Cher Public

Geh such dir die Stars vom vergangenen Jahr!

tristan-flagstad-melchiorOn Monday, the Met kicks off its 132nd season with a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by Mariusz Trelinski, with Sir Simon Rattle leading a premiere cast of Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stuart Skelton, Evgeny Nikitin and René Pape (not pictured). 

Tristan has been the season-launching opera three times before now, but good luck finding someone to provide a firsthand account of the last time. Stemme and Skelton will follow in the footsteps of Flagstad and Melchior (1937), who followed Ternina and Van Dyck (1901), who followed Lehmann and Niemann (1887).

Of these three illustrious pairings, that of Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior is most familiar to us listeners of the 21st century. While Stemme and Skelton will be singing their roles at the Met for the first time, the Scandinavian Connection headlined 67 Met Tristans between 1935 and 1941, both at 39th and Broadway and on tour. The 1937 opening night was the 26th of these. Artur Bodanzky‘s cast also included Kerstin Thorborg, Julius Huehn and Emanuel List.

How “ordinary” was a Flagstad/Melchior Tristan in those days? Reviewing one Saturday matinee of the late 1930s with all five of the above singers and the same conductor, the Herald Tribune took a cautioning note:

The frequenters of out foremost opera house are perhaps beginning to regard the accomplishments of Mme. Flagstad a bit too complacently, for while there was no want of enthusiasm in the reception accorded her, there were numerous vacant seats and the number of standees was considerably smaller that it has been in past seasons at Tristan performances in which she has participated. […] Such artistry is rare in any time, and in our day, when good singing–not to speak of great singing—is all too rarely encountered, it should not be too lightly appraised.

Here are Flagstad, Melchior and Bodanzky in the last performance of the 1937-38 season.

A review of the historical archive illuminates how the different regimes of different times had differing ideas about what an opening night should be. The incumbent general manager has favored new productions of familiar, popular works, and in one case the Met premiere of an opera many considered overdue (Anna Bolena, 2011). Only once has there been a gala, the 2008 Renée Fleming showcase.

Those productions have covered the spectrum from triumphant (Madama Butterfly) to dismal (Tosca) to just “there” (…actually, all of the others), but they have brought to opening night some excitement that had ebbed away in the Crawford/Southern/Volpe years. In that era, it usually seemed as though the previous season were picking up where it had left off, with a business-as-usual Aïda, Bohème or Carmen slapped onto the stage in an existing production that had worked or had not worked, plus one big star.

“But opera is about the singing!” you say. Yes, yes. In more distant times, opening night was often a time of important musical debuts. This is something of which we have not seen much in recent decades. In the Gelb era, there have been the slim pickings of Stephen Costello (2007) and Amanda Majeski (2014)… the former in a comprimario role, the latter as an emergency replacement. New faces to begin the season were few and far between in the 20 years prior to Gelb’s time too. José Cura had been highly touted in advance in 1999, but he was an anomaly.

As you will see below, in the Met’s first century, many significant artists were initially heard on opening night. There were so many such examples that I had to leave many out of my survey in the interests of brevity and balance: Geraldine Farrar, Emmy Destinn, Tullio Serafin, Fritz Busch, Erna Berger, George London, Giulietta Simionato, Bonaldo Giaiotti, Florence Quivar, Kurt Moll. In first-night casting, at least, the most recent regimes have been in agreement, sticking with the tried and true.

Here is just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on opening night through the years at the Met.

dippel1890: The seven-year-old company dared to open the season with a work little known at the time and even less well known today. Franchetti’s Asrarel, a mystical mash-up of Meyerbeerian, Wagnerian and Italian influences, was said to have had some overseas success. An anonymous New York Times reviewer handled it cautiously:

The opera was received with no small favor, but it will have to grow into deep public affection. It is not the kind of work to carry an audience by storm. There is too much thought in it.

This brain food may have proved indigestible to New Yorkers of the Gilded Age; the work did not grow into deep public affection. After five performances, it was not heard again at the Met. Of the cast members, several of them debuting artists, only tenor Andreas Dippel lasted past the 1890-91 season. He proved valuable in a wide range of repertoire over the following 18 years.

For its tenth anniversary, the Met returned to the opera with which it had all begun, Gounod’s Faust. The entire previous season had been wiped out by an August 1892 fire, allegedly caused by a workman’s casually discarded cigarette. Recorded the Times:

There is scarcely a reminder of the old Metropolitan Opera House in the magnificent new building[,] a marvel of brightness in color and grace in all its outlines. The severe decorations of the auditorium, which was destroyed by the big fire, have given place to brighter ornamentation, and, while the seating capacity of the house has been materially increased, the comfort of its patrons has been steadily kept in view in the arrangement of the changes.

Surely, all thought of ornamentation and outlines was put to the side when Emma Eames and brothers Jean and Edouard de Reszke got their Goethe on.

caruso1903: “Not that he is the greatest tenor ever heard in New York,” the Sun hastened to assure its readers about a new singer who was no Jean de Reszke or Francesco Tamagno. “He pretends to be such a singer in his part as [Marcella] Sembrich is in hers.” Such remarks were typical within the press’s generally complimentary notices for Enrico Caruso. The 30-year-old Neapolitan, acclaimed elsewhere in the world, debuted as Rigoletto‘s Duke alongside Sembrich and Antonio Scotti.

cavalieri1907: Cilea’s seemingly unkillable Adriana Lecouvreur got its first Met hearing, showcasing a star tenor and a soprano considered one of the world’s most beautiful women. “How poor a vehicle the opera is for the exhibition of Mr. Caruso’s extraordinary gifts and powers,” clucked the formidable Henry Krehbiel in the Herald Tribune. “Adriana is not for such as this; rather it is for such as Mme. [Lina] Cavalieri, who has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures, and act as opera people act.”

de-luca1916: “Pearls of song by all-star anglers were never cast before a more brilliant assemblage […] The old Metropolitan put its best foot forward as it hasn’t done in years,” raved the Evening Sun‘s W. H. Chase at the company’s first complete performance of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, starring Frieda Hempel, Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca. Despite this enthusiasm, the opera received only two more Met performances, sank to the depths for nearly a century, and resurfaced looking very different.

gallicurci1921: Curiously, the American‘s Max Smith suggested that Verdi’s La traviata may have been too slight an offering for this occasion.

