Director's Cut #5:  Tristan und Isolde
November 23, 1999, The Metropolitan Opera
Music and poem by Richard Wagner

With the premiere of a new Tristan und Isolde, directed by Dieter Dorn, the Metropolitan Opera continued a turn away from the the naturalism which for 20 years dominated its productions of the works of Richard Wagner. And the loud, ill-mannered vehemence of boos faced by Mr. Dorn and his production team during their bow indicates just how strongly a highly vocal segment of the Met’s audience resists this forward-looking trend. I say "forward-looking" because I believe that it is the responsibility of the opera director to reach beyond tradition and past the surface of opera texts to create theatrical productions that relate these great works to the concerns of our time. (Actually, "forward-looking" gives the notoriously conservative Met the benefit of a large doubt in that it is widely judged to be far behind the curve when compared to European [and even other American] houses. What challenges here, is elsewhere old-hat indeed.)

  My bias exposed, let me further preface this report with my reaction that Mr. Dorn’s Tristan und Isolde has many flaws. Yet despite these faults, and to some extent because of them, the production emerges as an engaging, challenging and ultimately rewarding evening of theatre. Under the baton on James Levine, the evening marked the much anticipated house premieres of Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the title roles. The musical performance, too, was inspired in some moments and short of the mark in others. An evening of risk, I had the sense that no one played it entirely safe and the result was a performance that excitingly rode the edge and provided huge payoffs and big disappointments. It was opera theatre with an immediacy of the sort rarely seen at the Met - an institution that prides itself on the smooth polish of its productions.

  Mr. Dorn and his designers, Jürgen Rose (sets and costumes) and Max Keller (lighting), utilize Celtic and Japanese elements to set the opera timelessly outside of any clearly defined historical context. The stage is quite spare. All three acts are played on a unit set comprising a large, raked, diamond shaped platform that extends from the lip of the stage apron to far upstage where it is met by a ceiling and walls of scrim to form a four sided pyramidal volume. Into this seemingly infinite space (the scrim walls meet to form a vanishing point) are introduced elements (including objects that appear through numerous trap doors set in the platforms or descend via the fly loft) that establish location, define the characters’ relationship to the physical world, to each other and to themselves. From time to time, the ceiling and walls are lit in various, saturated colors keyed to the focus of awareness.

  Mr. Levine took the Act I Prelude slowly, the coiled dissonances of the famous “Tristan Chord,” like the spring of tragedy, turned ever tighter and tenser. The crucial scenic elements of Act I are realistic in form and detail and include a small fire on the far downstage point of the platform, an assortment of steamer trunks which establish Isolde’s on-deck pavilion, a large mast and sails (seen in silhouette) and and a small platform, some five feet off the floor, which establishes the upper deck from which Tristan captains the ship.The act opens with the looming mast of the ship behind the pavilion furnishings, but as Isolde becomes more claustrophobic, a curtain flies in, floor to ceiling, to isolate her with her rage.

  The first of the great images in this production, and Dorn has a gift for the startling, profound image, occurs when Brangäne (Katarina Dalayman) opens this curtain and a motley crew of sailors is seen, amid the legs and bracing of the upper deck, gaping slack-jawed at Isolde during the reprise of the off stage sailor’s song (sung with a bracing, clean tone by Anthony Dean Griffey). There is a frightening, proprietary sexual-objectification behind their insistent gaze -- eerie and unexpected. Above, Tristan’s gaze is fixed firmly ahead and Kurwenal (Richard Paul Fink) sits at his feet. These two are boy scout pure - quite the opposite of the menials below. Ms. Dalayman sings a wonderful Brangäne. An alert and specific actress, her voice is secure (although I don’t care for her vibrato) and she has the requisite power for this music.

  The first outstanding singing of the evening (thinning at the top and clipped high B’s notwithstanding) and the evening’s first directoral blunder occur during the Narrative and Curse. Mr. Dorn provides Isolde with primitive figures of a boat and man with which to illustrate the narrative. While this is an idea of interesting possibilities (an obsessive ritual, a talisman that the significance of the story lies outside of the material world?), in this execution it falls flat. As Ms. Eaglen relates the murder of Morold and the recognition and healing of Tristan she undergoes a series of present-moment emotional discoveries. Totally involved in the emotional content of the scene, she handles the props absentmindedly - neither a sense of ritual, nor a feeling of connection is established. I think the concept here is solid - it may work quite well with another singer (or for Ms. Eaglen on another night), but Mr. Dorn may have been better advised to work with another choice.

