Tristan und Isolde

Armin Jordan
Chorus and Orchestra of the Seattle Opera
16 August 1998
Opera House Seattle
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeJane Eaglen
BrangäneMichelle DeYoung
KurwenalGreer Grimsley
König MarkePeter Rose
MelotJames Cornelison
Ein junger SeemannDoug Jones
Ein HirtDoug Jones
SteuermannArchie Drake
The New York Times

Tristan and Isolde for a New Century

A promising new production of Wagner’s daunting ”Tristan und Isolde” by an important opera company is always an event. But what brought critics from across the United States and abroad to the Seattle Opera on Saturday night for the premiere of the company’s new production of arguably Wagner’s greatest opera was the chance to learn if, for the first time since the days of Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, two singers have arrived who can truly make a claim to these incomparably demanding touchstone roles.

This was the first staged performance of Isolde by the British soprano Jane Eaglen, who has already established herself as a major interpreter of Brunnhilde in the ”Ring” operas. It was similarly the first stage performance of Tristan by the Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, who is already a noted interpreter of Tannhauser, Lohengrin and Walther. The expectations were high, and the pressure on them must have been intense. Vocally they did not disappoint. These fine artists have waited until the right ages to take on these roles: Ms. Eaglen is 38 and Mr. Heppner is 42, old enough to have depth, young enough to sound fresh and leave many years for enrichment.

The Seattle Opera has been an important place for both singers, and the company came through for them, providing a noted conductor, Armin Jordan, generous rehearsal time and a provocative production directed by Francesca Zambello, which will very likely engender divided reactions.

Ms. Eaglen understands that Wagner must be sung basically with the tried-and-true principles of the bel canto tradition: a sense of long line, evenness of vocal production and smooth legato phrasing. But you must have uncommon stamina and soaring power for Isolde, and Ms. Eaglen is the first soprano since Ms. Nilsson to make singing the role seem natural. She has warm, vibrant sound and full-voiced high notes that slice easily through the thick orchestration. Most impressive, however, is the elegance of her softer singing, the richness of her pianissimos.

Inevitably with Ms. Eaglen comes the issue of her size. She is a large, thick-limbed woman. Obviously this limits her dramatic impact, but it also somewhat affects her singing. I had not known her to have such fire and temperament as she brings to this portrayal. Still, there is sometimes a lack of rhythmic incisiveness and energy in her singing that seem related to her physical sluggishness. And for whatever reason, perhaps first-night jitters, her pitch sometimes edged sharp. But overall this sumptuously sung Isolde was the real thing.

The bright tenorial coloring of Mr. Heppner’s voice is ideal for Tristan, and he sings the role with ardor, poignancy and clear German diction. He also, of course, is a hefty person. But it does not seem to impede the vitality and trim of his singing.

Although a complete uncut version of the opera was announced, two cuts, mostly from Tristan’s music, which are often used, were insisted upon by the general director, Speight Jenkins after the dress rehearsal: a long passage in Act II sometimes called the ”Tag und Nacht” episode, and part of Tristan’s long, exhausting monologue in Act III, about 11 minutes in total. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Heppner want to restore the cuts later, but for this first try caution seemed advisable. Mr. Jenkins pointed out that Lauritz Melchior, the Tristan of the century, probably never sang the role without cuts.

No matter. Mr. Heppner will surely gain in confidence in the role. A real Tristan has arrived.

Ms. Zambello worked with her frequent collaborators, the set and costume designer Alison Chitty, and the lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. The production, typical of Ms. Zambello, is a mixture of symbolism and nonperiod realism. The ship on which Tristan transports the Irish princess Isolde to the Cornish king, Marke, whom she is being made to marry, is a massive, gray, stage-filling freighter. The walls slide apart to reveal Isolde, a captive below; above sailors swab the deck with mops, and Tristan broods, conflicted between loyalty to his king and untapped love for Isolde. Clearly, since this is an opera about internal emotions not external actions, Ms. Zambello and her team wanted to frame the lovers in smaller spaces within the larger stage. But the framing device does the singers in and calls attention, paradoxically, to Ms. Eaglen’s lack of mobility.

