Cher Public

Namenlos in Lieb’ umfangen

SiriusXM is broadcasting right now a 1981 performance of Tristan und Isolde featuring Gwyneth Jones (pictured) and Spas Wenkoff, with James Levine conducting the work that season for the first time in his career. And yet, here’s an operatic mystery: neither Ms. Jones nor Mr. Wenkoff was the casting originally conceived by Mr. Levine for this revival: they joined the cast fairly late in the game. So, who among the cher public can tell us which two familiar Met artists were supposed to sing these roles?

  • Adriel

    Was Leonie Rysanek supposed to be the Isolde?

    • Rudolf

      @ Adriel
      To the best of my knowledge, Ms. Rysanek never sang Isolde.

  • Will

    I have no answer to the question, but I remember hearing the broadcast. My impression was that Wenkoff sang it rather well but was skating over the deeper meanings of the text and came across as bland, while Jones had signs of vocal wear and tear but was deeply into the part and was compelling listening.

  • Loge

    Somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I seem to remember seeing an interview with Leonie Rysanek in which she said she was going to sing Isolde at the Met. The year 1981 even seems to ring a bell. Maybe Catarina Ligendza was scheduled for a cancellation at that time.

    • Loge

      I guess Ligendza wasn’t that familiar. Had Birgit settled her tax problems at that time?

      • danpatter

        Nilsson returned to the Met in 1979, singing Elektra and Frau ohne Schatten during the next two seasons. I think she was still singing Isolde at that point, but I’m not certain she would have planned it for the Met. Rysanek would have been very interesting as Isolde, though I think the role might have been a bit of a strain for her. Magnificent singers, both of them.

        • It’s plausible that Levine might have asked Nilsson to sing this Isolde but she was definitely winding down her career by then. Was she singing any other roles besides Elektra and the Faerberin by 1981?

          • Krunoslav

            Yes. Nilsson sang the WALKUERE Bruennhilde at San Francisco Opera in November/December 1981 with Leonie Rysanek, Nadine Denize, James King, Manfred Schenk and Kurt Rydl, with Otmar Suuitner beating time. Rysanek and King were wonderful. Nilsson was in clarion voice but sang one whole tone sharp all night when I heard it.

            • danpatter

              In her prime, Nilsson’s pitch was extremely reliable, but toward the end became a little wayward. I think she overcompensated her tendency to go flat during her last years by pushing her voice sharp, in effect. Still thrilling, even if a tad off.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              I’d love to have heard the top Ds in the Hojotohos, in that case.

          • Bill

            Nilsson sang her last Vienna Isolde in 1977, her last Vienna Tosca in 1979, her last Vienna Fidelio in 1975 and Bruennhildes in
            1976. By 1981 she was only singing, as
            La Cieca states, the Faerberin and Elektra
            both of which she retired in 1982 in Vienna her farewell being her last Faerberin in May of 1982 (she had 2 scheduled that month
            but because of emotional distress regarding the Abschied did not sing the second performance which was to be her official
            farewell to the Vienna Opera where she made her debut as Sieglinde in 1954 (then she sang Elsa, Sieglinde, Aida, Fidelio, Senta and Elisabeth all in a row during the same month with Isolde to follow later in 1954, in all 232 performances of 18 roles at the Staatsoper. Hence it is unlikely she ever agreed to sing Isolde at the Met as late as 1981 though perhaps she was asked.

    • Rudolf

      @ Loge
      Perhaps you will find the attached two articles interesting, as far as Ms. Rysanek and Isolde are concerned …

      • Loge

        Thanks Rudolf. I would have loved to have heard her do Isolde but I enjoyed her doing so many other roles for so many years I can’t complain.

    • DellaCasaFan

      I read this archived interview more recently to remember Rysanek talking about Isolde:

      She talks here that she had been engaged as Isolde in 1975 with C. Kleiber but changed her mind under Böhm’s influence, as Bill also writes about it. All the same, I still believe that she was asked to be the Met’s Isolde in 1981. Can’t remember when & where I read it though…

      Thanks to Rudolf for the link to another extensive interview with her.

