This is the third time around for Wagner’s monumental Tristan und Isolde (and the second time for Dieter Dorn’s geometrically framed production, designed by Jürgen Rose). James Levine again conducts and his love for this opera most certainly shimmers throughout the entire performance. Met favorite, Deborah Voigt (we’ve seen her as Brünnhilde in The Ring, Minnie in Fanciulla and Cassandra in Les Troyens) heads a pleasingly less titanic, and equally vocally appealing, cast compared to last time around. Debra is singing the role of the proud Irish princess, Isolde, for her first time at the Met and her Tristan – tenor Robert Dean Smith— is actually making his Met debut in this performance in front of a live worldwide movie-theater audience. Michelle DeYoung is a lovely and sisterly Brangäne and the great Wagnerian, Matti Salminen is an imposing King Marke.
Inspired by Wagner’s own seemingly hopeless love affair (one of many) with the wife of his patron (I’m actually waiting for an opera based on Wagner’s life!), this particular masterwork is based on Arthurian legend and tells of a forbidden love between a Breton nobleman and an Irish princess whose father has recently betrothed her, against her will, to the Breton’s king in order to end a long, ongoing war.
Wagner’s larger-than-life musical sensibilities are on full display throughout this work – along with intoxicating orchestral interludes that surge and ebb with the couple’s passions and include a world famous early chord (the Tristan Chord) that is left symbolically unresolved until the very last moments of the opera, which also feature the most soaring and ecstatic climax in the entire repertoire as Isolde surrenders to a love so powerful that she transcends life itself.
The story concerns the heroic knight Tristan, who 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 twisted back story here is that years earlier, Tristan had killed Isolde’s fiancé in a fierce battle of the war being fought between the Irish and the Bretons. After the battle, 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 with her knife poised above his head and instead of stopping it, he looked lovingly into her eyes. Realizing, however, that their love would be forever doomed by their two countries nearly continuous wars, she allowed him to leave and return to Cornwall.
Now, it is some years later, and in an effort to unite the waring countries, King Marke has arranged a political marriage. He has sent his most trusted knight, Tristan, to fetch the Irish princess to be his Queen and cement the peace. 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 it will kill them both. Her handmaiden, Brangäne, however, has prepared a love potion instead of the poison, 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.
The similarity to Arthurian legend here is quite obvious. The Tristan-Isolde-King Marke love triangle and the Lancelot-Guinevere-King Arthur triangle 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 cure his wounds and save him from death (he had allowed Melot, who betrayed them to King Marke, to run him through at the end of Act II). This time, however, she is too late, and he dies in her arms shortly after his faithful servant, Kurwenal and Melot have killed each other in an unnecessary act of mutual distrust. So in the end, with bodies lying everywhere, after what has already been a tenor and soprano tour de force – and even after an almost four hour wait to hear it – the ecstasy of her love actually causes Isolde to undergo a sublimely beautiful 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 final scene if you can’t!).
1. Deborah Voigt as Isolde and Robert Dean Smith as Tristan in Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 2008. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
2. Michelle DeYoung as Brangäne and Deborah Voigt as Isolde in Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 2008. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
3. Matti Salminen as King Marke in Dieter Dorn’s production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 2008. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.
4. Robert Dean Smith as Tristan and Deborah Voigt as Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” at the Met, 2008. Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera