Tristan Odyssey

29 Feb 2000

"Tristan und Isolde", which, for the sake of brevity, I will hereafter call "Tristan" or "T and I", without in any way wishing to diminish the role of the soprano, a role which rates highly on my "Yummy" scale of soprano roles by the way- this Tristan or Twithtan if you have an unfortunate lisp, was the last of the Wagner operas which I found and over the intervening 5 years has climbed to the top of my pops in music-drama.

My first hearing of this TITANIC MASTERPIECE !! in a live setting was in Seattle in late 1998, August perhaps. I still have the ticket stubs from the two stellar performances I witnessed there but am too comfy in my chair to bother to get up and give you an exact date and it would do neither of us any good to know it anyway. Since that time I have had the fortune to see it again in Bayreuth, the Met and recently three performances in Chicago at the Lyric Theatre which would make a total, it's the same as the number of empty Spaten bottles on my table right now minus the empty Klondike Bar wrappers in the do the math. If you came up with SEVEN live "Tristans" within the past however many months then you would be right on the money.

I was very lucky to be able to attend the dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde at the Lyric on January 27th. I had had the pleasure of "speaking" to Jane Eaglen on the computer that morning and she had expressed doubts about singing as she had a cold. She thought Karen Bureau, her cover, might have to sing the rehearsal. Trooper that she is, Jane came on stage at 1pm and forged her way though the piece in fine style, only holding back a little in the Act II meeting between T and I where, with the music swirling she sings "Tristan! " and he replies ..."who me?" or such in German. The "he" was Ben Heppner. Suffice it to say it was only a rehearsal but you could have fooled me. The only thing that was lacking from a full scale performance was the hacking coughing of the Chicago audience who seemed to be saving themselves for the big night.

My guess is that before attending a live opera performance, the subscription holder of a Lyric ticket strips naked and sits before an open window while their feet are submerged in ice water. Then they don wet pyjamas and tuck in for the night. Only with this preparation can they be sure of having a severe cold, complete with running nose and barking cough. Quiet and reflective passages in operas trigger their mucus mebranes to expell the subsequent viruses with great force into handkerchiefs seemingly made of aluminum foil, and their rib cages and those of their neighbors are rattled by coughs, great gusts of air hurled upward over larynxes like coarse cheese graters. Mercifully they don't fart...but the time will come.
Luckily no Mexican food, heavy on the beans, was offered at the Lyric. Packed, gasless lunches were available to get patrons through the unbelievably long period of five hours without a meal but I failed to sample them.

My next visit to Tristan was a second Lyric subscription, purchased with the sole intent of having Ben as the tenor, as the usual Saturday night subscription I have would have given me Jon Frederic West instead. More of him later.

So it was on February 19th, the night before my 48th bithday, I took a seat up in the balcony to witness a full fledged Tristan happening 50 yards away. As with all Tristan performances I would eventually hear in this wonderful theatre, the first thing one noticed was the marvellous playing of the Lyric orchestra, led with great vigour and much arm waving by Semyon Bychkov who was not only a new name to me but a pretty awful Scrabble hand when you think of it.

They caressed the score, held it lovingly, danced with it, dribbled it and slam-dunked it. I was in raptures even before the curtain rose to reveal the handsome young seaman sung with great beauty by Marlin Miller, from Ohio, who is a member of the Lyric young artists program. He stood high over the stage on the upper deck of a ship which filled the stage from left to right, its sturdy rivets visible as it bore its precious cargo toward Cornwall. As he sang, the hull of the ship opened up to reveal Isolde and Brangaene in the forms of Jane Eaglen and Michelle De Young......

To be continued...

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