One of the Metropolitan Opera's hottest tickets last season was Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," -- a new staging by Dieter Dorn with sets and costumes designed by Jurgen Rose, and a superstar cast featuring Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the title roles. It will be telecast in Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon.
I attended one of the performances in the December 1999 run, and on television, the drama emerges more intimate; Rose's innovative abstract sets enormously effective in framing the larger-than-life protagonists on the small screen.
It is a cast that can be described as the best Wagnerian singers available today in every category; staged by Dorn and lit by Max Keller with clever ingenuity to make the best use of the physical girth of his lead singers; conducted -- at a very leisurely pace, entirely uncut -- by James Levine, one of the few living conductors who could carry it off.
Heppner's Tristan and Eaglen's Isolde come through surprisingly credible as lovers -- the silhouette backlighting giving them a primeval quality that intensifies their plight. Eaglen starts out with a huge, clear soprano and closes the opera pouring out mounds of sound with the same ease she has shown from her first notes. Heppner equals her in the love duet and surpasses himself in Tristan's fiendishly difficult "ravings" in Act 3.
But it doesn't stop there. Rene Pape steals the show as a sad King Marke, whose lengthy monologue can be a bore but here turns out to be a heartrending highlight. Katarina Dalayman is stunning in voice and demeanor as Brangaene, her dark vocal quality and sultry slim figure making an effective contrast to Eaglen's pointed tones and imposing presence.