[T]he work has none of the spectacular glories usually associated with the opening night. […] Traviata, as all of us know, affords no opportunity for big ensembles, for massed effects, for the combined assault of cumulative sonority and gorgeous pageantry upon eye and ear.”

One suspects this gifted writer would never have foreseen Meyerbeer’s fall from fashion. Still, Smith found excitement in the debut of soprano Amelita Galli-Curci.

[H]ow fascinating is Amelita’s impersonation of Violetta, already made familiar during her association with the visiting Chicago Opera Company! How imaginatively vivacious in the first act; how pathetic in the second; how tragic in the last. It was fitting, indeed, that [general manager] Giulio Gatti-Casazza should bring forward his latest “star” in Traviata. For surely no other role reveals her own peculiar powers, histrionic as well as vocal, to greater advantage; none permits her to disclose more affectingly the characteristic delicacy of her art, the essentially feminine charm of her persuasions.

Beniamino Gigli and De Luca supplied the masculine charm.

pinza1926: Another work not long for the Met’s repertory inaugurated the 43rd season, as a 34-year-old bass made his company debut in Spontini’s admired La vestale. “Ezio Pinza, a newcomer, orated the bass pronouncement of the Pontifex Maximus and gave promise of being a useful addition to the company. There is little else to be said. The audience was large, but the familiar excitement of an opening night was absent,” wrote W. J. Henderson in the Sun. Maestro Serafin’s cast included Rosa Ponselle, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and De Luca. Vestale would receive only two more Met performances, but Pinza would settle in until 1948.

caniglia1938: As Smith had in 1920, the Herald Tribune’s Lawrence Gilman mused on what constituted appropriate opening-night fare:

From a strictly realistic standpoint, it does not matter very much […] [T]he inaugural work could be almost any choice at all from the Metropolitan’s extensive repertoire, active or inactive. It might be Tristan or Mignon, Madama Butterfly or Dinorah–perhaps only Parsifal or In the Pasha’s Garden would not serve.

On this occasion, it was Otello. Giovanni Martinelli and Lawrence Tibbett returned to roles in which they were building legends, and Verdi’s score was in the hands of one of its great conductors, Ettore Panizza. Debuting soprano Maria Caniglia would not remain with the company for long, but her Desdemona made a strong impression:

[T]he Neapolitan soprano […] is a singing-actress of exceptional feeling and sincerity, a gracious and gentle personality, equipped with a sense of the theater and a voice which often serves her responsively as a vehicle of dramatic utterance and lyric speech. She was vocally ill at ease in the first two acts, but later she sang with greater freedom and security, and often with affecting beauty and communicative eloquence.

The season and the eventful tenure of GM Rudolf Bing began with Verdi’s Don Carlo, featuring six notable debuts: sopranos Delia Rigal and Lucine Amara, mezzo Fedora Barbieri, bass Cesare Siepi, director Margaret Webster and designer Rolf Gérard. Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines completed the principal cast; Fritz Stiedry conducted. At this time, the opera itself could still be described as “Verdi’s gloomy and seldom-heard Don Carlo” (Max de Schauensee, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin). But Virgil Thomson was happy to see it back after a 27-year absence:

[T]his ever-so-grand grand opera is perfectly suited to the space and paraphernalia possibilities of New York’s historic music theater. It is also a fine vehicle for musical display, and last night’s performance was not wanting in grandeurs from the auditory wing.

He praised the sophisticated work of the director and designer.

callas1956: The heavily hyped Met debut of Maria Callas (Bellini’s Norma) was, like so much else about this singer, controversial. Bing, Callas herself and many attendees claimed she had not been at her best. The Saturday Review‘s oft-dyspeptic Irving Kolodin left a judicious assessment that stands the test of time, not only as regards this performance but Callas’s art:

The kind of voice, basically, requires some consideration. It is what every great artist’s means of communication becomes: an extension of her own personality. That personality is dynamic, highly charged, tigerish, and utterly under discipline. So, too, the voice is dynamically dramatic, produced as though it might be torn from the singer’s insides, and presided over with an almost visible concern for every word and note she sings. Nothing is thoughtless, left to chance, or without total purpose. Factually, Miss Callas cannot afford to perform otherwise, for were she dependent on the pure physical beauty of the sound she produces she would be sung out of sight by many people presently inconspicuous.”