      • armerjacquino

        It’s funny how many of her characters she didn’t like, or found silly- nearly every one she mentions!

        And of course now I want to know who the 55-60 year old Salome was, and whether anything came of the Costa Rican Cherubino…

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I’m totally out of my depth here. At times like this, I enjoy sitting back and learning from the experts.

    Dame Gwyneth was in fine voice for the Boulez-Chereau Ring video production, right? 1980, wasn’t it?

  • As it happens, a FB friend posted this Dame Gwyneth recital from 1989, and she sounds wonderful!

  • DeepSouthSenior

    Richard Cassilly and Roberta Knie sang in the February 9, 1981 performance. I assume, though, that this was the planned second cast.

  • overstimmelated

    That was the season of the strike, wasn’t it ?

  • LogeLizard

    It seems almost too obvious to suggest, but Nilsson and Vickers?

  • damekenneth

    In this particular year, in this particular production, Dame Gwyneth was in sadly wretched voice. It’s too bad, as it was an unusually high profile assignment, and followed her role debut in San Francisco as Isolde, during which time she was ill with bronchitis.

    Apparently, Levine was so upset by her vocal estate at the time of the Met performances that he decided to minimize having to conduct future productions with her. Except for runs as the Marschallin and the odd Walkure Brunhilde, she rarely sang at the Met again until her 1989 single Ring, replacing, if I remember, Behrens, replacing in turn, Marton. Those performances, not recorded for broadcast. have become somewhat legendary among those in attendance. Meanwhile, Jones had been having many years of (mostly) great performances in Europe, while we here in the US were remembering her in distress.

    Jones had times/nights in her career when it sounded like her voice was literally falling apart. However, she always seemed to recover and there are many pirate documents of amazing performances not so far in time from these terrible ones. I imagine that Jones’s pride about not canceling when ill actually cost her dearly in terms of her overall reputation. No singer sings well all the time. Jones has a historical record of being more variable than many/most great performers. But she almost always went on. Whether this was wise is another matter.

    Gorgeous photo, by the way, La Cieca.

    • everest

      In the 1989 Met Ring, Jones replaced the originally announced Deborah Polaski.

      You are correct, Jones was splendid in that cycle, as she was in a Vienna Isolde two months later. It is indeed a shame that her high profile U.S. Isoldes should have found her in such a temporarily poor state

  • Krunoslav

    “In this particular year, in this particular production, Dame Gwyneth was in sadly wretched voice. ”

    Absolutely so. During my college January break, I attended the opening night, 1/9/81. Apart from the superb Met debut of Salminen as Marke, it was one of the ghastliest Wagner nights I have ever endurred, with Tatiana sick, McIntyre sounding iffy, Wenkoff immobile, constantly grinning for 5 hours and loud and without nuance, and Gwyneth DEPLORABLE from first note to last. By the Love Duet one literally hoped someone would drop a crowbar on her. Even the subsequent AWFUL U.S. debut of Gaby Schnaut in San Fran and the HARROWING Prague Isolde of Carol Yahr pale before how terrible Gwyneth was that night.

    I heard very fine performances from Gwyneth before and after but this was some of the scariest. most dispiriting singing I have ever heard, unredeemed by anything but self-regard in her acting ( and textual command was never her strong suit IMO). Though apparently Miss Knie fared even worse, that was kind of the end for her.

    • Bill

      Krunoslav -- that said, Jones also had some
      spectacularly wonderful nights. I remember
      her debut in Vienna as Fidelio when she replaced
      Nilsson as a completely unknown singer with an
      unpronouncable (for Germans) first name. She was supposed to make her Vienna debut as Amelia later
      in the month, but sang that Fidelio completely wobble free with radiant tone admonishing all those who were disappointed that Nilsson cancelled.
      Once later Jones stepped in for Janowitz as Ariadne in Vienna at the very last minute -- Jones was
      in spectacular voice, even the tiniest vocal nuances of the role were totally wobble free -- and Jones knew it, the conductor knew it and the audience knew it and Jones received an enormous ovation at her
      final curtain calls. It was radiant singing of the highest order.

