Wagner – Tristan und Isolde excerpts

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday July 1 2006

Prelude to act 1, act 2 complete, prelude to act 3 and Liebestod

Conductor: Kurt Masur. Isolde: Deborah Voigt. Tristan: Jon Ketilsson. Brangäne: Iris Vermillion. Kurwenal/Melot: Eika-Wilm Schulte. Marke: Georg Zeppenfeld. Orchestre national de France.

Having followed her career with pleasure and travelled to places like London, Vienna and New York to hear more of her than simply in Paris, I had been worried by what I heard of Deborah Voigt’s Tosca at the Met, after her gastric bypass and amazing “downsizing”. So when Radio France sent out a letter announcing a concert not scheduled at the start of the season, I got tickets.

I’m glad to be able to report, to the many of you holding your breath till now, that though her voice has changed, it has not changed much; and though, physically, she has shrunk amazingly, the vocal changes might be just those that come with age. Of course, I’m basing this on just one recent hearing, but for what it’s worth…

The voice is less homogeneous from bottom to top, with perhaps a touch less body in the lower range; but you could say this means more variety of sound. It was usually described as a “silver” voice; I’d say it’s now more a liquid gold, rounder and warmer and suppler. The very top notes are slightly less secure and certainly less bright; but the power is still there, still used with care, as is the breathing: in Vienna, my great “thing” was that Voigt could sing Isolde, lyrically, not scream it, and still, by the end, give the impression of having reserves in store for the final scene. OK, act 2 is not the whole hog, but to me this feeling of near-endless reserves remained impressive on Saturday night, and the Liebestod, begun with a beautiful pianissimo, worked the same magic for me.

The French critics find her cold and heartless. I don’t see why, but then the French tend to accuse anyone who gets all the notes right of lack of feeling. You could take dictation from Voigt’s performance. However quietly she may sing, you can hear both note and word. So, probably, to come back to Tosca at the Met, she just shouldn’t be singing Tosca.

So, that was a relief, and then came the surprise: Georg Zeppenfeld. The easiest way to deal with him is simply to say that, to my ear, we now have a plausible replacement for Samuel Ramey. This is a vast, clear, expressive bass; and oddly, the lad (who is in the Semperoper troupe) has the same posture and hand gestures as Ramey. He looked surprised and delighted at the thunderous applause that greeted him.

Iris Vermillion was a sound Brangäne, losing power a little at the top. Why, after her scream at the side of the stage, was there no chair for her to sit on through the rest of the concert? She sat, in evening dress, on the floor. Schulte was a remarkably strong Kurwenal/Melot. Ketilsson was, in the (always fabulous) theatre, a hopelessly inadequate Tristan (according to Uffe, who listened live on the radio, he was better via the microphones). But as he was standing in at the last minute for another tenor with laryngitis, he escaped any booing.

For once, the orchestre national was on its best behaviour, displaying all the qualities people claim are typically French: gorgeous woodwind playing, transparency of texture and so on, with few of the failings (not too many cracked horn notes, strong attacks generally together…) and an unusual radiance in the strings. And I like Masur’s “German” approach to things: fairly businesslike, nothing schmaltzy, but everything nicely in place and carefully judged, and certainly a far greater dynamic range than the dull philharmonique the week before: the prelude started so pianissimo as to come from nowhere…

What a pleasure it was to be back in Paris’s most beautiful theatre (scene of the famous Riots of Spring). I’m looking forward to some promising Händel operas there next season…

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