  Tristan’s entrance and confrontation with Isolde, on the other hand, is quite nicely staged, and Mr. Heppner and Ms. Eaglen sing and play it beautifully - catching the intensity and the humor. Mr. Heppner’s stillness, holding his sword against his breast, is eloquent, graceful and riveting. The simplicity of the gesture underlines the genuine wish for escape at the core of Tristan’s character and is the second of the production’s great images. Ms. Eaglen is at her best in the section where she taunts Tristan with the prospect of bringing a docile bride to his uncle ("geleitest du mich / dünkt dich’s nicht lieb..."). She sings this so coolly and with such a knowing smile on her expressive face that one can almost touch her pleasure in hacking at the soft spot of Tristan’s sense of duty.

  Restraint, unfortunately, is not the hallmark of the subsequent action. Here, the series of internal responses made dramatic by means of Wagner’s omniscient orchestra is undermined by overkill. Following the sharing of the “poison,” Mr. Dorn has devised a series of takes and double takes that would appear ludicrous for performers of average girth; the heroic statures of Mr. Heppner and Ms. Eaglen coupled with suddenly flooding the upstage scrims with red amplify the laughability of the staging. Imagine the hokey-pokey done in slowmo against a glowing red background.

  Following almost immediately, however, Mr. Dorn delivers another stunning coup. The close of the act, with the maelstrom of activity leading up to Isolde’s presentation to König Marke, is stirringly staged and ends with a final, haunting image. In the last bars, a hurriedly robed and crowned Isolde is jostled to stand atop a large steamer trunk, separated from Tristan, and surrounded by the crew of the ship. She is now Queen and a public possession. Against strident yellow background panels, the precariousness of her position and the look of lost confusion on her remarkable face tellingly evoke how very out of place, in every sense, she is. It is a powerful, unsettling conclusion to the act.

  Visually, the second act is treated much less realistically; the physical and social realities of the world ebb in importance. Oversized, silhouettes of branches framing the stage from either side of the proscenium suggest Isolde’s garden. At center is a simple tower, some fifteen feet high and just below it a bench. As the curtains part we are treated to a surprising image of Mr. Dorn’s invention. The tower doors are open revealing a small room bathed in brilliant yellow light. In this space, to the calls of the hunting horns, König Marke takes a courtly leave of Isolde and departs with his retinue. The tower is a trophy case. The King and his bride are confined on display - their relationship is a series of ceremonies and obligations. The scene between Brangäne and Isolde is perfunctorily staged - I could not escape the sense that, however competent the performance, the women were flexing their muscles for the famed scenes to come. With evident relish, Isolde snuffs the torch on top of the prompter’s box and to, powerfully rendered, convulsive heaves in the orchestra, Tristan enters for one of the lyric stage’s greatest and strangest love scenes.

  Mr. Dorn seems to be at a loss for how to block this scene with the result that, after a silly entrance involving the protagonists initially meeting behind the tower center stage, most of the staging is of the stand (apart) and sing variety. We are fortunate that Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner have enough vocal goods to make this work. Tristan und IsoldeFollowing the passionate throes of the lovers’ discourse on Night and Day the upstage prism fades from the brilliant deep blue of the late evening sky to black, the tower descends into the ground and the lights dim almost completely out for the "Liebesnacht" ("O sink hernieder..."). Here, I think, was the best singing of the evening. Ms. Eaglen, Mr. Heppner and Mr. Levine were fully attuned to one another - the harmonies shimmered and the forward surge of the fervent music was shaped to fine effect. It bothered me that the principals were in the dark for so long. I understand from friends seated in lower sections of the house that they appeared nicely in silhouette. However, from the balcony, they were a vague dark shape against the dark gray stage floor. As Kurwenal rushes in to warn Tristan of the impending arrival of Marke, Melot and the hunters, the tower rises back into place. The last to appear is Marke who is revealed when the doors to the tower open. Standing, back to the audience, hands up and against the wall, bathed in brilliant yellow light (which we’ve come to associate with duty), he is the one who is caught, a specimen on display. The stunning impact of this image is matched by René Pape’s performance of the ensuing scene which was the musical and acting highlight of the evening. His is a voice of enormous power and a silken beauty. With a keen sensitivity to shaping the phrase he reveals the intricate musical architecture of this lengthy and intense monologue and creates a detailed, intentional characterization of power and hurt.

