The Tristan Curse
By Peter Clark
When we talk about the “Curse” of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, we generally mean Isolde’s first act imprecation against her captor Tristan, who is delivering her to Cornwall to marry King Marke. But one could also cite the “curse” of performing the opera and, more specifically, of finding singers who can cope with the nearly inhuman demands of the two title roles. Both roles are very long, demand continual dramatic declamation, and more than occasionally soar into the upper end of the vocal range against the background of a huge orchestra.
In fact for these very reasons, Wagner encountered problems getting Tristan performed from the beginning. He completed the score in 1859 and began looking for opportunities to premiere the piece. Planned performances in Vienna had to be scrapped after 70 rehearsals when the tenor gave up trying to learn the role of Tristan. The world premiere finally took place in Munich in 1865 with the tenor-soprano team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Ludwig sang four performances, then suddenly died amid speculation that singing the role of Tristan had killed him. (It is now thought that the tenor probably suffered a stroke.)
The Metropolitan’s first Tristan and Isolde in 1886 were Albert Niemann and Lilli Lehmann (pictured above), experienced Wagnerians who had mastered the roles, though W.J. Henderson, an authority on singing, wrote of Niemann, “His voice shows the effects of long and severe labor in the arduous field of Wagnerian declamation, but he manages it with great skill and imparts fine significance to his measures.” Lehmann was on the contrary “a dramatic soprano of the very highest powers,” who continued singing the part for years. Through the next two decades, the Met enjoyed a “golden age” of singing, which included great interpreters of the work’s title roles. This was an era when Henderson could write: “There was a time when the music of Tristan und Isolde was declared unsingable … Jean de Reszke and Lillian Nordica (pictured below) sing this so-called ‘impracticable’ music with correct intonation. And they sing it in a singing style. That is because they are both singers and musicians.”
A similar period of glory existed from about 1935 to 1941, when the legendary Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad (pictured at the top of the page and below) took the leading parts. But in between, Tristan und Isolde experienced challenges. In 1904, the tenor Ernst Kraus had to cancel after the second act, and the Isolde, Marion Weed, was substituting for the ailing Milka Ternina. With no tenor available, the third act skipped an hour and a half or so of music to the Liebestod, Isolde’s great scene, which ends the opera.
Of the two lead roles, the tenor seems to be the more difficult to cast. In 1959, the Met had a radiant new Isolde, the heroic voiced Birgit Nilsson; however, at her third performance, the scheduled Tristan, Karl Liebl, canceled due to illness. There were two covers under contract: Ramón Vinay and Albert da Costa. Both were also sick and felt unable to get through the entire opera. So Rudolf Bing, the Met’s General Manager at the time, came up with the unique solution that each of the tenors would sing one act. Thus Vinay sang Act I, Liebl Act II, and Da Costa Act III, with Nilsson, the star Isolde, having three different lovers on stage. The incident created a media sensation when photos of Nilsson with her three tenors hit the press (pictured below).
The difficulties in performing Tristan und Isolde most recently garnered widespread attention during the Met’s ill-fated 2008 string of performances, in which the originally scheduled central pair, tenor Ben Heppner and soprano Deborah Voigt, only sang only one of the six scheduled dates together. Heppner fell ill before the March 10 premiere and was replaced on short notice by John Mac Master. At the following performance, March 14, Gary Lehman made his Met debut replacing the still ailing Heppner, but midway in Act II, Voigt became sick and had to leave the stage. The curtain was lowered, and soprano Janice Baird (pictured below with Gary Lehman) hurriedly got into costume and finished the opera after it was resumed some minutes later. The March 18 date with Lehman and Voigt went well until Act III while Tristan was lying on a palette situated on a steeply raked stage. The palette broke loose from its mooring upstage and slid down towards the orchestra pit. Luckily it came to rest against the prompter’s box rather than going into the pit, but Lehman hit his head in the accident and the performance had to be interrupted. The curtain came down but was raised again a few minutes later and Lehman, stunned but not injured, bravely carried on.
The fourth date was an international Live in HD transmission for which Voigt found herself with yet another new partner, American tenor Robert Dean Smith, making his Met debut and brushing up on the staging during intermissions. That performance went off without interruption as did the next one, though Voigt was again ill and Baird returned to sing with Heppner this time. Finally, at the last performance of the run on March 28, Heppner and Voigt were finally able to share the stage (pictured below).
This series of mishaps and illnesses was highly unusual in any opera, and much of it was simply chance happening. Artists of course can, and do, become ill before any performance, but the stamina and vocal prowess necessary to sing the roles of Tristan or Isolde require a singer to be in top shape just to make it to the end. The tenor’s protracted Act III monologue comes after the taxing Act II love duet, with its breathless tempi and long, held high notes. And Isolde has a difficult first act with the dramatic Curse, followed by the second act duet where she has the same challenges as the tenor, but with some extreme high notes thrown in. The solution, even for the best singers, has often been to make cuts in both Acts II and III. Although Met Archives does not contain complete information on performance practices, it is believed that the first uncut Tristan und Isolde at the Met was in 1981 under conductor James Levine.
Peter Clark is the Met’s Director of Archives.