Ben Heppner, left, and Debra Voigt appear in the final performance of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera Friday, March 28, 2008 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
NEW YORK - Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt finally did it and, yes, it was that good.
March 28, 2008, will be circled in the annals of the Metropolitan Opera, perhaps with a few gold stars thrown in. After illness had kept them apart for five performances, the world's leading heldentenor and the great American dramatic soprano sang a complete "Tristan und Isolde" together for the first time Friday night.
In a pinnacle of his 37 years at the Met, music director James Levine conducted with abandon, leading an incendiary performance that will long be remembered. For a rare evening, here was a "Tristan" as Wagner must have imagined, with singers in perfect balance, pouring liquid voices through and over a pulsating orchestra that swelled and receded like the surge of ocean waves.
A sellout crowd of 4,000 watched transfixed during a 5-hour, 15-minute performance that ended at 12:15 a.m., then erupted with eight minutes of applause over three curtain calls. Heppner gave Voigt a kiss on each cheek, and Levine hugged Heppner.
For a while, it appeared this night never would happen.
"I was wondering," Heppner said Saturday. "I certainly wanted it to."
Heppner missed the first four performances because of a blood-born infection that caused him to lose 35 pounds, and left a hospital only on March 19. Voigt came offstage in the middle of the second performance and withdrew from the fifth because of a stomach virus. Three Tristans and one Isolde filled in to mixed results.
There were groans at the start Friday night when Thomas Connell III, the Met's production stage manager, walked on stage, with many fearing the tenor or soprano would be sidelined again.
"I have only good news," Connell said.
Margaret Jane Wray, who had been scheduled to sing Brangaene, was ill and would be replaced by Michelle DeYoung, who had sung the first five performances. There was a collective exhale and applause.
In many ways this mirrored Jan. 30, 1974, when Jon Vickers and Birgit Nilsson sang their only joint "Tristan" at the Met. Heppner and Voigt do not have current plans to sing "Tristan" together again.
Heppner sang even more impressively than he did in his return Tuesday, when he felt lightheaded and his voice cracked ever-so-slightly three times during the 40-minute outpouring of love and despair during the third act.
His Tristan was of heroic voice, with constant color shifts, his face and eyes conveying the alternating ardor and grief. In the decade he has been singing the role, he has proven himself a worthy successor to Wolfgang Windgassen, Lauritz Melchior and Vickers, the most accomplished Tristans of the 20th century.
Voigt's Isolde is just emerging. She took on the role for the first time at the Vienna State Opera in 2003, then put it aside until this run. Her voice has lyric beauty as well as steel. Indeed, spurred by Heppner, she gave certain high notes extra oomph in the second and third acts. Some could quibble with a few notes that went a tiny bit flat, such as the final F-sharp of the concluding "Liebestod," but that didn't deter from the shattering overall impact.
When the two sang together after drinking the love potion in the first act and during the Liebesnacht in the second, the glory of Wagner's revolutionary composition shone. In most performances since its 1865 premiere, Tristan, Isolde or both fall far short of the ideal, with compromises made to stage the great love story. Not on this night. It will be hard to listen to the opera for a while with any other singers.
The rest of the cast was outstanding, too. DeYoung was sharper than previously. Matti Salminen, the great Finnish bass, sang King Marke's monologue mellifluously and movingly. Eike Wilm Schulte (Kurwenal), Stephen Gaertner (Melot), Tony Stevenson (Sailor's Voice), Mark Schowalter (Shepherd) and James Courtney (Steersman) lifted their levels to match those of Heppner and Voigt, and Pedro R. Diaz's English horn solo at the start of the third act was haunting.
Levine pulled it all together with animation on the podium that is unusual for him. It was as if he were conducting the ideal "Tristan" he had heard in his head his entire life. He stretched slow tempi to near the breaking point and pushed the orchestra when it played full out.
The Met streamed Friday night's performance on its Web site. Perhaps a CD of this could be released so more could hear the achievement.
Until Friday, it seemed as if the heavens would open and seas would flood if Heppner and Voigt sang these roles together. They didn't. They'll save that for 2012, when they're to sing Siegfried and Bruennhilde in the Met's new Ring Cycle.