Above: Birgit Nilsson as Isolde
Wagner's TRISTAN UND ISOLDE has always been a somewhat problematic opera for me. I remember a strong sense of anticipation leading up to my first experience of hearing the opera: on a Met broadcast in February 1963. The prestigious cast incuded Birgit Nilsson, Karl Liebl, Irene Dalis, and Jerome Hines, and the conductor was none other than Sir Georg Solti. The story, which I read over several times in Opera News, sounded like just my cup of tea: vengeance, passion, a love potion, death. I'd already gotten somewhat interested in LOHENGRIN and FLYING DUTCHMAN and had become intrigued with the RING Cycle. I felt confident that hearing TRISTAN would be a life-altering experience.
The prelude was enthralling, but soon after my attention began to waver. The opera flowed on and on, slowly and without anything that particularly grabbed my imagination. I stuck with it for two acts, and then during Tristan's long monolog in Act III it seemed so tedious that I asked my grandmother if we could play a few hands of honeymoon bridge while I listened. The Liebestod was nice, but overall I felt that TRISTAN was beyond my comprehension.
The next time I encountered TRISTAN was some eight years later. By this point (1971) I had a lot more opera under my belt, both live performances and broadcasts, and had been going to New York City for opera performances frequently. All of my opera-friends thought that the premiere of a new production of TRISTAN was going to be the highlight of the season; I decided to go and give the opera a try, having scrupulously avoided listening to any part of it (aside from the Liebestod) since that 1963 broadcast. I thought that perhaps seeing TRISTAN would make it more appealing to me, just as seeing MEISTERSINGER and PETER GRIMES had given me revelations about those works that simply listening to them on the radio didn't quite produce.
And in fact seeing TRISTAN did indeed make a vital and lasting impression on me; here's what I wrote in my diary the morning after:
"TRISTAN UND ISOLDE! First time ever! A magnificent performance in all respects, a great experience and one I will never forget. I've been avoiding this opera for years and it's high time I came to grips with it. This performance went a long way in making the opera appealing to me. It's uneven and I admit the first 40 minutes of Act III are kind of a trial. But the prelude, the first two acts and the Liebestod are all pretty spectacular.
Erich Leinsdorf returned to The Met tonight and he had a great triumph, very warmly greeted as he took the podium [Leinsdorf had made his Met debut in 1938; he had participated in the 1966 closing night gala of the Old Met and had led some performances of NOZZE DE FIGARO when The Met visited Paris in 1966. This TRISTAN marked his return after five years and his first time conducting at the new house.] He led an impressive performance, with the orchestra playing quite beautifully. The opera flowed forward smoothly, with ample opportunity for the singers to work their magic.
The production is simply beautiful: in Act I, the huge ship with its towering sails looks striking. Act II opens at nightfall in a leafy garden...it looks quite voluptuous. As the love duet begins, Tristan and Isolde are spot-lit; as if in a dream they seem to rise up above life itself, appearing to hover above the Earth's edge. As the duet comes to an end, they advance down the raked disc, descending from their paradise and forced back to reality and to their fate. A gorgeous late-Autumnal tableau sets the stage for Marke's monolog, with everyone standing stock-still while the shattered king poured out his despair. The monochrome setting for Act III did not enhance the long scene of Tristan's ravings, though it aptly suggested his loneliness and nightmarish longing. For the Liebestod, only Isolde's face is illuminated. As the great aria moves forward, rays of bluish light flood the stage from above. In the postlude, Tristan's face is slowly illuminated. He raises his hand and clasps Isolde's in a moving depiction of their life after death.
Throughout the evening the lighting and staging were most effective, and I loved Isolde's red gown in Act I and her blue one in Act III.
The singers were just great. John Macurdy was a richly dark-toned Marke who made his long monolog perfectly palatabe. Thomas Stewart was an excellent Kurwenal in every respect. Jess Thomas displayed both the power and the poetry needed for Tristan; the voice has aged somewhat but still has passages of expressive beauty, and he looks well onstage. He made the most of that endless scene which opens Act III.
The ladies were simply incredible! Mignon Dunn created a superb Brangaene both vocally and dramatically. She was a warm and sympathetic figure onstage, and was totally in command of all the score's demands. Above all I will always remember the heart-rending effect of her Tower Watch in Act II as her voice sailed out of the darkness, caressing these phrases with mellow, gorgeous sound which perfectly captured Wagner's moving idea at this point.
Birgit Nilsson was the jewel in the crown of this glorious production. This sort of interpretation is difficult to describe: a flooding, all-feeling, all-knowing, larger than life yet magnificently human portrayal. Her acting was superb, her feeling for the role absolutely right, her word-colourings and nuances strikinglly effective. And she really looked beautiful. But the voice!! That incredible instrument was in solid-gold condition for a performance on unequalled excitement and splendour. It retains its huge size but is now rounder, fuller, richer, and warmer than ever before.
Glowing like a rich ruby, Nilsson's voice encompassed every demand that Wagner placed on it. Her narrative and curse in Act I - especially the sustained passage at the end of the latter - were marvelous, and as she greeted Tristan in Act II, Nilsson really cut loose with the fireworks. She did encounter some pitch problems in the love duet [it was later said that she and Thomas were so far upstage during much of the duet that they could not heard the orchestra] but overall she and Jess Thomas rhapsodized convincingly here. Birgit's Liebestod was indescribably thrilling, the voice sailing into the House with overwhelming power and beauty. We are so very fortunate to have this paragon of sopranos singing for us.
The performance generated a spectacular standing ovation which lasted about 15 minutes, the stars and the Maestro coming out repeatedly to enormous waves of applause and cheers. A super night! I could not have asked for a better first TRISTAN!"
Metropolitan Opera House
November 18, 1971
Benefit/Sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
King Marke..............John Macurdy
Sailor's Voice..........Leo Goeke
Director................August Everding [Debut]
And yet, though this performance opened the TRISTAN door for me, I still found myself hesitant for some reason to embrace it fully. I skipped revivals with two of my favorite sopranos - Hildegard Behrens and Dame Gwyneth Jones - and could not bring myself to attend the premiere of a new production in 1999 featuring Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner, even though by then I was living in New York City.
It wasn't until 2008 that I saw TRISTAN again: my friend Dmitry assured me that I'd love the production, and he was right. I saw it three times with Deborah Voigt, Katarina Dalayman, and Waltraud Meier as my Isoldes. Now I very much want to see it again, though the Dieter Dorn/Jürgen Rose production that I have enjoyed so much is rumored to soon be discarded (after only having been done 25 times); the next time the opera is given at The Met, it'll most likely be a new production.
I've realized that TRISTAN is an opera I need to experience in-house for full enjoyment. In fact, I still don't think I've ever played thru a complete performance of it at home. Which is curious, since I can listen to the RING operas endlessly.
TRISTAN has been described as being filled with "too much longing." Now that most of my own longings have been fulfilled, I can perhaps begin to appreciate this undeniably great opera in a new way.