Singers Take Center Stage in Met’s Tristan und Isolde

Charles Michener At the Metropolitan Opera’s enjoyably tacky production of Mefistofele a few weeks ago, most of the intermission chatter seemed to be about the overexposed chest hair of Samuel Ramey in the title role, never mind the irresistible, if imperfect, score by Arrigo Boito. At the New York City Opera’s first performance of Central Park , the kibbitzing mainly concerned the relative wit, or lack thereof, among the three librettists (Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney and Terrence McNally), forget the three what’s-their-name composers. For the record, they were Deborah Drattell, Michael Torke and Robert Beaser. Mr. Beaser’s beautiful score for Mr. McNally’s heavy-handed polemic about a homeless woman trying to give her baby away was the only genuinely operatic contribution to a trilogy of one-acters whose desperate topicality already seemed dated since its successful premiere at Glimmerglass Opera in July.

When, on Nov. 22, the Met unveiled its feverishly awaited new production of Tristan und Isolde -the company’s first mounting since 1983 of Wagner’s (and possibly anyone’s) greatest opera. According to my informal survey of the opening-night chatter during the first intermission, the chief concerns were (a) the un-damsel-like heft of Jane Eaglen as Isolde; (b) the un-knightlike heft of Ben Heppner as Tristan; and (c) the sensational lighting effects of Dieter Dorn’s production, which, during the two lovers’ discovery of their true feelings for each other in Act 1, succeeded in making the Met’s stage go from bedroom pink to shocking scarlet-a cosmic blush that inspired titters and awe in equal measure. Whatever happened to the notion that opera is, first and foremost, about the music ?

Tristan to be sure, carries more extra-musical baggage than any other opera I can think of, written as it was out of a personal drama whose convolutions are the stuff of a 19th-century Dallas . Two months before the opera’s premiere in July 1865, Wagner’s mistress, Cosima von Bülow, had given birth to his daughter (whom they named Isolde), an event made especially sticky by the fact that Cosima was the wife of Hans von Bülow, one of Wagner’s most faithful champions and the conductor of the first performance of Tristan . (Wagner would later marry Cosima.) In the background, or at least in the recesses of Wagner’s considerable fantasy life, was another married woman, Mathilde Wesendonk, a longtime object of the composer’s unfulfilled passion and the catalyst for the opera.

Wagner was one of those marvelously self-absorbed geniuses who are able to put every idea, desire and disappointment that comes their way at the service of artistic ambition. In the medieval tale of a faithful knight who betrays his loyalty to his king and surrogate father by consummating his love for the king’s wife, he found the perfect vehicle for giving mythic dimension to his own unruly predicament

But to note all this is to say nothing about what gives Tristan its enduring potency, and that, of course, is its miracle of a score. Having seen a half-dozen Tristan s over the years and listened to many more of them on recordings, I could probably, if I cared to, anticipate every twist and turn in Wagner’s sinuous, heaving organism of sound. But such was Wagner’s mastery of his vision that no matter how familiar the music is, it always seems a little strange as it moves according to its own emotional and intellectual logic. (Perhaps only Mozart was his equal at making the predictable seem unpredictable.)

In Tristan , Wagner achieved his finest tension between fragility and grandeur-musically, the opera seems literally to walk on eggshells. At the Met, the conductor, James Levine, addressed that delicate balance with a tenderness that bordered, at times, on the precious. His treatment of the opening prelude was attenuated to the point of ponderousness, and later, especially in Act 2′s love duet, he seemed to be shaping the orchestra around the singers, at the expense of the inexorable undertow that is essential to the opera’s tragic power

Much of this, I suspect, was a case of opening-night jitters, particularly in the Tristan. I heard two of Ben Heppner’s performances in the part at the Seattle Opera, a couple of summers ago, and, in that less imposing setting, he seemed much more focused, more dramatically involved, than he was at the Met. His shining, Björling-like tenor was never less than beautifully produced (thank God for a Wagner tenor who never bleats), but there was too much middle and not enough extremes in his emotional range. During the murderously exposed monologues of Act 3, one was gratified by Mr. Heppner’s finely shaped musical lines but robbed of any sense that here was a Tristan who was going out of his mind.

As in Seattle, the Isolde was Jane Eaglen, she of the stupendous size, power and stamina. Most of the time, she was a marvel in the dead-shot precision of her intonation, the gleaming strength of her top notes and the silvery, mezza voce shadings of her love duets. Like Birgit Nilsson, her great predecessor, she brings a sheer zest to this insanely taxing role that carries all before her. But she never touched the heart. It’s a deficiency that has less to do, I think, with her unromantic figure and an absence of visible mobility in the eyes and face, than it does with certain shortcomings in her formidable vocal arsenal, such as a limited range of color and uninteresting middle and lower registers.

Oddly, this Tristan might have been retitled Brangäne und Marke , in light of the vividness with which these two secondary roles were performed. As Isolde’s not-quite-dutiful enough handmaiden, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman made one of the strongest Met debuts in years, projecting anguish with an almost scary voluptuousness. Nothing can halt Tristan in its tracks, but the closest thing I’ve seen to a show-stopper at the Met in years was the arrival in Act 2 of René Pape’s King Marke. The long, relentlessly wounded monologue he delivers upon his discovery of the illicit lovers can often come across as a scolding rant of self-pity. Mr. Pape’s riveting intensity of gesture, his nuanced articulation of the text and the force of his huge, burnished tone jolted the opera out of a dreamscape and into the painful here-and-now.

Coming on the heels of Robert Wilson’s frozen-Kabuki staging of Lohengrin , Dieter Dorn’s austerely minimal production seemed, at first, like more of the same-a mostly bare stage enclosed in a tent of sailcloth, whose steeply raked sides “disappeared” at a far vanishing point on a metaphysical horizon line. There were some debatable touches, such as toy castle, armaments and knights that littered Tristan’s homeland of Kareol-a too-cute reminder of how diminished childhood artifacts and memories become as one grows older.

But Mr. Dorn, unlike Mr. Wilson, is a storyteller, and through Max Keller’s color-changing lighting, the trapezoidal confines of the set became an intimate no man’s land that conjured up Wagner’s obsession with the shame of day and the ecstasy of night, and reinforced the lovers’ solipsism. This was a staging with an emphasis on the singing, not the singers, which was just as well, given the bulkiness of the two leads. During their great duet of consummation, Ms. Eaglen and Mr. Heppner dematerialized into silhouettes against a menacingly supernal blue sky, becoming negative space out of which the delirium of Wagner’s music could pour forth undiminished.