On Tristan und Isolde: Daniel Barenboim and Company Rock the Met


In which The Gay Recluse is annihilated by a soundtrack for the recession.

When we arrived at Lincoln Center for yesterday’s final dress rehearsal of Tristan und Isolde, we were required to walk through a maze of corridors to find the Metropolitan Opera; this somehow seemed appropriate, as if to demonstrate the point that no great work of art can be enjoyed without some degree of sacrifice that extends to the audience as well as the artist.


In this regard, we were reminded of conductor Daniel Barenboim’s recent comments in the Times about active and passive listening, and how the former requires a breadth of knowledge that is perhaps less common than in the past, when e.g., “the same people who knew Schoenberg’s music knew Kandinsky’s art.”)


We even noted a haggard, haunted expression on several of our fellow travelers who rushed to and fro past these outdoor construction barriers, and for a second felt as if we could have been in any city with a great opera house, where even the merest association with artistic transcendence, or the potential of such — no matter how brief — may or may not make the cost worthwhile in retrospect, but never fails to draw those who are searching for it like moths to a flame.


As we entered the Met, our expectations for the opera were high. True, we had never seen Daniel Berenboim conduct, and only knew him by his reputation as a prodigy and a genius and a living legend (and well, umm, sort of a jerky character in that sad biopic — with Emily Watson and Brenda from Six Feet Under ! — about DB’s deceased wife Jacqueline Du Pré). But our excitement had really begun to grow after we read the article about him in The Times, in which he so eloquently discusses Tristan as a work of becoming and transition, as opposed to being.


And then we had also heard reports of his rehearsals at the Met, where our sources described the admiration and affection on display between DB and (fellow prodigy and genius and living legend) James Levine — said to have happily attended every session — and how DB suggested rearranging the instruments in the pit and how Levine endorsed the idea, and how DB gave the orchestra the same sorts of direction that JL has long given them — e.g., “less press, more bow!” — to get the sound and dynamic he was after, and how exciting and perhaps even awe-inspiring it was for all present to take part in a process led by these two masters where the integrity of the music superseded all other concerns, and how this reminded everyone why they had given themselves to this, even if — as is so often the case with Tristan — to be immersed in such heavy, draining music day after day was slowly crushing their souls.


Inside, we found our seat and watched the usual assortment of school groups and retired opera lovers complete the audience and prepare for what was about to unfold. The music began, and the first notes were even quieter than expected, almost undetectable, a single ray of light in the eastern sky, but which quickly gave way to the famous swells and dissonance of the prelude; and as this happened, it became increasingly apparent that we were hearing something remarkable; already our mind reeled as we tried to fathom how the music could be so lush and textured yet so clear, so that every instrument seemed distinct in the mix; if — as so often happens at a Tristan performance — we were given the impression of being under water, it was not into the murky depths we had been submerged but down to a tropical reef, where uncountable schools of fish moved in and out of our field of vision in a vivid kaleidoscope of color.


As for Barenboim, he moved with the magnetic allure and fluidity of one possessed, which is not to say he was distracting or showy, but rather seemed to both refract and reflect the music as it ebbed and flowed. (It can be noted that he conducted the entire piece from memory.) Though Tristan always runs the risk of becoming lugubrious and unwieldy for all concerned, in DB’s deft hands, it was shaped it into something powerful and fleeting but — somehow, at the same time — suspenseful in the most sensual of ways; at times it seemed as if everyone present, i.e., the orchestra and the singers and even the audience, we were all being lulled and prodded by DB to give something of ourselves to this music, this performance, that we might not otherwise have thought ourselves capable.


At the same time, all of the other ingredients of the opera seemed to magically fall into place; the clean, geometric production and the effortless look of the singers as they moved across the stage was perfectly aligned with the music on this afternoon; you had the sense that everything was crafted with just the right amount of expectation and restraint to maintain the preposterous-in-theory but ultimately necessary tension for three acts and more than four hours (!) of music. The lighting was ethereal but bold, moving from whites to blues and grays that mirrored the acceleration and deceleration of time in the opera itself, which though chronological floats in and out of the story like a dream.


In the second act, during the long love duet, we again found ourself mulling over images of water, but this time we saw tidal flats; there were waves flooding in and out of the rocks, leaving eddies in which so many forms of life can — like love itself, obv — flourish in such astounding instability. We admired the Tristan (Peter Sieffert) and the Isolde (Katarina Dalayman) — as they slowly merged into a single silouette in the blue night they so desperately craved, and then we were shocked by the crushing indignation of the King Marke (René Pape), who sounded as if he could tear down mountains.


Nor in Act III did our attention waver during the long and impossibly difficult soliloquies, in which Tristan — in an episode of memoire involuntaire that foreshadows the famous Madeleine of Marcel Proust — ruminates on the pain of not only his life but of all those who came before him.


As the ending approached, a part of us was already beyond exhausted, and as Isolde began her liebestod it seemed  — like the beginning of the opera — almost too soft and too distant; we wondered how a single flickering match could ignite such a gigantic landscape. But here again we were at the mercy of DB and his Isolde, for the thought had barely crossed our mind when the music — for the final time — began to expand and accrete, precariously building to indescribable heights before finally — finally! — crashing over us, so that as the last notes quivered off the stage, we were left stunned and contemplative, for a few brief seconds not wanting anything, content with what we had just lived.


Word on the street is that these performances are not yet sold out!

10 Responses to “On Tristan und Isolde: Daniel Barenboim and Company Rock the Met”

  1. 1 TJW

    I love the shadowy image of TGR in the Tristan und Isolde poster. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Wow, thanks TJW — I didn’t even notice that!! Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  3. Whew! I am not by any stretch of the imagination an opera fan (never acquired the taste, so now, when I go — very, very seldom — it is always a chore). But your words have almost convinced me to try again….

  4. 4 Laurie

    Oh my……TGR….wish I had been there….you write about it so well I almost feel I had….much love to you and the whole editorial staff!

  5. Thanks JMV — might be worth a shot! — Tristan can be a challenge for the uninitiated, but in this case you can sort of imagine it as the equivalent of watching Godard and Truffaut bring something to life…which alone is kind of exhilarating.

  6. Thanks, Laurie — I can confirm that as always, you were missed! xoxo TGR

  7. Yes, you make me blue and grey and watery with envy. (Stockholm doesn’t have quite the quality of the Met, but we do have Ann-Sofie von Otter and Peter Mattei. And tickets are a fraction of the price that they are in the States, so it’s affordable to go to the opera, which has turned me into a fan.)

  8. Hey Francis — yes, it’s amazing to consider what The Met has (and does), particularly given that state funding of the arts (as you know) is relatively non-existent here…but the next few years are going to be very tough…

  9. I saw “Tristan und Isolde” last year at the Met, and it was one of the best theatrical experiences of my life. I am attending two performances this year, and taking a lot of friends with me. Some things are so good, you just have to share. I just hope my friends get it…

  10. That’s a great story, Ricky — I bet you’re going to love it even more this year! As for your friends, Tristan can be a lot for a “newbie” but let’s hope they can get a sense of the magic!

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