director................Herbert Graf
Staged by...............Ralph Herbert
Designer................Teo Otto

Tristan und Isolde received five performances this season.

Review of Winthrop Sargeant in the New Yorker

On Tuesday night of last week, I attended the Metropolitan Opera's "Tristan and
Isolde" in an extremely critical frame of mind. Like nearly everybody else, I had greeted Birgit Nilsson's Isolde last year as a sunrise following the long period of darkness that enveloped Wagnerian sopranos with the retirement of Kirsten Flagstad. But I was aware that Miss Nilsson's voice is not quite the rich and incredibly voluminous one that Miss Flagstad hurled across the footlights with such wonderful ease. I was anxious to check again, and determine whether Miss Nilsson was really as good as I had thought she was. Before the first act was over, my doubts were set at rest. Miss Nilsson is not a Flagstad, but she is a Nilsson - something that is perhaps not as overwhelming but that is certainly remarkable enough. Her characterization of the role is exceedingly subtle and convincing; her high notes come through with ringing splendor; and her musical sense - evident in exquisite touches of phrasing and emphasis - is very nearly flawless. Last year I noted her fastidiousness in musical style, and referred to her as a very neat and well-schooled singer. But there is more than that to her Isolde. It is warm and touching, as well as brilliant where brilliance is called for. The sunrise is there, all right, and it is a resplendent one.

It is unfortunate that the Metropolitan has not yet found a Tristan to match Miss Nilsson's Isolde. Ramon Vinay, who undertook the role the other night, has, in his time, been a distinguished singer and a notable Tristan, and he still has the remains of a noble Wagnerian style. But the style is not of much service without the physical volume to project it, and in physical volume his voice has deteriorated to a tragic extent. He was unable to do more than outline his role, in tones that scarcely rose above a whisper. This difficulty posed a problem for the conductor, Joseph Rosenstock, who was called upon to adjust the orchestral sonority so that Mr. Vinay could occasionally be heard, or else to drown him out altogether in giving Miss Nilsson suitable support for her ample tones. Most of the time, Mr. Vinay was drowned out, but there was nothing else to he done, and on the whole Mr. Rosenstock brought an agreeable feeling of solidity and authority to his reading of the score. The lesser roles were very ably done. As Brangäne, Irene Dalis sang with beautiful control, reaching a peak of eloquence in those offstage phrases of the second act that help make up what to me is, aside from the "Liebestod," the most magical episode of the entire opera. Walter Cassel was again perhaps the most stylish and engaging Kurvenal I have ever encountered. It remains a mystery to me why this superb baritone - one of the Metropolitan's finest actors as well as a magnificent singer - is not more often used at the opera house, where he frequently stands aside in favor of second-rate artists. His Kurvenal has a special quality, to which masculinity, nerviness, and an extraordinarily handsome stage presence all contribute. Altogether, with the sole exception of Mr. Vinay's vocally weak interpretation of the hero's role, this was a memorable "Tristan," in which even the smaller parts - Jerome Hines' King Marke and Hermann Uhde's Melot among them - were performed with great distinction.

I have only one objection to the Met's current production of the opera, and this concerns the scenery, designed by Teo Otto. It is harsh to the eye and filled with all sorts of window-dressing gimmicks. I find it difficult to imagine a more uninspired concoction than the scene he has produced for the second act, which lacks any suggestion of the forest poetry that the score paints so inimitably, and looks, instead, like a truck-loading platform in some wintry urban environment. True, it has a tree in the middle of the stage, and a sort of bangle on the backdrop vaguely indicating, by its lunar shape, that the action takes place at night. But the tree is as dead as driftwood, and the bangle is about as evocative as a sign in a subway. Both, I assume, are intended as symbols, but there is a point beyond which this kind of blunt symbolism can get pretty bare and uninteresting. "Tristan" needs stage illusion, and nothing in Mr. Otto's designs conveys any sort of illusion whatever.

Aside from the various virtues and vices of the production, it was good to hear "Tristan" again at a time when Wagnerian opera has fallen into undeserved neglect at the Metropolitan. Despite all the tirades against Wagner that have been fashionable for more than a generation, many of them written by important people who should have known better, like Audré Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Igor Stravinsky, he remains a composer of unassailable stature. Like all the great masters, he has moments that are greater than others, and his greatest ones are, to my mind, unsurpassed anywhere in musical literature. To me, these include the entire second act of "Die Meistersinger," the closing scene of "Götterdämmerung" and many parts of "Die Walküre." They also include the entire second act and the final scene of "Tristan." If finer music has ever been written, I am unaware of it.

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