[Met Performance] CID:5410
United States Premiere
Tristan und Isolde {1} Metropolitan Opera House: 12/1/1886.
 (United States Premiere)

Metropolitan Opera House
December 1, 1886

United States Premiere


Tristan.................Albert Niemann
Isolde..................Lilli Lehmann
Kurwenal................Adolf Robinson
Brangäne................Marianne Brandt
King Marke..............Emil Fischer
Melot...................Rudolph Von Milde
Sailor's Voice..........Max Alvary
Shepherd................Otto Kemlitz
Steersman...............Emil Sänger

Conductor...............Anton Seidl

Director................Mr. Van Hell

Tristan und Isolde received eight performances this season.

Unsigned Review in The New York Times (W. J. Henderson?)




Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" was represented at the Metropolitan Opera House last evening for the first time in this country. Its performance, which occupied quite four hours and was not brought to an end until midnight, was witnessed by a large number of persons, whose curiosity was shown by sustained attention and whose approval of the production was attested by recalls after the first, the second and the third acts. The occasion, involving as it did the initial hearing in America of one of the most exacting of lyric achievements, was, on the whole, a notable one and its brilliancy was to have been expected. It would, nevertheless, be absurd to proclaim that it is likely to be attended with consequences of unusual moment, or to seek in a natural expression of interest in a remarkable art work any serious iconoclastic tendency on the part of the public. Still, there is no question that some queer people will discern in it a determination on the part of the public to overthrow its ancient gods and unite in the cult of Richard Wagner. That a small, noisy, and, in respect of its most loud-mouthed leaders, noisome and rather uncultured faction of the public has long been ready to do so goes without saying. There is slight danger, however, that the bulk of the community will join in the worship of the few and that the eternal laws of beauty and the dictates of common sense will be disregarded in deference to either will power or clamor. The tribute paid the opera and its performance last night was simply intended as homage to the rare characteristics of the music-drama and to the excellence of its representation. It had no further significance; remembering, indeed, that Wagner is no more and that the genius and "savoir faire," the exercise of which made his theories temporarily tenable, are interred with his bones, we should not be surprised if Wagnerism, pure, simple, and exclusive as genuine Wagnerism must be, had said its final word in New York.

"Tristan und Isolde," the libretto of which was written in 1857, while the score was finished in 1859, had its first public hearing at Munich in 1865. Its last important production was effected at Bayreuth in last July and a full review of the story of the opera, the general impression of its music and a criticism of its performance was laid before its readers by Atlantic cable on the morning following. Under these circumstances it is scarcely necessary to devote much space to the plot of the work, the incidents of which have been summarized again and again, when portions of the score have been sung and played in the concert room. In explanation of further references to "Tristan und Isolde," however, it may be well to say that Wagner has divided his libretto into three acts and that six personages are concerned in the action; further, that in the first act Tristan and Isolde are passionately enamored of each other through a love philter given them by Brangäne, Isolde's maid; that act the second deals with the discovery of the couple's guilty love by Kind Mark, who has wedded Isolde, and with the wounding of Tristan by his false friend Melot; and that act the third is taken up with Tristan's dying hours and with his death, which occurs just before Isolde, who has skill to heal, has had time to practice her arts - too soon, also for King Mark's forgiveness to gladden the hapless lover's soul. Musically, "Tristan und Isolde" is the fruition of Wagner's long-cherished theories. In the language of one of his staunchest upholders, the composer wrote the music-drama "with the full concentrated force of his inspiration, freed at last from the fetters of conventional operatic forms, with which he has broken here definitely and irrevocably." This is a laconic but truthful declaration; the only question arising in connection with it relates to the measure of success attending the effort. True it is that in " Tristan and Isolde" Italian conventionalities have no existence; true, also, that the score is free from triviality and commonplace and that it contains many passages of undeniable beauty and eloquence. But the point in which the public is most interested is whether the general result bears any fair proportion to the endeavor-whether Wagner supplies an equivalent for what he casts away - and, as he casts away well-nigh everything except Wagner, it must be conceded that the equivalent which may be claimed is somewhat formidable-whether the game is worth the candle.