Barbieri, Siepi and Mario del Monaco were this fabled Norma’s colleagues and competitors.

daily-news1966: The Met’s state-of-the-art Lincoln Center home flung open its doors for the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra with Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz. The story of that inauspicious beginning is a familiar one. Franco Zeffirelli‘s elaborate production was critically savaged, and the Christian Science Monitor adjudged the opera inferior to the composer’s Vanessa (“At times tedium was definitely on hand”). Reviews for the venue were considerably better. Inez Robb (under her nom de plume, Nancy Randolph), covering for the Daily News, beseeched:

“New Yorkers at all levels have been talking, day and night, about quitting this city. It’s ‘so tired,’ ‘so sooty,’ ‘so traffic-choked,’ this ‘irritating island’ with its ‘horrid sights and sounds.’ Now, won’t these dear people please stay? There are new wonders here in New York and they’ve been wrought while the complainers were busy with pale martinis and dark moods.”

raimondi1970: What the New Yorker‘s Winthrop Sargeant found “an unusually sedate and refined” opening night may impress us as more special 46 years later: Verdi’s Ernani conducted by Thomas Schippers, starring Martina Arroyo, Carlo Bergonzi, Sherrill Milnes and debuting bass Ruggero Raimondi. Sargeant felt that baritone Milnes, already a local favorite, had won the evening, but he praised the new kid too: “[A] young Bolognese named Ruggero Raimondi […] sang with fine quality and style, making an impression that will entitle him to many a future role at the Metropolitan Opera. He is not a deep bass, but he is one with plenty of velvet and a commanding stage presence.” Indeed, Raimondi frequently returned, most recently in 2008.

scotto1981: Andrew Porter found little to cheer in a Norma remembered as a lowlight of Renata Scotto‘s distinguished Met career.

No one seemed very much interested in anyone else, and the drama dragged. If Miss Scotto’s technical execution was faulty, the others [Tatiana Troyanos, Plácido Domingo and Bonaldo Giaiotti] lacked delicacy, refinement—the individual touches, vocal and dramatic, by which imaginative singers bring Bellini’s opera to life. The approach of the conductor, James Levine, did not encourage them to finesse. He laid out foursquare metronomic rhythms. He was energetic and assured, […] but he showed almost no feeling for sensitive, flexible shaping of Bellini’s melodies.

norman1983: The Met marked 100 years of flush times and lean times, the forgettable and the unforgettable, with a work close to the heart of music director Levine: Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens. The large cast included Troyanos, Domingo and Jessye Norman, making her house debut as Cassandre (“She delivered her pronouncements with magnificent tone and searing authority, and while her figure is of the same Wagnerian proportions as her voice, she moved with as much grace as grandeur,” per the Daily News). The tenor had had second thoughts about his role’s tessitura and even had asked to be relieved of the assignment. Although his reviews in the main were good, four performances of Enée in this run would be the only ones of his career.

hofmann1986: In a decade that saw several innovative Rings around the world, the Met put its technical and monetary resources in the service of pictorial conservatism. The Times‘s Donal Henahan assessed the first completed entry, Die Walküre:

Feasible, but on the whole so far from being satisfactory in both large and small matters that the success of the cycle may already be in jeopardy. Otto Schenk‘s staging is a schizoid affair, with naturalistic, 19th-century scenery bumping up against naturalistic acting in a 20th-century style. […] Günther Schneider-Siemssen‘s sets, which look as if they were copied from one of the historical dioramas in the Wagner museum at Bayreuth, are not individual in any way, but they please the eye and would serve well in a performance better directed and better sung.

Levine’s premiere cast included Jeannine Altmeyer, Hildegard Behrens, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Hofmann and Simon Estes.

pagliacci1994: General manager Joseph Volpe scored a coup when two of the famous Three Tenors agreed to share opening night in a pairing of Puccini’s Il tabarro (Domingo) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Luciano Pavarotti). Perhaps the bigger news was the 35th Met anniversary of Teresa Stratas. The elusive and mercurial Canadian performed adulterous double duty as Giorgetta and Nedda. Veteran mezzo Florence Quivar made much of relatively little, stealing a scene as Tabarro‘s Frugola. Levine conducted.

butterfly2006: New GM Peter Gelb‘s tenure began with a hit, a fresh take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly by esteemed film director Anthony Minghella in collaboration with his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa. “We are first-time opera makers; it’s not for us to revolutionize opera,” the director said at the time. “It’s for us to understand it and to bring to bear whatever it is that we can bring to the work.” Opera News‘s F. Paul Driscoll described the result as

a clean-lined, luxuriously spare Butterfly that borrows liberally from the traditions of Asian theater. Minghella is not the first director to try this, but no other director has accomplished his unaffected fusion of East and West with such sumptuous flair—abetted here by the sleek settings of Michael Levine and the elegant costumes by Han Feng—or his highly individual musicality.

Levine led Cristina Gallardo-Domas, Marcello Giordani, Maria Zifchak and Dwayne Croft. Sadly, this instant classic was both Minghella’s first opera production and his last. He died in 2008.

  • QuantoPainyFakor
  • Rowna Sutin

    What a great look back at opening nights! Thank you Porgy for your research, and giving us just enough information to whet our collective appetites to scour the Met website for for additional details.

  • Sirotah

    Another invaluable write up from Porgy Amor. Not to rain on the T&I parade but the cold fact remains we do not and may never again have a Flagstad. Stemme surely ain’t her. Not remotely close. Gratefully yours.

    • Tristan_und

      Bring on the They-don’t-sing-like-they-used-to brigade! While Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson (and who is or was besides her?), she’s an expressive and thoughtful singer with sufficient power to be heard over a large orchestra, as we saw and heard last year in Elektra. Please give this bitching and moaning a rest and if you find today’s singers so unworthy, stay home and polish your recordings.

    • PCally

      I’ve yet to read anywhere stemme saying she was and/or wanted to be the next flagstad (or Nilsson for that matter) and of course Flagstad had been dead for decades before stemme made her professional debut. The two are nothing alike as artists.

      • Sirotah

        “The two are nothing alike as artists.”

        Not the way you intended it to come across, I am sure, but, as I understand it, you are unequi-vocally right. ????

        • Rosina Leckermaul

          Did you hear Flagstad live???