Sometimes the stage effects are just that, effects, the most intrusive of which being the real sizzling flames that leap up and surround the lovers at the climactic moment of their drug-assisted passion. It is a smoky, silly, and somewhat smelly effect that distracted our attention from one of the great musical moments in all of opera.

Some of the imagery was striking, and Ms. Zambello remains an excellent director of singing-actors.

She did wonderful work with the excellent young American mezzo-soprano Michelle De Young, who brought a sisterly tenderness to the character of Brangane, Isolde’s attendant. And perhaps it took a female director to allow the wounded Tristan and his loyal friend Kurvenal, imposingly sung by the bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, to be so physically tender with each other.

Mr. Jordan conducted a spacious and tellingly shaped performance. The playing of the orchestra, though sonorous and full of character, sometimes lacked crisp rhythmic articulation. But the sweep of the conception was always involving.

The fine English bass Peter Rose was moving as King Marke. James Cornelison as Melot, Archie Drake as the steersman and Doug Jones, doubling as the sailor and the shepherd, gave solid performances. The most important news remains the emergence of the exciting new Tristan and Isolde. The audience ovations were deservedly ecstatic. Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner are to sing the roles at the Metropolitan Opera in 1999-2000.

ANTHONY TOMMASINI | August 3, 1998


Tristan : Where There’s Girth, There’s Worth!

A Verklarung , or transfiguration, was what Richard Wagner called Isolde’s final bliss-in-death monologue, the “Liebestod” in Tristan und Isolde -the achievement of which might be said to be the fundamental aim of all opera, from its beginnings in Renaissance Italy to the present day. For, after all, what is the appeal of this wonderful, crazy art form if it is not its capacity to persuade us that all that elaborate stage engineering, and effortful coordination of orchestra with bellowing voices emanating from overweight, overpowdered men and women, is somehow giving us an extended epiphany of truth and beauty?

Wagner, of course, pushed the idea of opera as a transformative experience-not just esthetically but spiritually, and even politically, farther than anyone else. In Tristan , which had its premiere in Munich in 1865, he set himself the headiest challenge of his career: how to plunge the audience into the paroxysms of an illicit love affair-one inspired by his own extramarital passion for a good friend’s wife-between a couple out of misty Celtic mythology who lose their hearts (and ultimately their lives) to each other because of a mistakenly imbibed magical potion. And how to do so with characters whose violent mood swings, from ecstasy to despair, run for well over four hours, requiring the services of a soprano and tenor who have the stamina, and perhaps heft, of elephants.

That Wagner pulled it off is beyond dispute. The opera he wrote and composed, after five years of painstaking work, is the culmination of the Romantic movement’s wrestling with questions of freedom, fate and duty. Tristan is also the path breaker, in its musical and psychological innovations, for a great deal of what the ensuing Symbolist and modernist movements produced-in music (from Richard Strauss to Alban Berg), literature (Friedrich Nietzsche to Thomas Mann) and art (Aubrey Beardsley to Anselm Kiefer). Any new production of the opera carries with it not only the immensity of the work’s musical and physical demands, but an unholy load of intellectual and cultural baggage.

Successful Tristan s are rare indeed; a great one is every Wagnerite’s fondest dream. I can’t say that the Seattle Opera’s new production is an unqualified success-though it is unquestionably a world-class opera event and a triumph for this impressive regional company and its enterprising general director, Speight Jenkins. But it is, on many counts, as good an account of the work as we are likely to see on these shores these days-perhaps until the Metropolitan Opera unveils its new Tristan in 1999. It was for a preview of that event, which will also feature the two very large white hopes of the impoverished ranks of Wagnerian high-dramatic sopranos and heldentenors -Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner-that I recently trekked out to the overcaffeinated metropolis in the Pacific Northwest.

The first thing to be said about the Seattle production, which was directed by Francesca Zambello, is that it is fleet, sleek and acutely sensitive to the swirling fevers of Wagner’s score. Ms. Zambello and her designers-Alison Chitty (scenery and costumes) and Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)-have transported the story’s medieval events into a no man’s period of the sort that is typical of today’s stir-fried postmodernists: Tristan and his shipmates wear greatcoats out of one of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic sea yarns; Isolde and her faithful Brangäne are swathed in Pre-Raphaelite muumuus.

