The Met Streams Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde #2

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Sunday, July 12 

Viewers’ Choice: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde #2  ~ 3Hrs 58Mins

Starring Jane Eaglen, Katarina Dalayman, Ben Heppner, Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, and René Pape, conducted by James Levine. From December 18, 1999.

Inspired by Wagner’s own affair (one of many) with the wife of his patron, this masterwork is based on Arthurian legend and tells of forbidden love between a Breton nobleman and an Irish princess whose father has betrothed her, against her will, to the Breton’s king in order to end a long war.

Wagner’s larger-than-life musical sensibilities are on full display throughout the work – along with intoxicating orchestral interludes that surge with the couple’s passions and include a famous early chord that is left symbolically unresolved until the very last moments, which also feature one of opera’s most soaring and ecstatic climaxes as Isolde surrenders to a love so powerful that she transcends life itself. At the time, the New York Times reviewer wrote, “Here were singing and orchestra playing of exceptional beauty and power together with staging marked by simplicity, dignity, and intelligence.” Apparently, the audience’s chief comments concerned, (a) the un-damsel-like heft of Jane Eaglen as Isolde; (b) the un-knight-like heft of Ben Heppner as Tristan; and (c) the sensational lighting effects of Dieter Dorn’s production, which, during the two lovers’ discovery of their true feelings for each other in Act 1, succeeded in taking the Met’s stage from bedroom pink to shocking scarlet – a cosmic blush that inspired both titters and awe in equal measure. Heppner and Eaglen are indeed, monolithic figures, almost living statuary, in a very slowly metamorphosing landscape – this is NOT an action-opera – so be prepared for a lugubrious slide into death where the lovers can finally be truly united while the misery they brought to others remains.

The timelessness of Wagner’s masterpiece was artistically captured in Dieter Dorn’s production, designed by Jürgen Rose. It stripped away the usual visual elements from the drama and geometrically framed its basic heart. Under James Levine’s always excellent conducting the Met orchestra is a central character in the story. René Pape is a sympathetic and vocally dramatic as King Marke, the man who is betrayed by his wife and his nephew – the two people he loves most in the world. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen and Katarina Dalayman complete the cast.

In March, we saw an extremely dark production of this piece from 2016 starring Nina Stemme, Stuart Skelton, and René Pape (again). If you were able to get past that production’s dystopian updating to a dingy, metallic, mechanical present, you were treated to an exceptionally well-sung opera of great musical beauty. This (much) older production is (much) easier on the eye and certainly as well sung. Heppner and Eaglen were THE Tristan and Isolde of their day as, before them, were Melchior and Traubel in theirs. So again this week, we have the heroic knight Tristan (I much prefer to see him actually looking like a knight rather than in some drab modern military get up) is the nephew and heir of King Marke of Cornwall. As the opera opens, he is transporting the Irish princess, Isolde (against her will) back to Cornwall to marry his king. 

The back story here is that years earlier, Tristan had killed Isolde’s fiancé in the fierce war being fought between the Irish and the Bretons. The badly wounded Tristan (calling himself Tantris) had stumbled upon Isolde and was nursed back to health by her miraculous healing powers. When she finally realized his true identity, she tried to kill him, but could not bring herself to do it as he awoke and looked lovingly into her eyes. Realizing their love was forever doomed by their country’s nearly continuous wars, she allowed him to leave and return to Cornwall. 

Now, years later, in an effort to unite the waring countries, King Marke has arranged a political marriage and has sent his most trusted knight, Tristan, to fetch the Irish princess to be Marke’s Queen. On the voyage – still furious at what she sees as Tristan’s betrayal – Isolde tries to trick him into sharing a poisoned drink with her, hoping to kill them both. Her handmaiden, Brangäne, however, prepares a love potion instead, dooming the now even more hopelessly in love pair to suffer through Isolde’s marriage to King Marke, his eventual discovery of their secret love (after the beautiful Liebesnacht duet in Act II), and their predictably tragic end (shades of this week’s very similar, Francesca da Rimini). 

If you are also sensing a similarity to Arthurian legend here, you are perfectly correct. The Tristan-Isolde-Marke love triangle, like the Francesca-Paolo-Giovanni triangle and the Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur triangle all share the very same medieval origins, although Tristan likely came first, and the lovers’ eventual ending is somewhat more deadly in Wagner’s version. Isolde’s final aria, the Liebestod (love death), called “Mild und leise” (mildly and gently), is legendary – all on its own. She has once again rushed to Tristan’s side to save him from death (he allowed Melot, who betrayed them, to run him through at the end of Act II), but this time she is too late, and he dies in her arms after his faithful servant and Melot have killed each other. Ah, bodies everywhere, after a soprano tour de force – even after an almost four hour wait to hear it – during which the ecstasy of her love actually causes her transfiguration and death: In the wafting Universe of the World-Breath — / drown, / be engulfed — / unconscious — / supreme delight! 

All of the principals except Marke lie dead before us. Wait for it if you can (or fast forward to the end if you can’t!).

Photo Credits

1. A scene from Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 1999. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera.

2. A scene from Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 1999. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera.

3. Ben Heppner as Tristan and Jane Eaglen as Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 1999. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera.

4. Jane Eaglen as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 1999. Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera.

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