          • Bill

            Rosina -- I DID hear Flagstad live in 1951 as Bruennhilde in Walkuere and in 1952 as
            Alcestes also at the Met and her farewell
            concert at Carnegie Hall -- all Wagner.
            She was very stately with a minimum of gestures but very telling. The voice was
            quite different from Nilssons (Cieca -- are we allowed to compare two dead singers), with incomparable richness in the middle and lower ranges. This was of course late in her career -- most critics at the time seemed to
            write that it took a while for her voice to warm up. If listening to other singers I could find
            anyone comparable vocally it would be
            Anny Konetzni in her prime and then later
            Ludmilla Dvorakova who had also a somewhat similar voice sound to that of Flagstad and sounded better in Vienna and in Berlin than she (Dvorakova) did at the Met where I liked her very much but the critics were somewhat middling. When Nilsson made her Met debut as Isolde
            (I was also there) it was a sensation but many old timers compared her at the time
            less favorably to Flagstad in the 1930’s -- early 40s But so goes it -- now every
            Wagnerian soprano is compared to Nilsson or Moedl, or Varnay or Jones or Behrens etc. Stemme is one of the best Wagnerian sopranos available today -- let us see how she does on Monday and in subsequent performances. A rehearsal is not
            indeed a final performance even if there is an audience present -- Were Stemme not available we probably would not be experiencing a new production of Tristan at the Met at this time.

            • La Cieca

              Compare dead singers all you like. And “compare” (in the sense of finding similar qualities of timbre, etc.) currently active singers to those of an earlier era.

              The sort of comparison I ask you not to make is “she wouldn’t have been allowed to wipe Félia Litvinne’s shoes!”

            • Krunoslav

              Litvinne was not a patch on dear old Ruth Packer!

            • Cicciabella

              The Met may have wanted only Stemme as Isolde, Bill, but Treli?ski’s production has already had a run in Baden-Baden in April, with Rattle and the Berliner, Westbroek, Skelton, Sarah Connolly, Michael Nagy and Stephen Milling.The reviews I’ve seen were positive on the whole, although the singer’s direction seems to have puzzled some. Good luck to the Met Opera and best wishes for a wonderful opening night.

            • All Ears

              Worth noting is that the original production for the Met was to be Willy Decker’s -- (it was Decker who wanted Skelton after directing him in Grimes in Tokyo, 2012) -- who sadly, very sadly, had to withdraw. It would have been a very different affair to the Trelinski, bleedingly obvious that, I know.

            • Porgy Amor

              Treli?ski’s production also has appeared (largely to raves) at Treli?ski’s home base of Polish National Opera, where it starred Melanie Diener, Michaela Schuster, Jay Hunter Morris, Tómas Tómasson, and Reinhard Hagen.

            • I AM Michaela Schuster, I don’t care who hates me and I am ALWAYS behind the beat!!!! She is fabulous even when her sound is….

            • marshiemarkII

              Ciccia, thanks for pointing me to the Baden-Baden performances. I am very puzzled and have been thinking about that murder in Act I since the first rehearsal last week, so after your helpful hint, I read a review of Baden but alas no mention of the poor naked and gorgeously limbed hapless torture victim. Echoes of Abu Ghraib?!?!?!

              Anyhow, in that review they mention that in the Liebesnacht they move from the Helm of the ship to a swanky bar in the lower guts of the ship. That means that Trelinski changed something for the Met, as unless you can call a nuclear weapons depot “The Atomic Bar” there is no trace of a bar in this staging.

              Here during Brangaene’s Warning they emerge -- after a trip through space time, black suns, and event-horizons -- going down the same set of stairs from Act I, from the Helm to the lowest rung where the weapons storage is. It is a dark, dusty, smoky and foreboding place. It includes a rack of B61 nuclear bombs on the right side, and green barrels of toxic gases in the middle. The back wall of the ship has exhaust fans that are presumably extracting radioactive air, as the fins are in the shape of the universal icon “DANGER Radiation Area” (with which I am too familiar from my stint at Fermilab many eons ago). Anyway, just the kind of lovely place to have a Liebesnacht.

              So when did it go from a swanky bar to this?!?!

            • Wait, was the torture victim really naked? I remembered him being clothed. He had a wife-beater on with khaki pants I believe, and shoes. It was dark as you mention though so I could be wrong.

              I’m assuming this is the article you found:

              I think I would have preferred the basement bar , especially judging from that picture in the article. I have to say I’m shocked at the description of Skelton’s timbre as “nasal.” I thought he had a very well-produced, round and attractive timbre and I’d say he’s probably the best tenor I’ve seen live up til now.

              Also, re: Stemme, I just wanted to clarify that I didn’t mean to bash her. I think she is a smart woman and a talented performer with a very good instrument, and I’m not complaining that the Met chose her for this. I recognize that there are very few singers who can sing these highly challenging roles and I do hope she’ll improve as the run progresses, however I think the issues I had with her singing have to do with her method of vocal production, which I don’t think will change anytime soon.

            • marshiemarkII

              Chikie your eyes might better than mine :-) I assumed naked because it was the only light color, skin color one sees at all in the surrounding darkness, but you could very well be right. Also the dress rehearsal was a lot darker, in the first rehearal you could see better all the heavily muscled boys everywhere in the first act.

              Yes that is the review but the picture I assume you think is the swanky bar is from the first act, I don’t believe any of the pictures there would qualify as a swanky bar :-) so we will remain in the dark about that one…..

