Tristan und Isolde

James Levine
New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra
18 December 1999
Metropolitan Opera New York
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeJane Eaglen
BrangäneKatarina Dalayman
KurwenalHans-Joachim Ketelsen
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotBrian Davis
Ein junger SeemannAnthony Dean Griffey
Ein HirtMark Schowalter
SteuermannJames Courtney
The New York Times

”Tristan und Isolde” has been a passive presence in the big opera houses of the world, like an imposing building left vacant for lack of prime tenants. For years we have had the orchestras, the conductors, the directors and the means to bring Wagner’s immense, hypnotic and deeply disturbing opera to life. What we have not had is people to sing it.

”Tristan” perseveres in opera houses smaller and more hospitable to voices of lesser means, but the Flagstads, Nilssons and Melchiors capable of dominating the title roles have gone, and they have left us empty-handed. The requirements are staggering: eloquence, beauty, sheer bigness and stamina.

Listeners in the thrall of ”Tristan” have survived on memories real or imagined and a few recordings. Given the unreasonable demands, a Wagner performance will always be the art of the possible, but Monday night’s event at the Metropolitan Opera, a new production, may be as close as we shall ever come to getting it right. Here were singing and orchestra playing of exceptional beauty and power together with staging marked by simplicity, dignity and intelligence.

Opera has found its new Tristan and Isolde, and I wonder if we have ever had better ones. Jane Eaglen during the last few years has showed herself a brave and well-armed soldier in the Wagnerian wars, but on Monday she was more. Beautiful sound and unflagging power were means not ends, for this was singing subtle in its variety of deliveries, scrupulously musical and firmly in touch with the heart and soul of the role.

Ben Heppner’s splendid tenor is sorely pushed at but never seems to push back. The voice rides easily through this big hall at quiet levels and soars above Wagner’s orchestra at climactic moments. Act III’s long soliloquy was painful eloquence at work. Mr. Heppner is deeply touched by Tristan’s music and touches us in return. At the end of Isolde’s ”Liebestod,” listeners sat stunned. ”Tristan” has a way of stunning us all. It is the apotheosis of desire, music with an insatiable appetite. Unresolved harmonies move from one partial resolution to the next unresolved harmony and so on into the night. One gesture devours another. The opera is so vast in its implication that it can be experienced simultaneously as a triumph of spirituality and a five-hour orgasm in the making.

”Tristan” can look like almost anything we want it to. Dieter Dorn’s production sets period dress inside solid geometry. Triangular planes converge at a point at the back of Jurgen Rose’s set and spread upward and outward to the audience. Everything is pushed forward, minimizing the cavernous dimensions of the Met’s stage. People and monoliths rise out of and descend back into the steeply raked floorboards. The geometric planes are color-coded according to mood by the lighting director, Max Keller.

Splendid use is made of singers in silhouette. Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner are a hefty pair of love makers, and the dignity with which Mr. Dorn handles their profiles is admirable. There is an air of stillness to this production: no unneeded movements, nothing to clutter the stage.

The other principals are excellent: Katarina Dalayman warm-sounding and passionate as Brangane, Rene Pape a fiercely effective King Marke, and Richard Paul Fink a touching Kurwenal.

The heart of ”Tristan” is its orchestra, and James Levine worked in slow, patient accumulations of force. The sound was wonderful.

The love potion that does our principals in belongs to mythology, but the everyday idea of self-destruction born of passion is in every sip.

Here from Cosima Wagner’s diaries are the Wagners at home: He: ”Love up to the point of complete union is suffering, yearning.” She: ”And complete union” is ”achieved only in death.” A cheery couple they were. Thomas Mann would not have existed without this opera whose love-death theme invests itself in a lifetime of his writing.

So ”Tristan und Isolde,” after a long wait, has been returned to us, and we may be able to keep it for a while. It will depend on the longevity and health of these singers, and both sound smart enough to live long vocal lives. We need them because Wagner’s music is irresistible. Indeed, if the appreciation of Haydn is a shared civility, Wagner’s appeal bypasses civilized thought altogether and goes direct to the most unsettling of primal urges. We put up with prolixity and cryptoliterary hot air because something has reached deep into our insides.

There is no other music like it, and I have never heard a better performance. I think everyone in Monday’s audience had some inkling of the occasion.

BERNARD HOLLAND | November 24, 1999

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 430 MByte (MP3)
Matinee broadcast
A production by Dieter Dorn (1999)
Also available as commercial video recording