The sets combine techie minimalism with stripped-down sweetness: Picture, in Act III, Philip Johnson’s Glass House plunked down in a Hallmark card dunescape. The highly active lighting segues very effectively from amber twilight (for passion) to pastel twilight (for yearning) to ashen twilight (for desolation), framed occasionally by Wilsonian bands of light that would not be inappropriate for a Busby Berkeley dream sequence. Except for several glimpses in Act I involving bare-chested galley slaves imported from Muscle Beach doing rowing calisthenics-beefcake is becoming a staple of Ms. Zambello’s productions-this Tristan is, mercifully, free of kitsch.

Ms. Zambello’s greatest strength as a director has always been her understanding that operatic performance requires an elevated naturalism that will allow the singers to move like recognizable human beings who are having the sort of bad day that would flatten Bill Clinton. (I’m afraid that, pathetic though our President and his Oval Office squeeze are by comparison, I couldn’t help but think of Bill and Monica as Wagner’s doomed lovers were ascending the heights of vocal orgasm.) In Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, Ms. Zambello was confronted with two singers whose ampleness of size, to put it kindly, scarcely conforms to traditional notions of chivalrous knights and damsels in distress. I was happy to note, though, that Mr. Heppner has shed more than a few pounds since I last saw him, lumbering gingerly through Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin at the Met this past spring.

Ms. Zambello handled her charges beautifully, framing them in their love-and-death scenes in a Mies van der Rohe-esque cube, which evoked their isolation and entrapment without making them look like caged bears. At their most rapturous, they simply faced the audience, held hands and sang, leaving the more visible signs of agitation to their handsomely sung and acted stalwarts, Michelle DeYoung’s Brangäne and Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal. (Peter Rose, as King Marke, was also moving and impressive.) Physical contact between Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner was kept to a minimum, which made their final moment before heading off into legendary oblivion especially powerful. As Ms. Eaglen lowered her head onto the prostrate Mr. Heppner, the two seemed to melt indistinguishably into each other. And in the evening’s single most effective-and surprising-directorial stroke, this Tristan, whom we had presumed dead, raised a fallen arm and placed the hand over his heart: He, too, had been ravished by Isolde’s “Liebestod.”

But we go to hear Tristan , not to see it. For, more than is the case with any other opera, this one takes place in the music-in the orchestra’s great soundscapes of nature and emotion, and, above all, in the voices of the title characters. Under the old-hand leadership of the Swiss conductor Armin Jordan, the Seattle Symphony players were terrific; incisive and transparent in the heaven-shaking climaxes, sensitive and expressive in the moments of quietude. Given the fact that this was Ms. Eaglen’s first Isolde and Mr. Heppner’s first Tristan, their performances were astonishing.

Until now, I have not shared in the general euphoria over Ms. Eaglen’s prowess, which critics are likening to that of the supreme Wagner soprano in our time, Birgit Nilsson. The power not only to sail over but cut through the loudest, thickest orchestral textures is there-though Ms. Eaglen’s lower register has notably less force than the middle and top ones, and when she tries to sing softly, the voice becomes perilously thin. And the British soprano’s bel canto line is impressive: She doesn’t hoot, she spins. But as yet, there isn’t much variety of color in the voice, and although her understanding of the text is thoughtful and nuanced, she tends to drive the part, rather than puzzle out its most psychologically revealing moments. Still, drive she can-with an unflagging ease, and a zest, that promises an even more exhilarating Isolde in the years to come.

Mr. Heppner, for me, was the heart and soul of this Tristan . Using in several places the trimmed-down monologues that even the century’s most celebrated heldentenor , Lauritz Melchior, was not too proud to adopt, he reveled in the sort of Italianate lyricism that Wagner wanted for his singers. Mr. Heppner lacks the visceral magnetism that his great predecessor and fellow Canadian, Jon Vickers, brought to Tristan, but he also lacks the older singer’s tendency to overemote. There is a natural, reedy pathos in Mr. Heppner’s voice-a yearning-that recalls the lost-in-the-mountains nobility of Jussi Björling. And there is something else that, on this occasion, I found especially compelling: In numerous small ways, vocally and physically, Mr. Heppner showed us the living man inside this insanely racked, metaphysically muddled hero out of musty lore. This is one heldentenor who is utterly without airs. It has nothing to do with nonchalance-Mr. Heppner sings with everything he has, beautifully-but he leaves you with the feeling that, when all is said and done, he could walk away from all this glorious nonsense to become happily lost in those mountains.