      One time in Koeln Jones started Salome in disastrous voice -- it was all over the place -- but she kept inproving and by the final scenes had all of her
      best artistry with a glorious last 20 minutes or so.

      At her best, Jones was one of the finest dramatic
      sopranos of her (or maybe any) generation. Bernstein certainly favored her as Fidelio and she could be stupendous in the role. I believe that when Bernstein was (belatedly) engaged to conduct
      Fidelio at the Met, Rysanek who had been previously engaged to sing in those performances (prior to
      Bernstein’s engagement to conduct) was put out in
      favor of Jones. Jones did have a large repertory,
      broader than many other dramatic sopranos -- think
      Eva, Medea, Octavian, Butterfly, Desdemona etc.

      • damekenneth

        Bill, I suggested above that Jones’s alarming bad nights might have been attributable partly to a failure to cancel when she was ill or otherwise not in shape to sing. Do you have a different sense of what that may have been about? Of course there was the couple of year period after an accident in a cab in Vienna around 1970 when she says her neck was thrown out of whack, causing the flutter on and difficulty sustaining higher notes until she was “cured” by a chiropractic treatment. She also admitted around the same time that some problems were brought on because her singing had become too dark and, I think she said, that she had been leaning too hard into the middle of the voice for bigger sound. She reworked her technique and was in generally great shape again by 1972. But her problems continued on and off throughout what was otherwise quite a long and generally illustrious career. Any thoughts on why?

        • Bill

          damekenneth -- no actually I have no idea
          why Jones was (at times) so variable. I saw her frequently as Fidelio and she always gave
          a committed performance even if not in stellar
          voice -- sometimes as the Marschallin she had
          complete control though in that role there is
          no place where a soprano has to force the voice and even at the end of the Trio a singer must
          be mindful to blend with the other two sopranos
          and most Sophies (perhaps Gueden excepted) I have heard had very lyrical voices. Still
          Jones could, such as in that special
          Ariadne, utilize the full arsenal of her
          ability in a role which requires all sorts of
          vocal nuances, superb breath control, and limpid tone throughout. I did see Jones’ complete
          Ring Cycle at the Met and found it quite pleasing throughout. She was always a comitted actress.

          As to whom the Met planned to have singing Isolde in 1981 I would think it might have been Ligendza who ws enjoying a success as a Wagner singer at that time in Bayreuth and Vienna
          and her Isolde (seen in Vienna under Kleiber with Wenkoff) was very effective -- one of the best at the time -- `1981 probably would have been too early for Marton or Behrens --
          Rysanek famously was advised not to sing Isolde
          by Karl Boehm himself who I believe also told
          Christa Ludwig who at one time in the middle 1960s was toying with switching to dramatic soprano roles and actually sang a few, that Isolde was not for her either. Boehm (unlike Karajan at times) was, along with Krips, very crafty at choosing roles for singers for which they later triumphed (though Boehm was certainly not popular with all of the singers as he was apparently quite hard on them at times unless
          they were favorites of his).

          As to Wenkoff -- I actually liked his timbre in the few times I saw im live. He died this past year in Bad Ischl where he lived in Austria.

          Ligenza, who had been so promising, suddenly disappeared from the opera scene though I do not recall the reason for her early retirement from the stage

        • Often admonished

          Reliable gossip (is there any other kind?): during significant parts of the 80s Jones re-worked her technique with Eva Turner.

          This hardened the sound but made its production more reliable. When Jones had the time to have a Turner-checkup things went well. When she was too busy, performances suffered. When Turner retired, it all got hit-or-miss.

          None of the above reflects on the artistry and dedication of a magnificent bete de la scene.

          • Often admonished

            Wenkoff’s Bayreuth Tristans for Carlos Kleiber were more than just good and far more nuanced than merely loud.

            • Orlando Furioso

              Very true, based on the broadcast performance (and even in a subsequent broadcast with Stein, Wenkoff retained that quality). For a few years in the mid-to-late 1970s, Wenkoff was a Tristan of exceptional quality. Unfortunately the commercial labels didn’t notice, even as they were scrambling to cast 3 Tristan recordings around 1980, and his excellence didn’t last much past that year.

