Tristan & Isolde from a Curmudgeon's Perspective
November 30, 1999

As many know, I go to the opera house to hear voices.  VOICES!!!  While I may find the actual production, the orchestra, the conductor and even the chorus good or bad, these components have never ruined a performance for me.  That is left to the singers. Such was the case with Tristan in Bayreuth.  The utterly woeful singing of Act I that I heard utterly ruined the performance, and I left, even though the orchestra played, and Barenboim conducted, probably the greatest performance of this score that I will ever hear.  The ugly, atrocious production only added fuel to my objectionable fires and nothing on earth could have kept me in my seat.  The singers - all of them - did me in.

When all these components come together, as they almost did with Tristan at the Metropolitan Opera last week, I know why people go through the often considerable effort and expense to attend live opera. I remain convinced, though, having attended two utterly lousy performances sandwiched between the two Met Tristans -- Otello and Mefistofele -- that I must, in the new millennium, be very selective in choosing what I intend to see and hear. There is too much opera around; there are too many mediocre if not rotten voices around, and too many ridiculous, addlepated productions. Quality in the opera house is getting as hard to come by as is a good Chateau Neuf du Pape.

The Met's new production was somewhat of a waste of money. It really was a concert performance (which Tristan could very well be - an orchestral performance with voices, since nothing happens on stage of any importance) in that the singers, for the most part, sang literally in front of the prompter's box. It was not a production to enoble or lift the spirit, to bring out any new psychological insights into this complex work, or to cause one to think "gee, that is nice."  It was too bright, too white, too gray and generally boring. Its starkness exacerbated the work's inordinate length. It seemed like it would never end. I have often thought that Wagner needed a good editor (imagine getting that assignment!!) because the endlessly repetitive monologues in Tristan - "I want to die, I want to live, let's live together, let's die together" go on and on - and need shortening. This brings the work to its knees at times under the sheer weight of its own verbosity. I think Tristan would have been the greatest opera ever written had it been kept to around 2 1/2 hours. Do we really need a 64 page love duet to know that these two creatures really do love each other? It is simply too much of a good thing.

Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld, first Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, 1865
Malwine Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The first Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, 1865
Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, first Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, 1865
Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld
The first Tristan in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, 1865

I was disappointed with Jane Eaglen's competent though hardly grand performance. I am wondering if Isolde is not doing her in. The voice has taken on a hard edge at times, she pulls off the top as if she is afraid of it and it seems thin now - gone is the richness that was previously present (the two high C's in Act 2 were squeaked out rather than sung), and there were far too many raspy and unfocused notes, far too many notes that were either flat or sharp. Her very sound is unemotional and so was her performance. This is not a heroic Isolde; I never really got caught up in her pain and suffering. Ho hum, when is the Liebestod? Act I seemed to be her best act, when she is the freshest, and her Liebestod in the second performance was much better than it was for the premiere.

Hepper has taken the role to a new, much higher level, with searing singing throughout. He sings it uncut now and he seemed no worse for the wear. It remains a sweet sound, well focused, carefully placed, displaying an intensity that is stunning. Tristan seems to fit his voice like a glove. I cannot imagine anyone today coming close to equalling his performance.

Katerina Dalayman did not impress me at all. I like a mezzo Brangäne, but even if one does not, there was no bottom voice to speak of and many of the role's marvelous low passages were skirted over. The voice is undistinctive, displaying a quavery tone at times, and needs a good dose of richness to raise it above a mediocre level. I would hate to hear her sing Isolde.

René Pape was excellent, though his second performance was not as good as the premiere. I noted top notes that were tight and unfocused the second time around and he sounded tired. Rumors persist that he is a future Wotan. We will see.

Overall, this was hardly a Tristan & Isolde for the ages. I liked Seattle's production better, Jane was in better voice there, but this one could probably not be bettered today. Yet the fact remains that singers who really have the voices for these roles are few and far between.     P13

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 1999 Parsifal13

  TOP of PAGE  
Opera Jamboree:
Welcome Page | Site Map
Website Design by:
Want your own website? Talk to me!