Tristan und Isolde

Semyon Bychkov
Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra
31 January 2000
Lyric Opera Chicago
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeJane Eaglen
BrangäneMichelle DeYoung
KurwenalAlan Held
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotJames Cornelison
Ein junger SeemannMarlin Miller
Ein HirtMarlin Miller
SteuermannPhilip Kraus
Chicago Tribune

Hypnotic `Tristan’ Makes A Grand Entrance At Lyric

The most influential opera of the 19th Century, Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” falls into the category of works famously described by Artur Schnabel as “better than they can be performed.” The fearsome demands it places on singers, conductors, directors and opera companies have made it an infrequent visitor. The last time Lyric Opera climbed the Mt. Everest of operas was more than 17 years ago, and that was because it had the mighty Jon Vickers leading the assault on the windswept summit.

Just when Wagnerians despaired of ever hearing the likes of Vickers, Nilsson or Flagstad ever again, along come Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen to usher in a new golden age of Wagner opera singing. The dynamic duo has sung Wagner’s transcendent lovers in Seattle and at the Metropolitan Opera. Monday night at the Civic Opera House, they led a magnificent performance of “Tristan und Isolde” that held the Lyric audience in a state of blissful suspended animation for 5 1/4 hours, not unlike that of the principals themselves in their love duet, surely the most monumental coitus interruptus in all of opera.

We are hypnotized almost despite ourselves, helplessly seduced by the sensuous music of this long, grandiose, symbol-laden opera, which cloaks illicit passions in mystical philosophizing. With Heppner and Eaglen pouring floods of powerful tone into the auditorium, surrounded by conducting, orchestral playing and production values of the first magnitude, we can easily withstand Wagner’s prolixity, for we are in the presence of the real thing.

This “Tristan” had opera buffs of a certain age scratching their heads, trying to recall when they had last heard two principal singers so evenly matched in vocal amplitude and projection, or so formidably equipped to ride the fearsome crests of Wagner’s large orchestra without strain.

Heppner was simply a wonder. He sang the punishing tenor role without the traditional cuts most Tristans must observe if they want to make it through the performance unscathed. So shrewdly did he pace himself that he seemed to have plenty of voice and stamina left for the third act, where he rose to fervent intensity as the delirious, dying Tristan longed for endless night and eternal union with his beloved Isolde.

Eaglen was proudly defiant as the mail-order bride of the first act, warm and womanly as Tristan’s tryst-mate later on, radiant and ecstatic as she greeted their apotheosis in Isolde’s “Liebestod.” The Act I narrative and curse were edged with richly appointed venom, her voice nicely contrasted with that of Michelle DeYoung, the vibrant and exuberant Brangaene. The sheer solidity and amplitude of Eaglen’s soprano were thrilling. If the emotions she limned so beautifully in her singing didn’t always register in her facial expressions, so be it. Such a performance silences criticism.

Eaglen and Heppner have large figures to match their hefty voices. But any disadvantages were neutralized by flattering costumes (a time-traveling array of ornate robes and pre-Raphaelite designs) and by freezing the lovers in dignified poses so their singing could do most of the acting.

Francesca Zambello’s 1998 Seattle Opera production, faithfully restaged here by Herbert Kellner, provided a striking visual and dramatic framework that respected the needs of the singers as well as the larger-than-life nature of Wagner’s masterpiece. Timeless metaphysics and transcendent passion merged in one striking tableau after the other. Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting rendered the central dichotomy of night and day as breathtaking visual poetry. Act I took place on a three-tiered ship, with Tristan on the top deck, Isolde and Brangaene on the middle level and a red galley full of muscular stokers down below. At the moment Tristan and Isolde shared the fateful love potion, they were plunged into silhouette against a green, eternal sea. The “steel cage” that brought the lovers together in the first act later became their trysting place and, finally, their crypt.

To be sure, not everything worked. Having the supposedly dead Tristan extend his hand to Isolde’s at the end of the opera was a poor crib from “Goetterdaemmerung.” But so much is right that one doesn’t worry about the very few things that seem wrong.

Wagner’s score is, in essence, music of transition: everything derives from what is heard in the first three bars, and everything melds into what follows. Thus, conducting “Tristan” is in large measure the art of shaping transitions, and here Semyon Bychkov proved himself to be a fine, understanding Wagner conductor. His grip on the huge musical spans was firm but flexible, sensitive to the organic growth of the score and generally well balanced with the stage. The Lyric orchestra responded with playing of remarkable richness, intensity, lyrical warmth and textural variety, reminding us that the heart of “Tristan” really is the orchestra.

Among the rest of the strong cast, Rene Pape made a powerful and deeply moving King Marke, Alan Held a solidly sung, fiercely protective Kurwenal, James Cornelison a tight-voiced Melot and Marlin Miller a mellifluous sailor and shepherd.

John Von Rhein | February 03, 2000

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
192 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 334 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast recording
A production by Francesca Zambello (Seattle 1998)