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!
The 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.
The 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.
Brian 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.
Bottom 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.