              One thing I have noticed about Stemme is that she is very consistent and sounds exactly the same always, she seems quite healthy, no colds no allergies no variations. What you see is what you get. I saw three Elektras and it was always almost identical but for once she fell behind in the monologue, quickly corrected. Otherwise the voice always the same, and same with this Tristan

            • marshiemarkII

              But the way Chikie, I do like the second act much more than you seem to. I find it intriguing and so unusual that is refreshing in a very weird sort of way. What I think is a serious misfire, and what really do not like at all is the staging of the Liebestod, silly beyond all silliness, way out to the right, crying over the sitting mummy of Tristan that somehow got up after death to put back on an impeccable naval uniform. What would have been wrong with having her center stage, in that acoustically fabulous set, and just a spotlight?. This is one place where less would have been more, a lot more.

            • I think I read on the Met website that Treli?ski wanted a decidedly “unchristian ending”, but I don’t disagree with you that the ending wasn’t as dramatically effective as it could have been.

            • She was outstanding only four years back at at the Salle Pleyel. Of course a concert performance in a hall of relatively reasonable dimensions isn’t the same as acting the thing out in a place the size of the Met, but I wouldn’t have thought there could be many better singers available for the role.

            • Krunoslav

              ” I wouldn’t have thought there could be many better singers available for the role.”


    • Stephen D. Ward

      Blind adulation is poor criticism. Flagstad had a voice that was very slow to sound, too, so most of the time she was behind the beat. There is no perfect voice.

    • La Cieca

      Because you are new here, I am going to be gracious and remind you that this kind of pointless comparison between live, active artists and dead artists is a type of comment that gets people banned.

      And fucking quit it with the patronizing “ain’t.”

      • Sirotah

        Notice taken. Meant no offense.

  • Porgy Amor

    One thing I’ve learned from poking around in the old reviews for these pieces, and just for my own amusement before I started writing them: No matter what era it is, reviewers are never satisfied with the general state of singing. Even when they praise someone highly, as that Herald Tribune reviewer did Flagstad, the object of the praise is presented as a shining exception to the general mediocrity (1937 as a time when “good singing--not to speak of great singing--is all too rarely encountered”!). You read the same from the 1890s, the 1910s, the 1950s, any time. James Joyce was on to something with that Mr. Browne character in The Dead.

  • Williams

    More T&I parade rain: Is there a precedent for Rush tickets on opening night? With Hillary and that thing on TV will there be an even less full house after act II?

    • Donna Annina

      In addition to all that, we’re going to hear Ta-Nahasi Coates. We figure we’ll still get to hear the end of Act II and most of Act III when we get home.

      • Williams

        T’challa: “I feel blinded by the past, engulfed in a fog of all my defeats.” Black Panther would make for a pretty fine opera.

        • Donna Annina

          Didn’t Anthony Davis already do that?

          • Williams

            Oops! I was suggesting the comic book currently being written by Ta-Nahesi Coates.

            • Donna Annina

              Looks like I’ll be in the chat room for the evening.
              “We have received some heartbreaking news. Due to health issues Ta-Nehisi Coates’s talk at Xavier University has been cancelled. We are working to reschedule his talk for another date.”
              :--(. Hope he’s ok.

            • Krunoslav

              Is this person a lineal or collateral descendant of Albert Coates (or dear old Edith Coates, the finest Old Countess since the War)?


  • Another great read, Porgy. You do these looks back so artfully.

    I love reading the reviews of yesteryear because they often feature such flair for words.

  • Good afternoon everyone! I had the immense pleasure of attending the final dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde at the Met yesterday afternoon, thanks to the wonderful MarshieMarkII, who was kind enough to invite me! This was an indelible experience for me for many reasons, but most of all because what I heard yesterday was simply the best conducting and best orchestral playing I have heard thus far at the Met and in my entire opera-going experience (which is admittedly short compared to many of you, but I’m working on it ;-)). We were siting in the second row of Grand Tier where the sound is amazing. Better than in the orchestra I think. Those of you who have the opportunity to see and hear this live should go and I think it will be a success for the Met, as they’ve assembled a wonderful cast and the production is captivating and interesting (save for Act II which I didn’t really care for). Acts I and III were especially effective. *Spoiler alert* for those who haven’t seen the production skip the next three paragraphs!

    I wouldn’t say the production is particularly innovative in terms of shedding light on certain aspects of the opera or it’s characters, but it is visually captivating, interesting and does present the story well. I also think Tremlisky struck the right balance between surreal and expressionistic visual/technological effects and a more concrete setting. I particularly enjoyed Act I. The nautical themes and context, especially the image of the sonar radar which was an effective symbol to accompany the long orchestral lines and the ‘pulsing’ of the orchestra were things I liked, and I also liked that the sonar image was featured during the overture as well. When done right, staging the overture can be very effective, although in this case it wasn’t really a ‘staging’ but more an image used to accompany the music, so the impression was more cinematic.

    I liked that the set for Act I was multi-tiered and that screens were used to show black and white closeups of Stemme. It reminded me of the Beito production of Die Soldaten I saw in Berlin and it gave the opera an expressionistic sentimentality and film noir tinge that went well with the opera, especially since Wagner’s orchestral writing is so profoundly nostalgic with so many wonderful harmonic suspensions. I also liked the use of the black sun even if it wasn’t a novel concept since here there were added effects like the surrounding dark black flames. Acts II and II didn’t feature panels which I thought was a smart move on the director’s part, but I didn’t like the setting of the latter end of Act II after they sing the famous love duet,O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” . The staging of the duet itself and the lighting effects I did like, but the confrontation scene between Melot, Kign Marke and Tristan I didn’t care for. They were still aboard the ship in some sort of arsenal, with missiles and radiation fans in the back wall, and large green gas tanks, some of which were knocked down by Skelton and others at various points. It was very obvious that they were made out of rubber and bounced off the floor when they were knocked down, which cheapened the drama.

