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Tristan und Isolde — The Metropolitan Opera

I bet this doesn't happen at the movies:

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
The Metropolitan Opera

Above: Janice Baird


As the flick begins, they announce that Matt Damon has a virus and had to leave; he's being replaced by someone who's never done the part before. But it's okay. Then, halfway through, Gwyneth Paltrow (the star) goes running off-screen, leaving the guy hanging in mid love scene. After a moment, the screen goes dark (but not before you saw the panic in his eyes). Pause. Then they announce Miss Paltrow is ill, and will be replaced by (name you never heard of). She wears the same dress and wig but doesn't look anything like her. She takes a while to warm up, but hey, Daniel Day-Lewis walks off with the character part anyway. (As you expected.) Somehow the kid gets through the big final scene, and the girl takes the climax. Thundering ovation. You never had that happen to you at the movies, did you? (Low class bastards.)

At the Met tonight, Tristan und Isolde. Rumors of doom had been circulating since the disastrous prima on Monday. Ben Heppner, virused up, has run back to Canada. (He's been cracking on all his high notes anyway.) The tenor who replaced him Monday was so bad, he was booed off the stage. (Ugly too, they tell me.) So tonight they found some kid who'd never sung Tristan before. Gary Lehman (this is a heldentenor?) We're all very hopeful. (Besides, Matti Salminen is King Marke, and bound to be a hit.) Peter Gelb, announcing the change, looks like he has veins of ice water and this happens all the time. The kid is tall, well built, looks like Errol Flynn, sings okay, acts okay, keeps an eye fixed on Jimmy. Then, halfway through the love duet in Act II, Debbie Voigt runs off stage. To get a drink of water I presumed. The tenor just sort of stands there, singing ardently to a blank stage, Jimmy keeps conducting ... the curtain comes down. Pause. Someone (not Gelb) comes out to say: Don't leave the room, Debbie's sick, some soprano no one has heard of (Janice Baird, and she IS on the roster) is getting dressed and will take over.

Of course she hasn't had time (much less a whole act) to warm up, but anyway: At last we get the duet again (which means the poor Tristan will be singing more of the opera in one night than ANYONE EVER HAS). Isolde finally warms up by the climax. Matti Salminen walks off with it, as I knew he would. In the intermission, my friend La Cieca (opera columnist a l'outrance, see says, "I'm speechless." I said, "Don't tell me we'll have to replace you too!" Well, Lehman sings Act III, the toughest workout for tenor ever composed. Doesn't sound fabulous, but he's okay. No cracked high notes. Isolde rushes in clumsily (she's never rehearsed), sings Liebestod. She's okay. Silence to the last chord.

Chaos: Standing ovation for the pair, then for the whole cast, then for Jimmy. It's 1 a.m. and nobody wants to leave without screaming. Nobody wanted to have been, for those six hours, anywhere else in the world.

I bet you've never been at a movie where this happened.

John Yohalem

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