Viewed as a specimen of the musical growth and development of a thought or considered as an exemplar of orchestration, " Tristan and Isolde" is a matchless achievement. Whatever the idea underlying the music, it is treated with an ingenuity and a technical skill which no living writer can even approximate. Of the instrumentation, weighed per se, quite as much can be said. Its suppleness, richness, depth and variety of tone-color are such that Beethoven's symphonies and. Meyerbeer's marches, performed after portions of Warner's music, pale their ineffectual fire. Something more than method, expedients, science and précedés are needed to attain this result; it can only be compassed by a genius and Wagner's worst enemy can hardly gainsay his right to the title. Unhappily, the genial attributes of the German reformer's work are not, in our judgment, of the type essential to opera, or even, to use the Wagnerian expression, to the music-drama. If thematic development and varied and gorgeous tone-color were the sole end of this art form, the case would be different. In "Tristan and Isolde" this appears to be the assumption and the outcome is seldom felicitous. Constructed upon a comparatively limited number of leading motives, of which a few are lovely and apposite, while many are shapeless, unsuggestive and wholly arbitrary in their significance, the composer's meaning seldom takes a recognizable and appreciable shape. The two or three themes typical of the love-stricken pair, though fragmentary, are of genuine beauty and,however frequently they recur, their impression is invariably vivid and grateful. But the composer's dramatic and lyric creativeness only assumes a well defined and impressive shape at semi-occasional stages of the action; in the line and well known vorspiel, in which the ebb and flow of passion is symbolized with unmistakable feeling and skill; in the tremendous love duet in the second act which is led up to by a crescendo of great emotional strength and intensity and in the alternately tender and impassioned final measures sung over the body of Tristan. Add to these numbers, If the use of that irreverent word be permitted in referring to a composition which avowedly includes nothing of the sort, some bright and breezy sea-music in the first act of "Tristan and Isolde," some harmonious strains heightening the effect of the forest scene in act the second and some too infrequent melodious bits of accompaniment and the sum total of striking incidents in the music-drama will be realized. To the student or to the auditor that finds his delight in following the orchestra and ignoring the sung and acted
story progressing in his presence no syllable of discouragement can be whispered. That the world is just now prepared to accept symphony for opera is another matter, the probability of which no reasonable being will be inclined to accept.

Last evening's representation of " Tristan and Isolde" was, as implied at the outset of this notice wholly admirable. Regarding the initial performance at Bayreuth as a model rendering of the music-drama---and, as it was carried on by Frau Rosa Sucher and Herr Vogl, two of the leading artists of Germany and under the personal supervision of Frau. Cosima Wagner, there are good grounds for so proclaiming it --- some estimate may be formed of the excellence of the night's work at the Metropolitan by the assertion that the New York production bore favorable comparison in almost every way with the presentation abroad. If there was greater finish in Herr Vogl's portrayal of Tristan than in Herr Niemann's, there was far leas vocal timbre and charm in Frau Sucher's Isolde although Frau Sucher's dramatic warmth and fervor stirred her audience somewhat more profoundly than did Fräulein Lehmann's. The orchestra at the Metropolitan, if not as strong numerically as the Bayreuth band, was quite as proficient; the tone of the German musicians was somewhat richer and more homogeneous, thanks to the sunken orchestra in use at the theatre, something of muscularity and brilliancy, however, being possibly sacrificed by the innovation. The scenic attire of "Tristan and Isolde" at the Metropolitan left, as may be imagined, no room for fault-finding. The first set shows the deck of Tristan's ship, the second the wing of Isolde's castle [viewed] on a dense forest, and the third Tristan's abode on the rocky heights of Brittany. All three are fresh, picturesque and realistic. The larger share of honors was borne off last night by Fräulein Lehmann. Nothing that this gifted, but not too emotional, artist has ever attempted can be named in the same day with her Isolde, especially in the first and third acts. Her love scene with Tristan on shipboard must be particularly alluded to as a masterly exemplar of delicately expressive lyric declamation, her singing in the great duet in act the second was simply perfect in its loveliness of tone and purity of style and her final lament over her lover's corpse equally good in feeling and delivery. That the German soprano looked the personage will have been guessed at; a little more impetuosity was the only characteristic that could possibly have added to the weight of her delineation. Herr Niemann, too, was an excellent 'Tristan. The music allotted to the personage lies well within the tenor's voice, its cantabile passages are not numerous and, to depict the alternation of repose, passion and prostration making up the dramatic personage was, for an artist as sincere and experienced as Herr Niemann, relatively easy work. The pathos of the scenes in the final act was finely brought out and so were the simplicity and dignity with which the role is instinct in act the first. In the duet the glow of youthful ardor was sometimes wanting. The remaining parts were all in competent hands. Fräulein Brandt singing and declaiming the protracted and thankless measures of Brangäne, Herr Robinson personating, Kurvenal, Herr Fischer King Mark and Herr Von der Milde Melot. Herr Seidl directed the Orchestra, and directed capitally. The cuts made in the score-and they were not few -- were, we suppose, effected by the conductor and were judicious. Thanks to the excisions and to Herr Seidl's vigorous and impassioned tempos the music-drama was begun and ended within the reasonable space of four hours.

Photographs of Albert Niemann as Tristan and
Lilli Lehmann as Isolde in Tristan und Isolde.

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