    Act III was interesting and I would like to see it again in the HD before commenting on it since there were some details which aren’t visible from far away, especially the interaction with the little boy, who could be a representation of his younger self, a figment of his imagination or a representation of his subconscious perhaps. The staging consisted of an abstract cube of green lasers projecting onto the audience in 3D fashion, with Tristan on a sick bed with an IV in the middle of a dark black room with a mirror and a door on the left of the stage and some sinks on the back wall and on the right. The black walls begin to project black images of trees and the set transforms into the interior of what looks like a run down cottage, as Tristan reminisces about the mournful tune that played when he was told about the death of his parents. Skelton gave an amazing performance in this scene, which brings me to the singing.

    I thought Skelton and Pape were superb and Nikitin was great as well. All the men gave excellent performances which I greatly enjoyed. Skelton in particular has a gorgeous, round, sizeable voice and sang with warmth, passion and a wonderful Wagnerian line. He was at his absolute limit in Act III and his voice gave out at the end but I honestly didn’t think it detracted from the stellar performance he otherwise gave plus the breakdown was totally in character. A few high notes sounded a bit under powered, but perhaps he was saving his voice for the premiere. Gubanova gave a solid and committed performance and sounded best in Act III.

    The one disappointment was Nina Stemme in the role of Isolde. I will be honest and say that, while it wasn’t a bad performance by any means I really didn’t care for her singing at all. She certainly had great moments though. Her soft singing was lovely and she can project over the orchestra well, her high C’s were clean and dead on pitch, in fact she didn’t have any intonation issues whatsoever, but to my ears she sounded shrill and wobbly for the most part. There is just no gleam in her voice. She just sounds like she is screaming and she just couldn’t get a proper line going; every time she would go for a crescendo the vibrato sounded slapped on and the line sounded wobbly and unsteady, especially compared to the men who were pouring out line after line of superb legato.

    Of course, it was early in the day and it took her a while to warm up which is understandable. She did sound better in Acts II and III but I just don’t think she is right for this role, at least not at this stage of her career. Perhaps a few years ago it would have been better. She gets the job done so to speak but overall the singing is labored and she didn’t project that well in the lower registers, though she was never inaudible. I had liked her in Elektra, which is why I was so disappointed in her performance here. She certainly looked great and gave a very impassioned portrayal, though I thought she looked a bit manic and frantic at times, always walking away from Tristan during their duets, and I don’t know if it was the director’s choice or not, but I thought she was overly abusive toward Brangäne, especially in the beginning of Act II. She kept pushing her hard against the floor when Brangäne was trying to warn her not to give the signal, and all that physical violence made her seem a bit hysterical and unhinged quite frankly. Ii just wasn’t a very sympathetic portrayal, at least in terms of the master/servant dynamic. But maybe she wasn’t meant to be portrayed as fragile and sympathetic. In any case it proves the point that women can be just as abusive, and even moreso than men. I’m looking forward to the HD, though I’d love to see a revival of this with another soprano as Isolde, if there is one who can actually sing it lol.

    As I mentioned above, the orchestra sounded heavenly and I got shivers up and down my arms several times. What was particularly great was that Rattle didn’t linger too much on the harmonic suspensions so the tempo wasn’t slow or turgid. It was passionate but lively and energetic and the time just flew by! It didn’t feel like 5 hours had gone by at all! He did a phenomenal job.

    My thanks to Marshie again for the invitation and his lovely company. He is an upbeat, generous soul, not to mention funny and so full of energy!! I could hardly keep up with him in my heels! LOL and I enjoyed chatting with him immensely!

    • PCally

      Sounds very exciting. Rattles Wagner is superb and I’ve yet to hear his Tristan but it’s probably the most exciting aspect of the performance for me. You’ve summed up my feelings about stemme. It’s a sizable voice but the degree to which it fills a hall is exceptionally variable and I think the voice doesn’t corner well because it’s so heavily weighted in the middle and when she begins it sounds a little thick voiced. And I think the tone and this point isn’t really attractive.

      • Precisely and yes it was incredibly exciting since, as I mentioned this was my first Tristan and my first time seeing any Wagner opera ever live! I should also add that the Met titles were pretty good and I’m glad I got to enjoy some of the beautiful poetry of the text.

        Am going to read Porgy’s wonderful posts now and watch some of those legendary performances. I didn’t watch any before, and I did listen to almost all of Act I of the T&I that Jungfer posted but that’s it. I wanted to go into the performance with a clean slate so as not to be prejudiced. And now that I have, I can compare lol

    • marshiemarkII

      Mille grazie for the complimenti cara Chiquita, and the pleasure was mine in your lovely company.

      I think you did a fantastic job with your long review that I no longer can afford to do these days. The descriptions of the production are spot on, I’d just like to add the elements of extreme violence that pervade every act. There is what to me is an unwarranted brutal murder of a sailor-prisoner, naked and hand bound in Tristan’s “office” (torture chamber) in the ship, in Act I while Brangene and arguing with Kurwenal. The murderer who shoots him seems to be Tristan himself……

      And then after the Liebesnacht, when they are discovered by a Nazi posse led by Melot gives Tristan a beating that would make any one of the Clockwork Orange boys blush, he is left as pulp on the floor, of the nuclear bomb storage space in the ship, where they had escaped to have their little thing, in the Nacht der Liebe. He manages to get up later for his monologue, only to be brutally beaten up again, and then shot, over the gloriously tragic music of the postlude to Act II, very powerful, but very unsettling.

      On the singers full agreement on Stemme who sounded like Marton in the late 90s on a really bad day….. enough said. A Liebestod with no lift?!?!?!?!?!?! no soaring, no radiance?!?!?!?!?!