  To my ears, the most moving orchestral work of the evening came with the third act prelude. This is emotionally difficult music and, under the inspired leadership of Mr. Levine, the players did not shy away from it’s most disturbing qualities. The sound was full and captured the relentless surf of a fetid sea. The concerns of the real world are now truly marginal. The upstage prism is lit a harsh gray: an empty, timeless, endless space. Far up stage, where the points of space converge, Tristan lies supine, arms outstretched on a simple pallet. As the alte weise of the shepherd’s pipe pulls him back to the concerns of the living, the pallet moves slowly down stage. Nursery toy figures representative of the achievements in Tristan’s life appear from the trap doors as he awakens - a terrain of trivial events set against the vast cosmos. And among these small things Tristan wanders as he works through his final attachments, loosens the bonds of ego and experiences the energy of pure love. I found Mr. Heppner’s performance fascinating. I am greatly challenged by the music of this act, and he has brought me closer to an awareness of its beauty than any of the other Tristans to whom I’ve listened. Much has been made much of Isolde’s upstage entrance through a trap door at the vanishing point and of her long cross to down stage center. I found it a grand gesture of simple, powerful dignity. Even the greatest personality has no power to overcome the demands of this world. From the balcony it looked terrific. I will leave discussion of Ms. Eaglen’s singing of the Liebestod until I’ve had the opportunity toward the end of the run to see and hear it again. I am ready to report that I was moved by her acting. The face told me of the final turns of a journey’s end, and of a spreading peace - a transcendent joy she reaches out to embrace during the opera’s final bars.

  At a symposium sponsored by the Wagner Society of New York, Professor Arthur Groos of Cornell University drew attention to pattern of shifting meaning in the texts sung at the climax of each of the acts. These phrases "du mir einzig bewußt" (Act I), "ein-bewußt" (Act II) and "unbewußt" (Act III) (translated "of you alone I am conscious", "one-conscious" and "unconscious") describe the through-action I find in this opera. Tristan und Isolde is about a journey from suffering and confusion to bliss; a journey beginning with painful, egocentric awareness of self and others, then the release of achieving a union of selves with a beloved other, culminating in the loss of ego and the experience of the true energy of love. Mr. Dorn’s makes this action apparent in a series of vivid images. Some of these images are amazingly potent - they stick in the mind’s eye with lasting resonance. Other choices fail to achieve their goal; and let there be no mistake, I found these to be stunning failures. I do, however, believe that his work stems out of a great love for Wagner’s text/score and an earnest belief in the power of theatre. I hope he is given a chance to reconsider and rework aspects of this production - and that this reworking is not seen as a capitulation to the Philistines who booed. It would be an occasion to build on work of enormous strength and great promise.

  Over the years much of the writing on Tristan und Isolde has focused on the impossible demands it makes of its performers - particularly the exponents of the title roles. Of late, cyber and print pundits alike have taken sides as to whether or not Ben Heppner is as great as Melchior. Battle lines are drawn in deciding if Jane Eaglen demonstrates a command of Isolde that equal to Flagstad’s or Nilson’s? Both artists bring themselves - courageously - to these roles. Both have the equipment to make it through the evening and each does considerably more than that. It will be a rare Tristan who finds the sweetness of tone Mr. Heppner achieves. And I suspect that one of my future measures of an Isolde will be against Ms. Eaglen’s vulnerability. Have there been better performances? I’m sure there have and will be, but I doubt I will ever see any one singer in either of these great parts who masters all of the challenges in a single night. But then that’s why we can see the great operas again and again. More is there than can ever be conveyed in one performance. After the thrill of the first time, the adventure will be to go back and discover more gold.
Production Credits
Conductor - James Levine;
Producer - Dieter Dorn; Sets and Costumes by Jürgen Rose; Lighting by Max Keller;
Cast: A Sailor's Voice - Anthony Dean Griffey; Isolde - Jane Eaglen; Brangäne - Katarina Dalayman; Kurwenal - Richard Paul Fink; Tristan - Ben Heppner; Melot - Brian Davis; König Marke - René Pape; A Shepherd - Mark Showalter; Steersman - James Courtney; English Horn Solo - Sharon Meekins; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

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