A Night to Remember
The Metropolitan Opera
11/28/2008 - and 2, 6, 12, 16, 20 December
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Katarina Dalayman (Isolde), Peter Seiffert (Tristan), René Pape (King Marke), Gerd Grochowski (Kurwenal), Michelle DeYoung (Brangäne), Stephen Gaertner (Melot), Matthew Plenk (A Sailor’s Voice), Mark Schowalter (A Shepherd), James Courtney (A Steersman)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)
Dieter Dorn (Production), Jürgen Rose (Set and Costume Designer), Max Keller (Lighting Designer)
René Pape (King Marke)
(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
This was the conducting debut of Daniel Barenboim and the air of excitement at the Metropolitan Opera was almost palpable. The audience greeted his arrival on the podium with enthusiastic applause and then settled in to be wowed. And wowed we were. In the more than five hours of glorious music that followed, Barenboim held the audience spellbound It was as if he and we were submerged in a sea of sound, carried along by some primal, elemental force – powerful and then gentle, swelling and then subsiding, feverish and then preternaturally calm, stark and then sensual, luxurious yet always transparent. I have never heard the Met orchestra play better. When the last notes of the Liebestod had finally sounded and then slowly dissolved into silence, and we were deposited back on shore exhausted and exhilarated, the audience rose as one to give him the thunderous ovation that he so richly deserved.
In 1854, Wagner told Liszt “I have drafted a Tristan und Isolde in my head, the simplest but most full-bodied musical conception”. Two years later, he confirmed, in a letter to Princess Marie Wittgenstein, that the music of Tristan preceded the words. While he was working on Siegfried, he told her, he had slipped unaware into Tristan, “music without words for the present.” We know from other evidence that Wagner did not write the text until 1857. This mode of creation is not typical of his other operas and it’s certainly not the way he wrote the story of the Ring, the text of which was written down before the music was composed. Of course, precedence in time does not necessarily equate to precedence in importance but, in the case of Tristan und Isolde in particular, Wagner clearly made music preeminent.
And he did this to a great extent under the influence of the philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, a strange, misogynistic and deeply pessimistic man whose works Wagner began to read in 1854. Schopenhauer believed that only music can penetrate the innermost essence of the world; the visible world was merely a reflection. To the extent that he was able to enjoy anything, I believe that Schopenhauer would have enjoyed and understood this performance. And because Barenboim’s vision of Tristan so closely matched his own, Wagner would have enjoyed it a well.
In a round table discussion, ten days before his Met opera debut, Barenboim said that the subject of this opera is not love but death and that the characters’ looking for death is “the locomotive of the opera”. Dying in addition to Tristan und Isolde was the entire tonal system that had defined the character of western music. “Musical life, musical works, everything, after Tristan has to be seen through Tristan's eyes”, Barenboim said. “The harmonic language is stretched to the maximum, like an elastic, and there was no beyond that, and therefore new had to come.” In fact, there is so much chromaticism in the opera, and it is sustained for such an extended period of time, that it, rather than tonality, comes to feel like the norm.
Barenboim is the General Music Director of the Berlin State Opera and he brought most of his cast with him from Berlin. His Isolde, the Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, certainly does not have the vocal power of Jane Eaglen, who sang Isolde when this production premiered, but she has a lovely lyrical voice, and usually had no trouble being heard over the orchestra. She is also an excellent actress, graceful and feminine, and thus more believable as a love interest that the more hefty Wagnerian sopranos. I found her a quite persuasive Isolde and, given Wagner’s clear intent in this opera that the center of the action be in the orchestra, hearing her voice as part of a musical tapestry struck me as just right. Peter Seiffert as Tristan gave an uneven performance. He had many marvelous moments but was also rather unsure at times. He was clearly very tired at the end. Michelle DeYoung’s Brangäne was a gentle soul, convincing in her devotion to Isolde. She sang beautifully and gave a moving performance. German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski made a fine debut at the Met as Kurwenal.
The best for last is German bass René Pape, now in his thirteenth season singing at the Met. Possessed of a truly beautiful voice, -- strong and resonant, always powerful, never forced -- he is also a superb actor, projecting both the stateliness and gravitas befitting a king and heartbreak at the loss of his nephew, first by perceived betrayal and finally by death.
The production by Dieter Dorn premiered at the Met in 1999, with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen as Tristan and Isolde. The set admirably reflected Wagner’s radical simplification of the story; the scene highly stylized, the stage virtually bare. The palette was limited to black and white with shades of gray, so that allusions to royalty, in the person of King Marke, could be achieved merely by adding the bright colors of gold and blue. The dominant image was that of a ship and we never really got away from the sea. Marke’s court was merely suggested by a brightly colored rectangular box in which he arrived and departed. Probably the most beautiful visual image and one of the most beautiful musical moments in the opera came during the Act II duet (“O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”). As the lovers left the world of daylight and embraced the night, the harmonies and orchestral texture shifted and they merged into a single dark silhouette set against a deep blue night sky.
During the first half of December, Mr. Barenboim will be performing a solo recital at the Metropolitan Opera. Joined by James Levine and the Boston Symphony, he will also appear at Carnegie Hall as part of the one hundredth birthday celebration of Elliot Carter. In addition, he will perform at the United Nations and give lectures at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and at the 92nd Street Y. He is a very busy fellow.
Arlene Judith Klotzko