      Chikie gives effusive praise to the divine Stuart Skelton, but it is way an understatement of one of the most overwhelming Act IIIs I ever experienced, astonishing singing and unbelievable stamina and above all, he SANG till the last magnificent note!!!! Not one shout or scream in an unimpeachable musical performance of the highest order. In an earlier review I said “rookie that he is”, the joke was on ME, that was an idiotic statement that I am herewidth fully taking back. Anyone who can sing an Act III of Tristan like THAT is someone already headed for the history books…..Note I said above “one of the most overwhelming Act IIs ever” only because I saw Jon Vickers in Chicago in 1980, and of course I am an official card-carrying Jon Vickers queen, otherwise I would have said simply THE most overwhelming Act III I ever witnessed. The guy is quite simply sensational

      • Yes! Thanks for talking about the elements of violence that do indeed pervade each act which I neglected to mention. I thought those dramatic elements you very accurately described were very effective in that they were not overdone. It all seemed very realistic and yes that was indeed Tristan who fatally shot the prisoner.

        In Act II Isolde also visits Tristan’s office/quarters on the ship and, while she scolds him for his actions, she pointed at gun at him, his own gun I believe as well. I actually liked that because it showed that she is feisty and bold, and she felt betrayed by him and was angry, plus it underscores the danger and toxicity of their relationship. Stemme was very good in that scene, and when they drank the potion the orchestra was riveting. But yes it was a dark and violent production. I don’t know why the violence between Isolde and Brangäne seemed particularly disturbing. I guess I just wasn’t expecting it, and I guess I’ve also become desensitized to violence perpetrated by men toward other men. However, Isolde is a volatile character in the opera, and the idea of portraying her as a violent character, arguably even more violent than Tristan (she did plan to poison him after all) is justifiable in a sense.

        • La Cieca

          “In Act II Isolde also visits Tristan’s office/quarters on the ship and, while she scolds him for his actions, she pointed at gun at him”

          I haven’t seen the show of course, but this sounds like it belongs in Act 1?

          • yes, sorry, Act I when she confronts him about evading her and ignoring her summons. I’ll fix that.

            • marshiemarkII

              Chiquita, regarding the pistol’s ownership the staging is insufficiently clear for a number of reasons. To wit, Isolde spends half of the act wailing why a royal princess such as herself has not been paid honors by Tristan (the lady doth protest too much) in HER chambers. In this production we see one of the many INdiscrepancies (TM Donald the moron Trump Jr :-) ) with the libretto. As you may recall, in this staging she is finally led down two flights of stairs to Tristan’s dungeon office, and still made to wait, until he deigns to appear……. (incidentally the same chamber where a murder just took place), then at her imprecations he talks about “das schwert” that she once already had a chance to use, and yet dropped (Narrative), and in this production he instead hands her over his gun. She points it to his chest and then to his forehead and then surprise surprise, she drops it again :-) :-) :-) I do grant that it was so dark you could have easily missed that little piece of mise en scene.

              This is all in the original text, but for the many reinterpretations that will become wilder and wilder as the acts progress, but they are all based on some aspect of the original

            • yes she does indeed protest too much; Skelton’s reluctant stoicism seemed a perfect reaction to her aggression in that scene. I really enjoyed the interplay. I remember that it was her narrating about how she dropped the knife, for some “unknown” reason instead of him though, and I remember our conversation about how that may have been her subconscious manifesting itself…but yes I agree it was ambiguous and went well with the text.

            • INdiscrepancies (TM Donald the moron Trump Jr :-) )

              Hilarious -- I missed that one!

    • Porgy Amor

      I don’t know if it was the director’s choice or not, but I thought she was overly abusive toward Brangäne, especially in the beginning of Act II. She kept pushing her hard against the floor when Brangäne was trying to warn her not to give the signal, and all that physical violence made her seem a bit hysterical and unhinged

      Well, I hope it was the director’s choice! Ha ha.

      Thanks for the write-up.

      • PCally

        I must have been because gubanova doesn’t look like she would take any kind of shit. I’ve seen her in this role and thought she was the best I’ve seen live (though I really did like Dalayman quite a bit).

    • Lohenfal

      Thanks for the detailed review, Anti. I’ll keep it in mind when I see Tristan in 2 weeks. Your reservations about Stemme were especially interesting. If you remember, I wasn’t enthused about her Elektra, but I’ll try to keep an open mind about her Isolde. The last one I saw was Voigt’s, hardly perfect, so maybe I won’t mind whatever problems exist.

      Hope you get to see more Wagner, although you’ll probably have to travel to other venues, since the Met no longer does him very often. As you can tell from Porgy’s retrospective, Tristan was once a lot more popular here than it is now. We’re lucky to get even one Wagner in a season nowadays.

    • spiderman

      I always thought it was bad manners to review singers in a rehearsal, because even the dress rehearsal is still part of a work in progress.

      • Armerjacquino

        It is, but it’s pretty common now. Personally the idea of being reviewed at a dress rehearsal brings me out in a cold sweat.

      • PCally

        I agree in theory but the met opens up their dress rehearsals to the public so it can’t be unexpected that people have opinions already. The above review is also an overall positive one that does acknowledge that it is a dress rehearsal. Nothing rude about it.

        Also it’s not exactly new. All of the singers have been leading exponents of their roles for a solid amount of time and the production was a very high profile premiere just last year.

