- Chronology: Year 1908
- Location: New York Metropolitan Opera (MET)
- Program: Tristan und Isolde
- Conductor: Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
- Orchestra: New York Metropolitan Opera (MET) Orchestra
- Singers: Heinrich Knote (1870-1953), Olive Fremstad (1871-1951), Anton van Rooy (1870-1932), Louise Dilworth Beatty Homer (1871-1947), Robert Blass (1867-1930), Adolph Muhlmann (1866-1938), Albert Reiss (1870-1940), Julius Bayer.
- Stage design: Kautsky Brothers
- Notes: Debut Gustav Mahler, New York Metropolitan Opera (MET) repertoire Gustav Mahler, met084
Review of Richard Aldrich in The New York Times
‘TRISTAN UND ISOLDE’ AT THE METROPOLITAN
Gustav Mahler Makes His First Appearance as Conductor.
MME. FREMSTAD’S ISOLDE
A Remarkable Performance in Which Both Make a Deep Impression — Van Rooy and Knote in Familiar Parts.
The German works have had scant showing at the Metropolitan Opera House so far this Winter. Their time has come now, however, with the coming of Gustav Mahler to occupy the chief place in the conductor’s chair. He made his first appearance before a New York audience last evening, conducting the first performance given there this season of “Tristan und Isolde,” The occasion was doubly notable because it was also the first appearance of Mme. Olive Fremstad in the part of Isolde.
There was enough here to key up the interest of the lovers of Wagner’s great tragedy to a high pitch, and there was the promise of a performance remarkable in many respects. The promise was kept, and more than kept. The performance was indeed a remarkable one. It not only disclosed splendid artistic gifts on the part of the two people in whom the public had its greatest curiosity, but there were not a few new features in the performance of the rest of the cast, all of whom were familiar in the parts they were representing, and who were spurred on to achieve unwonted excellence.
The influence of the new conductor was felt and heard in the whole spirit of the performance. He is clearly not one of the modern conductors, upon whom the ban of the Bayreuth of the present day rests, with the result of dragging the tempo and weighting the performance of Wagner’s works with lead. His tempos were frequently somewhat more rapid than we have lately been accustomed to, and they were always such as to fill the music with dramatic life. They were elastic and full of subtle variations.
Most striking was the firm hand with which he kept the volume of orchestral sound controlled and subordinated to the voices. These were never overwhelmed; the balance was never lost, and they were allowed to keep their place above the orchestra and to blend with it always in their rightful place. And yet the score was revealed in all its complex beauty, with its strands of interwoven melody always clearly disposed and united with an exquisite sense of proportion and an unerring sense of the larger values. Delicacy and clearness were the characteristics of many passages, yet the climaxes were made superbly effectual. Through it all went the pulse of dramatic passion and the sense of fine musical beauty.
It was certain that Mme. Fremstad would present even in her first performance – for it was the first time she has sung the part of Isolde – an impersonation of originality and power, and, above all, of dramatic sweep. It is an impersonation that discloses at once her dominating dramatic gifts, her accomplished stagecraft, her intelligence in possessing herself of the essential qualities of Wagner’s heroine. She is of the race of the great interpreters of Isolde. There are memories that will not down, and which she cannot efface, and she has not yet reached her real stature in the part.
Mme. Frernstad’s Isolde is destined to be much greater than it is. She has not yet made herself completely mistress of all this woman is and does. So complex a character is not to be possessed at a single bound by any singing actress, however great her gifts may be. Mme. Fremstad’s conception has the prescience, the skill of a great artist, but there are details that she does not now express, and that she will find her way to express before she has grown much older in the part. Her representation is absorbingly interesting upon all its sides.
In its outward appearance it is of fascinating beauty and allurement, of grave dignity, rather of gentleness than of regal imperiousness in her first state, rather of wistful sadness than of the suppressed and raging fury of the woman scorned. The scorn, the irony, the bitterness, the hate that are pent up in her soul, are suggested rather than fully denoted by her. It is a marvelously beautiful impersonation, granted the point of view, but there still is needed more salient and sharply drawn outline. Her representation of the scene after the fatal potion has done its work is full of passionate ardor, and in the second act there is the burning flame of passion; in the third she strikes the note of grave and tragic tenderness reaching at the end the fullness of lofty eloquence.
Mme. Fremstad’s voice is of indescribable beauty in this music, in its richness and power, its infinite modulation in all the shades and extremes of dramatic significance. It never sounded finer in quality, and never seemed more perfectly under her control. And her singing was a revelation, in the fact that the music was in very few places higher than she could easily compass with her voice. The voice seems, in truth, to have reached a higher altitude, and to move in it without strain and without effort. The contributions that Mr. Knote and Mr. Van Rooy made to this performance were extremely fine. Their quality is well known from previous years. The audience was very large. It greeted Mr. Mahler upon his entrance into the orchestra with several rounds of hearty applause, which he acknowledged with bows. After the first act he was called out again and again, and received a token of approval that this audience is slow to bestow upon any newcomer. That he made a deep impression upon his first appearance here was unmistakable: Mme. Fremstad also received unmistakable tokens of the great favor with which her new impersonation was regarded.
Review of Henry Krehbiel in The New York Tribune:
“Miss Fremstad delighted her admirers by her singing of the music of Isolde, which was found, quite unexpectedly, to lie well within the range of her voice, and ever and anon she stirred them to the profoundest depths by the power of her action. Her conception of the character of Isolde is imaginative and beautifully expressed in many respects, but it is far from finished, except in some of its smaller details. It is weakened, for instance, by her failure to realize the significance of the ironical and scornful speeches of Tristan in the first act, but it is vocally opulent and frequently eloquent.