          • damekenneth

            I too had noticed the improvement in her overall standard around the time she studied Turandot with Turner and surmise that Turner’s vocal coaching had a significant effect on Jones’s singing from around 1984. She indeed became more reliable, seemed much more on her breath -- her posture shifted from being slightly off balance to full upright -- and she seemed to sing in a much more straightforward way.

            • messa di voce

              Jones specifically said that Turner gave her a wonderful “attaca” to use as Turandot, as if it were wrapped up in a box with a beautiful bow.

          • Sempre liberal

            Speaking of Evas, could the Isolde have been intended for Eva Marton?

            • Bill

              Sempre -- not likely that in 1981 Isolde
              would have been intended for Eva Marton.

              As far as I can tell, Marton, was not singing her hochdramatische roles as early as 1981 The Turandots, Kaiserin, Salomes. Elektras came later and it is unlikely that the Met would request an Isolde out of her when she was still singing in Trovatore. Forza, Elisabeth in Tannhaeuser, Elsa etc (even in Fledermaus). Of coure one never knows about singers -- wasn’t Marilyn Horne at one time slated to sing Elisabeth in
              Tannhaeuser at the Met ? Bjoner was still singing Isolde in 1981 -- Johanna Meier began to sing heavy roles about that time, Vinzing was doing Isolde by 1981 , Berit
              Lindholm was finished by 1976 or so, Janis Martin had Isolde in her repertory about that time but I think Ligendza would have been the most likely choice at that time, Nilsson having probably entirely dropped the role in the later 1970s .


        • DermotMalcolm

          Gwyneth in 1981
          I saw that Tristan and left after the second intermission. Everyone seemed off, but Jones especially. I had a great orchestra seat. Since I had little money at that time, I presumably bought a standing and then found my way to Row M.
          But by 1985 Gwyneth was a great Isolde in Paris and Brussels, as my DVDs of her there attest.
          I knew that she had asked Eva Turner to help her prepare her Turandot with Serban. But reading the Parterrians, I realize that the time with Turner must have stood her in good stead for those 1985 Isoldes.
          Her peak period was more than thirty years--including the 1994 Elektras at the Met. There were ups and downs. Her neck was injured in an auto accident in 1970, as damekenneth notes, and only years later with the help of a chiropractor was neck (and voice) put right.
          I was there for her Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde in 1989 (which it is said brought the longest ovation in Met history). She had a way of connecting with the audience. Before she disappeared after her first appearance she gave a look right at us: we were in for something matchless. James Levine lavished myriad smooches up and down her right arm in those historically long curtain calls. He must have forgiven her for her part in their bad Tristan. Those 1989 Met Brunnhildes were the greatest performances of anything I have ever witnessed.
          But there are others in opera, mostly with her: those not: the Met Troyens with Vickers, Verrett, Ludwig, Kubelik; Hoffman with Sutherland; the NYCO Village Romeo and Juliet and Mefistofele with Ramey; Sellars Così at Purchase with Lorainne Hunt; and then back to the Gwyneths: Fidelio Met 1976; two Frau Ohne Schattens at ROH; Elektras at SF (1991) and the Met (1994).
          I have DVDs of her very great Coronation of Poppea with Vickers, Ludwig, Ghiarov, Rudel; the 1990 Elektra from Orange.
          I would be cautious about quoting New York Times critics. Bernard Holland scorned her 1989 Brunnhildes. Alex Ross far preferred Voigt’s Chrysothemos to Jones’s Elektra in 1994. And going back to 1968: the Times music critic Harold Schonberg belittled Mahler as second rate and soppy.

  • Porgy Amor

    Wenkoff immobile, constantly grinning for 5 hours

    Was that a Wenkoff “thing”? The one and only performance of his I have ever seen or heard is the classic Colin Davis/Götz Friedrich Tannhäuser, also with Jones, and he’s smirking and grinning a lot in that too. Sometimes I can talk myself into reading it as an acting choice that works with the production, but sometimes it is a stretch.