        • Armerjacquino

          All that’s true- like I said, it’s very common and that’s no real surprise. But it’s not really a question of how experienced the singers are in the part, or how positive any review is, it’s more a question of mindset. A dress rehearsal shouldn’t be approached like a performance for all kinds of reasons, and if a singer knows that the rehearsal will be discussed online it adds an extra layer of unwanted pressure. I’ve also seen, here and elsewhere, videos of singers clearly marking with a raft of comments underneath saying how toneless and underpowered the singing is.

      • Well but what I wrote above is not a formal “review”. I’m not a professional critic and of course I do agree and acknowledge that it was a dress rehearsal I saw, and thus not a finished product. Plus people are free to disagree with me. I posted a comment merely to share some impressions on what I saw/heard, and to actually encourage people to go see the opera, not as a final denouement of the artistic performance and its value(s). If what you mean though is that it’s bad manners to post *opinions and impressions period* based on a dress rehearsal that’s different and I will acknowledge that you may have a point. But I wasn’t intending to influence anyones opinion or perception of the piece and I fully acknowledge and hope that the actual performances that will be performed before the general public can and will improve.

        • spiderman

          But it is still an opinion where you for instance precisely write, what you disliked in Nina Stemme’s singing. She might have still tried some things or adjusted herself to accoustics, balance or whatever. I am not defending Stemme at all, not having heard her life for some years and I am not saying you can’t have your opinion -- but I think for negative expressions a rehearsal is definitely not the right source.

          • Ok that’s fine. You have a right to think that. However I disagree because I don’t think it’s bad manners to be honest about one’s impression of a performance be it positive or negative as long as it isn’t disrespectful or an outright lie. I only intended to be honest, not to bash Stemme or anyone else. I think whether you reserve judgment or reserve expressing an opinion up until a certain point is a personal choice, but idk that there’s any hard like rule about such things. The performance I saw was a final dress rehearsal and based on my impression it didn’t seem like Stemme was marking or singing very differently that she would later on during the ‘real’ performances. Of course I could be wrong but it’s a matter of opinion and contention.

            • spiderman

              So we agree to disagree … it is still not a “performance”, as you name it two times (once combined with “dress rehearsal”) and as I said, I am not focusing on Stemme here but on the fact that singers must be allowed to try something out in a fair surrounding -- this is why a rehearsal is called rehearsal. (Even if somebody would sing so badly and no improvement could be expected in hundred years I would not give a review, opinion or hars words ybout it, unless it was a real public performance.)

            • Yes we will agree to disagree then because while the dress rehearsal that I saw wasn’t a performance open to the *general* public it was still a performance, albeit in rehearsal form, that wasn’t closed either.

              More importantly, I wonder if you would be so quick to say it was bad manners if I would have raved about Stemme instead. Feel free to correct me if Im wrong but I haven’t seen any complaints from anyone when someone writes positive criticism of a singer based on a dress rehearsal. A lot of times people will defend singers against negative criticism of subsequent performances based on dress rehearsals, especially if, for instance, a singer sounds great during a rehearsal but subsequently gets sick and can’t sing as well during later performances. So it goes both ways really.

              People dont only chastise singers for supposedly sub-par rehearsal performances but laud them for good and great ones as well. So, my question to you is why is it only bad manners if you give a *negative* opinion of a singer’s dress rehearsal performance?

            • P.S. sorry for the asterisks. Am not trying to sound pretentious but am on my phone and it’s cumbersome to use italics.

            • spiderman

              Did you pay for your entrance fee? Did anybody pay for it? So it is just an open dress rehearsal but still not a performance.
              And of course there is a difference saying positive or negative things about a singer, performer, public speaker or whatever just before they go on stage, on the podium or -- again -- whatever. This can’t be your serious argument.
              All I was saying is: an artist should indeed have the right to work on his or her art unless they go into publc. Singing is just so difficile an art, that is just plain unfair to not give them room and wait with negative comments unless they sing true performances. Just my 2 cents.

            • I dont disagree that artists have the right to work on his or her art until going public and I certainly don’t think by me sharing some informal opinions prevents them from doing so, since my comments were not part of any formal review as I said and I didn’t go to the performance with the mindset of judging it as I would a performance open to the general public. I encouraged others to go see the performance, and implicit in that is that they form their own opinions about the performances, which don’t have to align with mine. Further, I think it’s a huge double standard to only allow positive comments of a singer or performer when it comes to dress rehearsals or any type of performance. Of course singers deserve respect, and one can choose to overlook certain things and be generous considering that that there is room and time for improvement, but I don’t think it should cross over to blind adulatation or complete disregard of standards. Finally, I don’t think I said anything that would disparage anyone’s chance of success and I do sincerely hope that they all have a huge success with this run.

            • marshiemarkII

              Chikita you are doing wonderful, “deja que los PERROS ladren que la caravan continua!”

  • Pete

    “The wobble is often quite accepted in more dramatic German Opera” says one authority. Will Nina Stemme’s vibrato be wobbling?

    Audio clips …

    here (Mir erkoren, mir verloren in Act 1):

    and here (the Liebestod): (way at the bottom of the page)

    … seem to present Ms. Stemme with her vibrato under control … pleasant even.

    Will she be bringing that pleasant effect to the MetOpera Tristan?

    • thanks for sharing those Pete. In the video you shared she sounds much better than she did in the dress rehearsal I attended. The voice is much more under control. When was that video taken?

      • Pete

        Assuming that both the NYT and MetOpera clips are from very recent prep for this Tristan run.

        • Cicciabella

          That clip looks like it’s from the 2007 Glyndebourne production, where the action takes place in a sort of giant womb. Stemme was in very fine voice.

        • Yes I think Cicciabella is right. That clip of Stemme is not from the Met’s current production and Stemme looks much younger. If it’s from 2007 it’s almost ten years old. Not sure about the Liebestod that’s posted on the website though.