When Janice Baird made her triumphant debut last night as Isolde, stepping in for the ailing Deborah Voigt in this year's troubled revival of Richard Wagner's work, she brought with her over a decade of international operatic singing. Ms. Baird's roster of major Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Italian roles have been the staple of opera houses from Tokyo to Berlin, Buenos Aires to Vienna. She is an accomplished artist, who began her career as a mezzo and developed into a dramatic soprano under the guidance of such notable Wagnerians of the past as Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay, whom she credits as two of her most important vocal coaches.
But everything changed last night: she made her official Metropolitan Opera debut! I stress official because last week Ms. Baird was pushed onstage to continue the role of Isolde when Ms. Voigt was suddenly stricken with some kind of stomach malady which forced her to run from the stage. As Ms Voigt's stand-in, Ms Baird finished the performance to great applause and cheers.
Last night she got to do it all from the start. If you were lucky enough to be there, save your little paper insert that appeared inside your playbill. Since Ms. Voigt's cancellation came in after the programs had already been printed, this is your only record of her debut.
Ms. Baird's Isolde was filled with energy and passion. Sure of herself vocally, and surprisingly comfortable with the production's staging and blocking, her Isolde was a fiery creation whose dark soprano had no problems soaring over the intricate orchestration. Only in the few fortissimo moments of the role did her voice tighten a bit at the top, allowing a smattering of a tremolo to creep through. Isolde's Curse in the first Act was chilling, and the Liebestod at the end was powerful and moving at the same time.
It was a great debut which earned roars of applause and bravos from the audience, making us all keenly aware of the kind of talent available out there which, unfortunately, does not always seem to be tapped at the right time by MET management. Over the years the MET has had singers step in at the last moment to save the day. Leonie Rysanek covered the role of Lady Macbeth in 1959 when Maria Callas was removed from that production, and years later Plácido Domingo filled in for Franco Corelli when the great Italian tenor had to bow out of a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur. For both, Domingo and Rysanek this last minute coverage was the beginning of their stardom.
I hope that it proves to be the same for Ms. Baird, and that Peter Gelb and James Levine consider her for the upcoming Ring Cycle. She will be singing the role of Brünnhilde in Seattle's upcoming new staging of the Ring.
Last night also marked the return of Ben Heppner, looking fit and strong, and delivering one of the best performances I have heard him give. More than in other occasions, Mr. Heppner was vocally secure throughout the entire vocal range, and his third act was truly heartbreaking.
The orchestra under James Levine was the well-oiled machine it has become, with incredible playing in all the sections, and all throughout the evening. Last night, the off-stage banda interplay of horns in the beginning of the Act II was executed with razor sharpness precision and exquisite beauty of tone.
Thankfully, everything went well with the staging. I guess from now on, when Act III begins and the curtains part to reveal Tristan upstage in crucified form, slowly descending towards the apron of the stage, we will all remember the night when Gary Lehman almost became a contender for the luge competition. Let's hope that never happens again.
There's one more performance of Tristan und Isolde left; it is this Friday. Could it possibly be that finally Heppner and Voigt get a chance to sing together? We shall soon know. Please, post your impression of that show if you will be in attendance on Friday.