The commentary that I hear most often by New York seasoned opera goers is that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is a well-oiled machine. Even I, after a particularly satisfying performance, have used similar words to describe this fine orchestra. I have always understood this comment to be a loving compliment which has its roots as a response to the many years when the pit at the MET was not the best musical ensemble in New York City. On the whole, however, I object to this robotic comparison which seems to turn the players into a group of automatons where the conductor pushes a button and off they go playing whatever score is in front of them as predictably as the holes in a piano roll. I am sure that the majority of the players, as a result of their musicianship and the repetitive aspect of opera production, know their parts inside and out, but I hardly think that they should be compared to a heartless machine that just plays the right notes. The greatest achievement that James Levine has accomplished with the orchestra is that he has populated it with intelligent musicians who are flexible enough to be responsive to just about any conductor who comes in to lead them.
This is exactly what happened on Friday night when Daniel Barenboim finally made his debut at the MET conducting the 450th performance of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Peter Seiffert might have been singing his first Tristan along with Katarina Dalayman's first Isolde, but as far as Friday night's audience was concerned all eyes and ears were on the debut occurring in the pit. And the orchestra did not let him down. It responded to Barenboim's baton with such incredible passion and precise playing that in gratitude the maestro made the orchestra stand up to receive the audience's enthusiastic ovation at the beginning of each act.
What does it take to get this incredible sound? An orchestra of accomplished flexible musicians. Under Levine, Tristan und Isolde is a robust wonder, sure of itself at all times and marvelously sonorous. In Levine's hands we are reminded that this opera brings the Romantic movement to its apogee while destroying it completely. In contrast, Barenboim elects to concentrate less on musical history historic; instead his Tristan und Isolde reaches into the dark night of love via his expansive tempi, slowing down the rhythms, and causing the final "Liebestod" conclusion to explode with incredible passion. At the risk of making it all too simplistic, Levine is about precision and brains, while Barenboim is more about instinct and heart. And over and over again, the MET orchestra delivers no matter who carries the baton.
On stage, the musicianship was equally strong. Both Seiffert and Dalayman were excellent in the title roles. Acts I and II were simply perfect. Seiffert survived the musical onslaught of Act III, although his voice was, at times, pushed to its limit. Dalayman sang a very strong Act I and II. However, when she came in at the end of the opera to sing its famed conclusion, it seemed as if her voice had lost much of the warmth we had heard earlier. The "Liebestod" came out a bit breathy, the sound quality totally different from the previous two acts.
Gerd Grochowski's splendid, vocally secured Kurwenal was greeted with enthusiastic applause, and Michelle De Young's Brangäne was a tower of strength in all three acts. The biggest ovation of the evening was reserved for René Pape who returned to the MET to reprise his well-known characterization of King Marke. A very popular singer at the MET, Pape never disappoints. His expressive phrasing and clear diction always make his Act II monologue heart wrenching. Pape will be singing the role for only two performances. South Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, one of the current staples at The Bayreuth Festival for the past few summers, will replace him starting with the December 6th performance.
New York is once again enjoying a very strong revival of Tristan und Isolde. This is probably one of the strongest casts that can be assembled for this opera. It will be playing throughout the month of December. Don't miss it!