Last week, I went looking for recordings of Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten so I could hear a little of it before seeing the actual show. I did find a complete recording in the library, and I also found one of Deborah Voigt’s recital CDs, “Obsessions” that had bits of that opera, some other selections of Strauss, and some Wagner. In the end, I didn’t listen to the complete recording of the Strauss opera at all, because I got distracted by Voigt, both the Strauss and the Wagner, which turned into listening to Kirsten Flagstad singing various selections from Tristan und Isolde which turned into spending today watching a DVD of a performance of Tristan from the Met in 1999, with Ben Heppner as Tristan and Jane Eaglen as Isolde.
This has never happened to me with Wagner, and I have actually even watched this particular DVD before, but I ended up in tears through most of the second half of Act III. The Met’s production is very simple and spare, with stark divisions of the stage both separating and uniting the characters. Isolde and Brangäne are found most often in the dark space to the front; Tristan enters this dark space when he finally is willing to speak to Isolde in Act I; when Isolde and Tristan drink Brangäne’s “death” potion, they meet at the vertical pillar in the middle, which also serves as the ship’s mast in Act I. Although the characters cross the boundaries at various moments, the men appear more often in the brighter space to the rear, while the darker part in front is associated with women, love and death. (Credit here goes to stray for pointing out to me ages and ages ago the gendered division of space in this production.) Both the production itself and the camera work (Brian Large was the video director) outline characters against the diagonal lines in the back at key moments. The effect broadly speaking is to highlight the distinctions that the opera turns on and in some cases blurs: men and women, love and death, day and night, loyalty and betrayal, and so on.
In Act III, the stage is cluttered with small models representing Tristan’s knightly past. Initially, this seemed like a (visual) false note to me, but on reflection, I think that’s precisely the point. By Act III, Tristan’s past has become as out of place and and inconsequential to him as these models are to the space that they have been placed in.
The stage direction has the same feel of abstraction. Tristan and Isolde are often only silhouettes, and very still ones, during their big moments of love and death and all that. The effect is to consistently push one’s attention from the visual to the music, which is perfectly capable of expressing all the drama on its own. It’s very effective, particularly when the music is performed as well as it is here.
Heppner and Eaglen are extremely impressive – whenever I hear a Wagner opera performed well, I am surprised anew at the sheer amount of sound these folks with the big voices can produce. Eaglen was probably making all the little Met-Title screens on the seats vibrate at the big moments, but she can also sound fragile and gentle without losing an ounce of power. Tenors who are known for singing Wagner well are called Heldentenors, right? So why isn’t a good Wagner soprano a Heldinsopranistin? (or Heldinsopran? I think Sopran = treble, incl. boy trebles and Sopranistin = soprano, but I could be off here.) Also, as the photos reveal, both Heppner and Eaglen are on the heavy side, but I think that having the hero and heroine be ordinary-looking and middle aged actually makes the story deeper and more powerful than if they were both young and pretty.
Levine and the Met orchestra also did themselves proud here, particularly the English horn soloist, Sharon Meekins, at the beginning of Act III. The whole thing sounds big and lush and suffused with longing. (Regarding English horns. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that the reason an English horn sounds like an oboe is that it actually is a variety of oboe which is merely referred to as a horn, I assume in order to confuse the unwary.)
As it turns out, I have tickets to see this opera next month when I’m on vacation in Europe – happy timing, I guess?