    • Cicciabella

      To be fair to Wenkoff, Jones’ costume as Venus in that producyion gave him plenty to grin about.

      • Porgy Amor

        Only after she took off the Dr. Doom mask.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    Thanks, guys, for those reflections. They’re consistent with the negative reviews and remembrances I’ve been able to find. In my experience, thirty-year old memories are often much worse -- or much better -- than the actual events. At any rate, the consensus seems to be that the 1981 run was pretty dismal. Maybe my idea of the Liebestod as a psychedelic trip is not so crazy after all. Sounds like the Met audience might have wished they were on one instead of seeing one.

    I was thinking of responding with something clever like, “Well, at least the sets were great,” until, scouring the interwebs, I read this from a New York Times review (11 January 1981):

    “As for the physical production itself, with its ingenious stage machinery to send the lovers up into the clouds at climactic moments and bring them down again to earthy reality, it must be said that certain problems persist. The very cleverness of the elevators and folding ramps sometimes forces the attention on the devices and distracts the ear from the musical continuity.”

    Sound familiar? Tweak a few phrases, and you have a typical reaction to “The Machine” in LePage’s recent Ring of multi-ton memory (and not a little hatred).

    The more things change . . .

  • La Valkyrietta

    So what is the right answer if not Nilsson and Vickers? This reminds me I must find a long Levine biography to read and fill the many lacunae. I hope Troyanos was always the intended Brangena in planning 1981, “Habet acht, habet ach…”

    • armerjacquino

      I’ve seen the Centennial Gala. The answer is obviously Roberta Peters and David Rendall. Or maybe Edda Moser and Dano Raffanti.

      • Krunoslav

        Richard Kness and Joann Grillo?

        • steveac10

          Be fair. After the 81 strike AGMA let the Met phase out full time employment for comprimarios and covers. This might have happened in 79 in 81 they would have been Brangane and Melot at best.

      • tiger1

        According to the website of Ms Moser “Edda Mosers Repertoire wächst ständig. Zu den in jüngster Zeit neu aufgenommenen Partien zählen Fidelio, die Marschallin im Rosenkavalier, Rezia in Oberon, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome, Senta und Isolde.”

  • actfive

    I attended one performance in this run, and it was my first Wagner opera heard live. My very opera-savvy friend Brian took me, and we smoked a joint on the Met plaza before the opera. I became a Wagner fan that night, even though I could tell that something was “off” about the performance (Jones was very pitchy and Wenkoff was a lump). In Act One, a Wagner freak near us in the audience began singing along with Isolde’s “Luft! Luft!”and continued on despite vigorous shushing. I think I was in the balcony. I definitely recall that Jones was a committed actress.

  • NoelAnn

    Was the soprano Hildegard Behrens ?

  • Orlando Furioso

    I hope Troyanos was always the intended Brangena in planning 1981, “Habet acht, habet ach…”

    Actually, I think it was for this revival (though it may have been the next in 1983, when Behrens was Isolde) that Yvonne Minton was announced for Brangäne. It was one of several hopeful announced returns for Minton to the Met in those years (another was in the Handel Samson) that didn’t work out; in fact she had quietly retired from performing. She made a bit of a return later in the 1980s with carefully selected roles but it didn’t really work out. I remain sorry at the early withdrawal of such a special artist. Her Met career remains 14 performances, 2 runs of Octavian.

    • Krunoslav

      Yes, Minton was meant to appear (I was looking forward to hearing her live) and as I recall Tatiana-- with whom I was indeed on a first-name basis as a teenager, the only famous singer of whom I can say that--was also scheduled to appear in the run.

      When Minton canceled, Tatiana did all of the performances. She was, as many know, very self-critical, and she was not happy with her opening night, when she was sick. But she did recover and according to friends ( I could not face the prospect of Gwyneth’s Isolde again) she sounded lovely in much of the music.

