1908 Opera New York 23-12-1908

Review of Pitts Sanborn in the Globe


Wagner’s immortal love tragedy “Tristan und Isolde” was presented for the .first time this season at the Metropolitan Opera House last night. Of the cast, Mme. Fremstad, Mme Homer, and Mr. Blass were familiar in the parts of Isolde, Brangäne, and King Mark. Mr. Schmedes and Mr. Feinhals were new to our public in the parts of Tristan and Kurwenal. Of greater importance than these details is the fact that Gustav Mahler was the conductor, assuming this duty at the Metropolitan Opera House for the first time since last spring. Fortunate indeed is the Metropolitan in possessing two conductors of the deservedly high rank of Mr. Toscanini and Mr. Mahler. Just as Mr. Toscanini was the real hero of the recent performance of “Götterdämmerung,” so Mr. Mahler was the real hero of “Tristan and Isolde” yesterday. It was he that, by a masterly reading of the orchestral portion, gave the performance absorbing interest, even when one singing actor or another was far from commanding gratified attention.

The fine quality of Mr. Mahler’s reading of “Tristan und Isolde” was made manifest at the Metropolitan last winter. Again yesterday there was the careful subordination of the accompaniment to the voices of the singers, a subordination in accordance with the expressed wishes of Wagner, which permitted the text of the poem (when properly enunciated) to be heard clearly. At the same time there was a constant, pervasive vitality, a justness of accent, a sensitive regard for light and shade, a skilful correlation of detail that gave the orchestra its authentic Wagnerian function as commentary on the action, If in the first act some hearers may have felt a little lack of freedom and power, the second was as notable for its warmth as for its delicacy. The esteem in which the audience held Mr. Mahler was shown by the hearty applause that greeted his appearance at the conductor’s desk before the opera began.

Emphasis may well be laid on the vividness of the orchestral drama in this performance because some important vocal passages were sung inadequately or, in a strict sense, not sung at all. Mr. Schmedes, who essayed Tristan, had not recovered from his recent illness, and such vocal ability as he possesses was in abeyance. Some of Isolde’s music, particularly in the second act, is too high for Mme. Fremstad. As a result the duets of Tristan und Isolde, which are the heart and soul of this opera, failed of their true effect. The music that lies within her natural range Mme. Fremstad sang expressively and often with beauty of tone. Her voice sounded particularly well in the “Liebestod.” Dramatically her Isolde is nobly conceived though, as in the case of her Brünnhilde, the effort that it apparently costs her to sing the music interferes somewhat with the spontaneity and freedom of her acting. Now and then, too, she tended toward the exaggerated gesticulation of Teutonic convention, a fault that did not mar the sombre beauty of her Isolde as first revealed nearly a year ago.

For many years New York audiences have been accustomed to Mr. Van Rooy in the rôle of Kurwenal. His was a peculiarly sympathetic impersonation and assured a last act worth seeing, even if the Tristan threatened total disability. Last night it fell to the lot of Mr. Feinhals to follow where Mr. Van Rooy trod in “Die Walküre,” “Tiefland” and “Parsifal.” Mr. Feinhals had already shown himself a fine artist, and his Kurwenal added one more proof of his ability. Mme. Homer’s voice sounded uncommonly thick in the first act. In the second she sang the warning song very well indeed. The kittenish touches which she added to her impersonation hardly improved it. Mr. Blass made discreet use of his admirable voice in the soliloquy of King Mark. Mr. Reiss was capital when he sang a shepherd, but quite the reverse when heard as a young sailor.

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