Mr. Mahler did honor to himself, Wagner’s music and the New York public. It was a strikingly vital reading which he gave to Wagner’s familiar score. Livelier in tempo in many portions than we are used to, and, inasmuch as the acceleration of tempo in nearly every instance inured to the benefit of the dramatic effect, to that extent admirable – eloquent in phrasing, rich in color, elastic in movement and always sympathetic with the singers.”
Review of Algernon St. John-Brenon in the Telegraph:
If we may speak of Mr. Mahler and his orchestra as one, as indeed there is every warrant for doing, we may say of him that his “Tristan und Isolde” was finely poised, self contained, just and above all things lucid and intelligible; that under his direction the lovely orchestral picture drawn by the music-poet glowed into life with all its colors, distinct, salient and yet complimentary and mutually assistant. There were no blurs, tangles, blots nor cobwebs, nothing but transparency of intention and effect. Little wonder that Mahler as called again and again before the curtain, he with his slight, emaciated figure, his pale, scholarly and eager face. Little wonder that we who have been starving on Puccini should have hopes of a more invigorating regimen.
Review of Charles Henry Meltzer in The American:
Punctual to the minute, at a quarter to eight, Gustav Mahler took his place at the conductor’s desk. He entered the orchestra pit unheralded by the fanfare which has welcomed a less distinguished stranger at the Metropolitan. A man of medium height, dark, nervous and bespectacled, The audience applauded him and he bowed. Then, with an air of authority, which seemed to have an instant effect upon his followers, he gave the accustomed signal and the orchestra began the prelude.
Not since the time of Anton Seidl – and in saying this I am mindful of many a fine reading by Alfred Hertz and Felix Mottl – has that prelude been played at the Metropolitan with anything like the breadth and suavity, the charm and intensity of expression, with which Mahler invested it. The Viennese music director has not usurped his reputation. He is a living force.
The orchestra responded to every hint of its new conductor. Once more, as in the days of Seidl, the orchestra was welded into a great singing instrument. Some of the improvement so evident in its work may have been due to the regrouping of the musicians. The horns and wood-winds were massed together on the extreme left, and the double basses in the centre, with the remaining strings more or less in their usual places. But it is not to be doubted that the “personality” of Mahler and the influence of his prestige had much more to do with the orchestral results attained. It may be doubted-whether-so far as the orchestra was concerned-there has ever been a more remarkably or more eloquent rendering of “Tristan und Isolde” in this city than was heard last night.
Review in The Press:
For the amalgamation and concentration of musical forces, for a reading of the score intense, poignant, thrilling, the honors went to Gustav Mahler, who appeared for the first time in New York and established himself immediately as one of the greatest conductors and most striking musical figures with whom New Yorkers have come into contact. When the Metropolitan’s new musical director first appeared in the orchestra pit half the persons in the parquet rose to get a good view of him and there was thunderous applause from every part of the auditorium. He bowed dignifiedly and took his seat in the chair. A few moments afterward the lights were dimmed and there began the introduction to one of the most interesting, if not the most perfect, performances of “Tristan” heard in this city.
It was a beautifully eloquent interpretation of this wonderful prelude that Mahler gave, restrained in tempo, restrained in emotional expression, but throbbing with repressed feeling. It gave the keynote to Mahler’s reading of the score, a reading that brought out all the refinements that never was reckless of aesthetic considerations, that rose, however, in its climaxes to electrifying cumulations of force. Like few, if any operatic conductors since Seidl, Mahler succeeds in keeping the immense apparatus of Wagner’s orchestra so subdued that it does not interfere with the singers. Every word uttered on the stage last night had its full value. Yet there was no loss of effectiveness in his method; for the conductor, by dint of exceeding refinement of shading, by an almost uncanny control over his forces, by rhythmical precision and incisiveness and by a wonderful mastery of significant accentuation, scored his points rather by emphasis than by outbursts of noise.
We have heard performances of “Tristan und Isolde” under Seidl more poetic and more tender; we have heard ones under Mottl more overpowering. Yesterday’s representation was not flawless, But no performance in the past laid bare Wagner’s score in all its parts so vividly, so brilliantly,, and in none was the intellect, the personality, the guiding spirit of one man evident in so many departments and in so many details.
Mahler seemed to have superhuman influence over every man in the orchestra and every singer on the stage. Perched above his musicians, his head turning this way and that occasionally, exceedingly reserved in gesture even at moments of great intensity, he revealed an astonishing power over his musical mates. There was a lurking magnetism in his glance, and when his hands flew out sideways or forward in silent appeal to some singer it seemed as if electric sparks flashed out from his fingers. Beneath the quietness of Mahler’s demeanor, a repose that would suddenly give way to quick explosion of energy, there was something that commanded absolute obedience, a kind of mesmeric force that held audience and performers alike in servitude.
Review in The Herald (Khreibel?):
As far as Mahler’s conducting was concerned, that was nothing short of a revelation. Under his baton the orchestra played like a body of men to whom the full dramatic significance and the extraordinary beauty of the music had been frankly revealed. He subdued the accompaniments until they were not but a shimmering background against which the voice stood forth without effort. Never did the singers have to battle for supremacy, for under this leader all orchestral voice and aims were merged into one. The orchestra seethed and glowed, followed its leader to perilous dramatic heights of climaxes and it descended as far in the other extreme in the modesty of utterance.
Nuances there were within nuances, shadings and gradations were worked out with minutest care, and there was not a moment of tedium in the evening. If Mr. Mahler is to be judged entirely by last night’s conducting, he is entitled to the high praise of Wagner’s enthusiasts.