1909 Opera New York 12-03-1909

Review of W. J. Henderson in the Sun


Gustav Mahler Throws Off Restraint and Conducts with Passion – Mme. Fremstad’s Isolde Shows Increasing Tragic Power – Burrian Seen as Tristan

Some years ago there was a wonderful matinée performance of “Tristan und Isolde” at the Metropolitan Opera House. Lilli Lehmann was the Isolde. One beautiful summer day in Berlin, looking back over her past, she said: “That was the memorable ‘Tristan” performance of my life.” It was all because the spirit of the mighty work fell all of a sudden upon all those concerned in its performance, and they spake with tongues.

There was an Isolde last night who may some time remember with a great glow of joy her performance of March 12, 1909. A superb, a queenly, a heroically tragic Isolde this, but she was not alone in her glory. What was it that breathed the white heat into last night’s performance? There were no new singers in the cast. The same old ship was idle with her swelling sail upon the painted ocean. The same horns echoed in the cut wood wings. The same shepherd’s pipe crooned its heartbreaking lament behind the same old wall. And Gustav Mahler waved his hands over it all.

Yet it was all changed. Mr. Mahler hurled all petty restraints to the four winds of heaven and turned loose such a torrent of vital sound as he never before let us hear in “Tristan und Isolde.” He has always polished to perfection the gentler passages of the score. He has kept the orchestra subject to the royal voices and adhered to a narrow but effectual range of dynamics. But the barbaric, beating flood of the tragedy he has not felt as he did last night.

Then he sent the stupendous phrases of the forte passages pealing through the auditorium in overwhelming waves of sound. The advent of Tristan became genuinely heroic; the crash of the death motive when Isolde raised the cup to her lips was cataclysmal. The upheaval of emotion at the entrance of Tristan in the second act was glorious. In short Mr. Mahler’s reading last night had just those elements of power and passion which have been wanting in his previous interpretations.

But this admirable conducting might have gone for little had not the singers been able to share its inwardness. Mme. Fremstad’s Isolde seems to grow with every repetition. Can a higher tribute be paid to an artist? Her management of her voice shows increasing resourcefulness and her reading of the music added understanding. She sings all the cantilina. She declaims all the declamatory passages in a style which could not evoke hostile comment even in Bayreuth. There is her reading of some lines of the part directness and precision of diction which gives to Wagner’s utterances the perfect value of the “speech song” conceived by him.

But behind this lies the potent spell of a beautiful artistic temperament. Her Isolde is now a majestic figure, combining superb heroic proportions with fathomless depths of tenderness. The lyric stage of today is richer for the possession of such an artist. The gallery of operatic portraits is made more splendid by the presence of this Isolde.

Error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: