Tristan : Where There’s Girth, There’s Worth!

A Verklarung , or transfiguration, was what Richard Wagner called Isolde’s final bliss-in-death monologue, the “Liebestod” in Tristan und Isolde -the achievement of which might be said to be the fundamental aim of all opera, from its beginnings in Renaissance Italy to the present day. For, after all, what is the appeal of this wonderful, crazy art form if it is not its capacity to persuade us that all that elaborate stage engineering, and effortful coordination of orchestra with bellowing voices emanating from overweight, overpowdered men and women, is somehow giving us an extended epiphany of truth and beauty?

Wagner, of course, pushed the idea of opera as a transformative experience-not just esthetically but spiritually, and even politically, farther than anyone else. In Tristan , which had its premiere in Munich in 1865, he set himself the headiest challenge of his career: how to plunge the audience into the paroxysms of an illicit love affair-one inspired by his own extramarital passion for a good friend’s wife-between a couple out of misty Celtic mythology who lose their hearts (and ultimately their lives) to each other because of a mistakenly imbibed magical potion. And how to do so with characters whose violent mood swings, from ecstasy to despair, run for well over four hours, requiring the services of a soprano and tenor who have the stamina, and perhaps heft, of elephants.

That Wagner pulled it off is beyond dispute. The opera he wrote and composed, after five years of painstaking work, is the culmination of the Romantic movement’s wrestling with questions of freedom, fate and duty. Tristan is also the path breaker, in its musical and psychological innovations, for a great deal of what the ensuing Symbolist and modernist movements produced-in music (from Richard Strauss to Alban Berg), literature (Friedrich Nietzsche to Thomas Mann) and art (Aubrey Beardsley to Anselm Kiefer). Any new production of the opera carries with it not only the immensity of the work’s musical and physical demands, but an unholy load of intellectual and cultural baggage.

Successful Tristan s are rare indeed; a great one is every Wagnerite’s fondest dream. I can’t say that the Seattle Opera’s new production is an unqualified success-though it is unquestionably a world-class opera event and a triumph for this impressive regional company and its enterprising general director, Speight Jenkins. But it is, on many counts, as good an account of the work as we are likely to see on these shores these days-perhaps until the Metropolitan Opera unveils its new Tristan in 1999. It was for a preview of that event, which will also feature the two very large white hopes of the impoverished ranks of Wagnerian high-dramatic sopranos and heldentenors -Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner-that I recently trekked out to the overcaffeinated metropolis in the Pacific Northwest.

The first thing to be said about the Seattle production, which was directed by Francesca Zambello, is that it is fleet, sleek and acutely sensitive to the swirling fevers of Wagner’s score. Ms. Zambello and her designers-Alison Chitty (scenery and costumes) and Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)-have transported the story’s medieval events into a no man’s period of the sort that is typical of today’s stir-fried postmodernists: Tristan and his shipmates wear greatcoats out of one of Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic sea yarns; Isolde and her faithful Brangäne are swathed in Pre-Raphaelite muumuus.

The sets combine techie minimalism with stripped-down sweetness: Picture, in Act III, Philip Johnson’s Glass House plunked down in a Hallmark card dunescape. The highly active lighting segues very effectively from amber twilight (for passion) to pastel twilight (for yearning) to ashen twilight (for desolation), framed occasionally by Wilsonian bands of light that would not be inappropriate for a Busby Berkeley dream sequence. Except for several glimpses in Act I involving bare-chested galley slaves imported from Muscle Beach doing rowing calisthenics-beefcake is becoming a staple of Ms. Zambello’s productions-this Tristan is, mercifully, free of kitsch.

Ms. Zambello’s greatest strength as a director has always been her understanding that operatic performance requires an elevated naturalism that will allow the singers to move like recognizable human beings who are having the sort of bad day that would flatten Bill Clinton. (I’m afraid that, pathetic though our President and his Oval Office squeeze are by comparison, I couldn’t help but think of Bill and Monica as Wagner’s doomed lovers were ascending the heights of vocal orgasm.) In Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, Ms. Zambello was confronted with two singers whose ampleness of size, to put it kindly, scarcely conforms to traditional notions of chivalrous knights and damsels in distress. I was happy to note, though, that Mr. Heppner has shed more than a few pounds since I last saw him, lumbering gingerly through Robert Wilson’s Lohengrin at the Met this past spring.

Ms. Zambello handled her charges beautifully, framing them in their love-and-death scenes in a Mies van der Rohe-esque cube, which evoked their isolation and entrapment without making them look like caged bears. At their most rapturous, they simply faced the audience, held hands and sang, leaving the more visible signs of agitation to their handsomely sung and acted stalwarts, Michelle DeYoung’s Brangäne and Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal. (Peter Rose, as King Marke, was also moving and impressive.) Physical contact between Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner was kept to a minimum, which made their final moment before heading off into legendary oblivion especially powerful. As Ms. Eaglen lowered her head onto the prostrate Mr.

Heppner, the two seemed to melt indistinguishably into each other. And in the evening’s single most effective-and surprising-directorial stroke, this Tristan, whom we had presumed dead, raised a fallen arm and placed the hand over his heart: He, too, had been ravished by Isolde’s “Liebestod.”

But we go to hear Tristan , not to see it. For, more than is the case with any other opera, this one takes place in the music-in the orchestra’s great soundscapes of nature and emotion, and, above all, in the voices of the title characters. Under the old-hand leadership of the Swiss conductor Armin Jordan, the Seattle Symphony players were terrific; incisive and transparent in the heaven-shaking climaxes, sensitive and expressive in the moments of quietude. Given the fact that this was Ms. Eaglen’s first Isolde and Mr. Heppner’s first Tristan, their performances were astonishing.

Until now, I have not shared in the general euphoria over Ms. Eaglen’s prowess, which critics are likening to that of the supreme Wagner soprano in our time, Birgit Nilsson. The power not only to sail over but cut through the loudest, thickest orchestral textures is there-though Ms. Eaglen’s lower register has notably less force than the middle and top ones, and when she tries to sing softly, the voice becomes perilously thin. And the British soprano’s bel canto line is impressive: She doesn’t hoot, she spins. But as yet, there isn’t much variety of color in the voice, and although her understanding of the text is thoughtful and nuanced, she tends to drive the part, rather than puzzle out its most psychologically revealing moments. Still, drive she can-with an unflagging ease, and a zest, that promises an even more exhilarating Isolde in the years to come.

Mr. Heppner, for me, was the heart and soul of this Tristan . Using in several places the trimmed-down monologues that even the century’s most celebrated heldentenor , Lauritz Melchior, was not too proud to adopt, he reveled in the sort of Italianate lyricism that Wagner wanted for his singers. Mr. Heppner lacks the visceral magnetism that his great predecessor and fellow Canadian, Jon Vickers, brought to Tristan, but he also lacks the older singer’s tendency to overemote. There is a natural, reedy pathos in Mr. Heppner’s voice-a yearning-that recalls the lost-in-the-mountains nobility of Jussi Björling. And there is something else that, on this occasion, I found especially compelling: In numerous small ways, vocally and physically, Mr. Heppner showed us the living man inside this insanely racked, metaphysically muddled hero out of musty lore. This is one heldentenor who is utterly without airs. It has nothing to do with nonchalance-Mr. Heppner sings with everything he has, beautifully-but he leaves you with the feeling that, when all is said and done, he could walk away from all this glorious nonsense to become happily lost in those mountains.