It was noble of the Metropolitan Opera to shelve Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for nearly sixteen years, despite this masterwork’s central position in the international repertory. Operagoers with long memories will recall some pretty ghastly Met revivals back in the seventies and early eighties, performances populated by raddled sopranos and tenors in extremis who painfully reminded us that the heroic voices necessary for this most challenging of operas no longer seemed to exist. Now, with the recent arrival of Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, Wagnerians have taken heart, and the Met has been emboldened to offer these two promising singers in a new production. Other companies may have kept vocally compromised Tristans in their repertories, but the Met – which has standards to uphold, having at one time or another presented more great singers in the opera than probably any company in the world – was wise to wait.
If Tristan did not return in total triumph, neither was the Met’s honor stained, and there was much to admire. Heppner’s Tristan may still be a work-in-progress, but the potential for greatness is definitely there. I don’t believe I have ever heard this arduous role sung with such lyrical beauty, tonal suavity, and arching expressiveness, proving that a voice of leather is not a prerequisite for Wagnerian survival. Heppner still seems to be searching for the role’s dramatic and psychological core; right now his interpretation comes off as rather bland and superficial. Perhaps the necessary declamatory intensity will come in time, and with it the ability to make a full inner surrender to Tristan’s darkly feverish, demonic nature.
I was less impressed with Eaglen, who did not sound her best on opening night. Act One went well. The basic quality of her ample soprano was never in doubt, and she successfully communicated much of Isolde’s rage, frustration, and cutting sarcasm. In Act Two, though, she seemed to tire, and the rest of her performance was disappointing. By the time the love duet had arrived, the top of her voice had more or less vanished, the overall tone became colorless and drained of expression, there were frequent intonation problems, and most of the text was lost in mushy diction. I have heard Eaglen in far better form than this, although I am bound to report that some colleagues found her stupendous, one even wondering if any soprano had ever sung Isolde better. Hello? Even if ignorance is now bliss in matters of performance history, has Birgit Nilsson already become a forgotten singer of the past? Lehmann, Nordica, Fremstad, Leider, Flagstad, Traubel, Varnay, and Mödl were just a few of the notable sopranos who sang Isolde at the Met between 1886 and 1960, and most of them left plentiful recorded mementos to indicate just how far Eaglen still has to go.
Both Heppner and Eaglen are, not to put too fine a point on it, large people, and it is difficult to tell how much that reality dictated director Dieter Dorn’s approach to his staging of the opera. The two lovers are kept virtually motionless all evening – they even become invisible during most of their big duet – while the action around them is severely stylized. I have a feeling that this sense of stasis only further inhibits Heppner, who can command a stage with grace and imagination. Eaglen, on the other hand, seems physically unable to make the necessary movements to create a plausible character, relying on vocal means alone to make theatrical points. With two such static protagonists at its very center, this production of Tristan often gives the impression of a staged concert performance, and the direction is such that the dramatic effect is unlikely to be much different if and when the title roles are performed by more agile singers.
Even so, this is still a thoughtful, often provocative production. Jürgen Rose’s basic backdrop consists of three huge white triangular panels arranged to meet in a point that leads the eye into infinity. Max Keller’s bold lighting design for this minimalist space is perhaps rather too obviously color-coded (red equals passion, yellow equals day, dark blue equals night, etc.), but director Dorn fills it with many intriguing details. The shifting perspectives of Act One aboard ship are particularly well handled, as private and public dramas nervously intersect. Isolde’s use of a toy ship, a sword, and such to illustrate the story of her first meeting with Tristan is paralleled in Act Three as Tristan wanders through a minefield of play castles and other mementos of his tragic past – an affecting commentary on the childish unreality of these two lives before the love potion unleashed uncontrollable adult passions. On the whole, this Tristan offers much to ponder (though I’m still wondering about the significance of the male characters’ samurai cloaks and hair buns).
The other roles have been strongly cast, particularly King Marke – René Pape, in fact, rightly earned the greatest ovation of the evening, singing this tortured monarch with magisterial power and moving eloquence. Katarina Dalayman is a soprano Brangäne, but her warmly textured voice is appealingly contrasted with Eaglen’s brighter instrument, and her devotion to Isolde as well as her own inner turmoil are both made very real. Richard Paul Fink shows the same qualities as Tristan’s faithful Kurwenal, which he sings with unusual grace and expressive intensity.
Many musicians in the Met Orchestra are no doubt playing this score for the first time, which perhaps excuses the occasional technical lapses one never expects to hear from James Levine’s famous band. There were many gorgeous instrumental moments, but there were also some very long half-hours, and in the end I was not fully convinced, let alone carried away, by Levine’s Tristan. I could sense no breadth in the great sweeping musical paragraphs, no overall shape or design, no inevitability to the huge climaxes, no catharsis at the end. It was, like so much of Levine’s work on the podium these days, curiously abstract, without any real musical point of view or emotional center. This to me is the real fatal flaw in the new Met production of Wagner’s sublime work. Without a conductor possessed and inspired by the score, no matter how well trained and instrumentally sensational his orchestra may be, the full Tristan experience can simply never happen.