      She came back and did more Branagaenes opposite the Comparable Hildegarde in 1983-- she of course fared much better in the role than had Gwyneth, quite exciting, though since I like a middle voice in Isolde’s music :) I preferred Johanna Meier, who was saddled with inadequate partners ( Jung and the clueless Lorna Myers, only Talvela was near her level) and given no rehearsal.

      • Buster

        Were Minton’s Lyric Genevieves with Stratas and Hadley her final US performances?

        She was still superb, a singer from a different age. Genevieve is a key figure in the opera, the only one giving actual information, and Minton, a tall and most beautiful woman, seemed to realize this from the start. She was more urgent and immediate than the other Genevieves I have seen. Splendid!

        • peter

          I guess I was lucky to have heard MInton’s only role at the Met: Octavian. Kruno, you will be happy to know that was also Derek Hammond Stroud’s debut :-)

          • Krunoslav

            I saw Hammond-Stroud too, but with Tatiana, Jones and Grist ( and the barely adequate Marius Rintzler).

            Hammond-Strroud was fine as Faninal; but not so hot as Krucina after that.

            He did better at the ENO as both Alberich and Melitone.

          • Regina delle fate

            Slightly off topic, but Krunobait nonetheless, Christine Rice’s biography in Sunday night’s Proms programme says she has an upcoming debut at the Met? Hard to imagine what as, unless it’s a Handel role. :)

            • Hippolyte

              You haven’t been paying attention: he’s been crabbing for months about her MET debut in December as Hansel.

            • Krunoslav

              Well, of all the ridiculous roles to import a singer for, Hansel must be near the top of the list in this age of trouser mezzos on every corner.

              Plus I found Rice’s singing wan and colorless in an ENO PARTENOPE, and in everything else I’ve heard on recordings. Who needs her?

              The cover is Jennifer Johnson Cano, a far more distinctive singer IMO; she has at least one billed performance, and with the very promising Andriana Chuchman instead of the superannuated remains of Christine Schaefer’s voice filtered through her iffy diction.

            • steveac10

              I really don’t get the Met’s casting (past or current) with this Hansel production.Let’s do a German opera in English and then cast non-english speakers in major roles. I also don’t get the Fiend’s bizarre affection for Christine Schafer. Yes, she was a good Lulu a decade ago, but everything else has been fair to middling at best. At least he seems to have given up on casting aging “commonwealth” sopranos and mezzos in character roles. I was shocked when I saw Suzanne Mentzer was the Marcellina for the new Figaro. I assumed it would be Anne Murray or Roz Plowright. Because, we know there are no decent character mezzos in North America.

            • armerjacquino

              Well, of all the ridiculous roles to import a singer for, Hansel must be near the top of the list in this age of trouser mezzos on every corner.

              Ah, I get it. I understand now. This sentence makes it very clear that you feel the *default setting* for any role should be a local singer, and that imports should only happen under exceptional circumstances.

              That must be why we disagree so often- I like opera as an international art form. The last thing I saw at CG was ARIADNE, and I didn’t much care for Donose or Archibald. But I’m glad I got to see them to find out, rather than be restricted to singers who happen to have been born on the same land mass.

  • overstimmelated

    If those weren’t the originally planned leads, you’d never know it from this article:

    • steveac10

      Well, they do mention changes have been made to the cast, but do not specify what those changes were.

      On another note. Everding comes across as a real director. Questioning his initial assumptions and realizing what worked beautifully for one cast, might not with another. I was especially struck by this quote:

      ”You know,” he says, ”Brecht was wrong when he said you could give a production of a drama and let it stand as a model for all eternity. No, you have to keep changing because in the theater we have no such thing as truth, only accuracy -- truth is something for philosophers and theologians. A play or an opera is never finished like a book or a painting, and we directors are constantly challenged to change an audience’s seeing and hearing habits. What was valid 50 years ago cannot be made to look or sound relevant today.

      • Porgy Amor

        Slightly tangential, but as both Everding and the opera Hansel and Gretel have come up tonight, just above: Helga Dernesch’s singing/acting of the mother in his film of that opera is the special greatness you sometimes get in an opera at a point (or role) where you are expecting to settle for much less. The desperation of her prayer seems so real.