A static Tristan

Dieter Dorn’s production of Tristan und Isolde for the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most interesting from a design point of view that I have seen from the Met.  If only the direction of and acting of the principals in this recording (made in either 1999 or 2001; sources differ) was up to the same standard!

1.isolde_branganeThe production is mostly made up of geometric shapes and movement is kept to a minimum.  Often, as in the Act 2 duet, figures are reduced to silhouettes by the lighting.  It’s quite beautiful in a stark way but the lack of visual action really does demand that the singers inject some life into the piece.  Katarina Dalayman as Brangäne and René Pape as König Marke show how it can be done with nuanced and affecting performances.  Unfortunately Brangäne and Marke can’t carry the piece for four hours and it desperately needs the same level of dramatic performance from the two principals.  It doesn’t get it.  Ben Heppner, as Tristan, isn’t too bad but he can act much better than he does here.  Maybe he is dragged down by the utterly lifeless display by Jane Eaglen as Isolde?  It doesn’t help that they are both rather large and dressed in costumes that look like they were put together from a sort of medieval Goodwill store.  In any event, the overall effect is a Tristan with little chemistry between the lovers which fatally undermines any attempt to create the passion this piece ought to have.

2.mastThe singing is much better than the acting.  Eaglen has all the notes and plenty of power and I guess this was probably representative of Heppner at his vocal best.  In any event it’s pretty good.  James Levine’s performance on the podium I’m less convinced about.  He seems to be aiming for maximum beauty from the orchestra, and much of the playing is very beautiful, but he seems to be as lifeless ultimately as the stage action.  Act 2 in particular sounds meditative rather than dramatic and threatening.  It’s more sleep inducing than hair raising.

3.duetBrian Large directs the cameras and he does a pretty decent job.  He’s a bit fond of filming from very high up but I think we end up with a faithful enough rendering of the stage show.  Technically the disk is OK for the period.  The picture is 4:3 and TV quality.  Fortunately it doesn’t matter too much with this production which tends to focus on bold shapes rather than fine detail.  The sound, both DTS and stereo, is pretty decent with very good clarity for the orchestral sound but with the voices balanced unusually far back.  This might actually be more realistic but it is a bit unusual.  The bonus material includes a picture gallery of Met productions of Tristan going back to1896.  Incidentally it shows that the Met’s iconic Isoldes were not huge.  There are English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles.

4.tristanBottom line, while the production and singing here are quite interesting it’s let down by awful acting and lack lustre conducting.  Add to that a recording that’s showing its age and one would have to say that there are much better options for a video recording of Tristan und Isolde.


4 thoughts on “A static Tristan

  1. This production has been derided as the Ikea Tristan. I recall Mark emerges from this thing that looks a modern pot belly stove. I felt sorry for Heppner in the last act since he must have to get down on his knees and get up about 20 times (for no reason I can discern). The whole thing was pretty lifeless in the house but the audience went nuts for Heppner, Eaglen and Jimmy (whose Wagner I really don’t like–I made the mistake of buying the Met Meistersinger and could only make it through it once–for many reasons). I also vaguely recall that the estate of the woman who paid for this (and other productions at the Met) sued to get the money back because it was only to be used for traditional productions. Am looking forward to seeing what Decker does in a couple of years (loved his Traviata).

    • I get this sense that some large section of the Met audience makes its mind up about whether it’s going to enjoy a particular performance before it even gets to the theatre…

      I think this production probably could work. Substitute, say, Melanie Diener or Nina Stemme for Eaglen and put Barenboim or Bělohlávek or even Debus in the pit and it make take off. I will be interested to see what Decker does too.

      • Well Stemme who hardly ever sings at the Met is schduled for the Decker Tristan. For some reason Diener never sings at the Met–she has only done Mozart here I believe. Saw her in a smashing Tito about eight years ago with Von Otter. Don’t think she has done anything since then. Singers that can actually move would greatly help this production. I only know Belohlavek for Russian and Eastern European rep–where I think he is awesome. Is there Wagner out there by him that I should check out–I guess he is “type cast” at the Met. Do you get to hear him conduct Wagner at the COC?

      • Belohlavek conducted a very well reviewed Tristan at Glyndebourne and was scheduled for the recent COC one. He dropped out of that due to health problems and Debus covered. I thought he did a really good job.

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