Charles Michener | 08/31/98

Los Angeles Times

‘Tristan’ Shows Stunning Visual, Vocal Magnitude

When Tristan and Isolde sing their ecstatic and very extended love duet, the earth, for the susceptible Wagnerite, should move. And move it did at the Seattle Center on Saturday night, when Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen assumed the roles for the first time.

The predictions by the Wagnerian seismologists for this new production of Wagner’s opera had actually gotten a little out of hand. Not for three or four decades have singers of genuine heroic vocal abilities been the main attraction in “Tristan und Isolde,” Wagner’s epic about the transforming power of love and Eros.

Here, at last, are two singers with the kind of unprecedented vocal heft Wagner asked for in 1865–and that has remained such a prized scarcity in opera ever since. Indeed, so great is the hype and hope for Heppner and Eaglen as the Tristan and Isolde for the 21st century that Wagnerian pilgrims from 45 states and 14 countries have ordered tickets from Seattle Opera for performances that run through the month.

Yet it wasn’t exactly an illusion of the ground parting that was produced by the voices of the burly Canadian tenor and the resounding British soprano. It really did. If Seattle has unveiled a “Tristan” for the 21st century, and this production comes pretty close, it is not so much through music as it is through great modern stagecraft.

As conceived by director Francesca Zambello and designer Alison Chitty, “Tristan” is as much a realistic modern cinematic epic as it is a weird 19th century love fantasy. The stage of the Seattle Opera House is wide and tall, and they fill it completely like a 70mm movie screen.

In the first act, the ship in which Tristan takes Isolde to Cornwall is of Titanic proportion and vintage, as part of a production that mixes historical periods freely. Its enormous, sleek hull is abstracted into a flat architectural panel taking up the entire stage. The hull opens to reveal Isolde’s moderne cabin, where the protagonists drink their potion and begin their epic obsession with each other. Zambello and Chitty isolate them from their world. The cabin turns into a steel-and-glass pavilion incongruous in the midst of a snowy forest in the second act or a hillside in the third.

For the great duet, the ground not only breaks, the trees fall away and the pavilion becomes one with the heavens. The lighting is by Mimi Jordan Sherin, and it is magical throughout (even in the third act where the set is dull), following not just the great waves of the music but creating an engulfing sense of panorama.

The production’s size and magnificence both served the singers and, I’m afraid, compensated for them. Heppner and Eaglen are, themselves, large, and some visual context is useful. But neither singer has really the stage or vocal personality to dominate this opera quite as the legendary voices of old did.

Some of the musical stiffness may have been first-night nerves. A lot of pressure was put on them, and they will surely feel freer as the run continues (Eaglen sings all 10 performances, and Heppner all but the last two, when Gary Lakes assumes the role). And while they may well be the best we have, they were merely strong and careful singers Saturday, not wondrously soaring ones. The orchestra could drown them out when it was full.

Still, one was glad for Heppner’s endurance in his long third act monologue. Eaglen’s ferocity at first was colder than it needed to be, but she warmed by the end for a lovely, if slightly tired, “Liebestod.” But neither quite fell into the spirit of Armin Jordan’s fluid and, at times, near-mystical conducting. And neither had the dramatic vitality of their colleagues: Greer Grimsley was a virile Kurwenal; Peter Rose, a mellow King Marke; Michelle DeYoung, a dramatic, if forced, Brangane.

It wasn’t, however, until the end–the very end–that the drama actually became touching. Zambello has a modern, feminist sensibility, and she would have none of Wagner’s more absurd sexism, and certainly not Isolde dying simply of love. Instead, Eaglen seemed to come really alive for the first time all evening in her “Liebestod” (or love death), as if reborn by Tristan’s death.

She then, at the last, luminous chord of the opera, laid her head on the chest of her lover’s slain body, and his hand slowly rose to embrace her. A touch of “Night of the Living Dead,” perhaps, but it gave me goose bumps.

MARK SWED | August 03, 1998

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, HO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 483 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Francesca Zambello