"There's really no way to mince words: The love duet in the second act of Tristan und Isolde makes me swoon. This coming from a guy who embraces punk rock and Puccini with equal fervor.
I first drank of Wagner's greatness with a viewing of Seattle Opera's wonderfully outside-the-box Rochaix/Israel production of the Ring in 1995. Incredible as the Ring was, though, it was this company’s production of Tristan und Isolde in 1998 that really opened my eyes--and passions--to the composer's genius.
There's no arguing the virtuosity of Wagner's score throughout Tristan--as conductor Asher Fisch eloquently states in his video posted HERE, every classical composer who followed Wagner drew from his well of influence--but amidst all of the analysis Wagner's music receives, one key element garners somewhat less attention: the immensely heated romanticism of it. With all due respect to the Italian greats, for me Wagner's second-act duet is the purest sustained representation of mounting seduction and shared attraction that you'll ever hear, and I was blessed to hear two truly great Wagnerian singers--Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen as Tristan and Isolde, respectively--bringing those nuances to life.
Wagner's score during the duet ebbs, flows, retreats, and builds; and the singers’ voices match those sonic caresses and syncopations like lovers’ attentions. It’s so boldly romantic--erotic, even--that it could make you blush if you think about it too hard. Part of the allure lies in context: the forbidden thrill of this secret love being acknowledged. But beyond that, there’s the sheer sensory experience provided by the marriage of instrumentation, voice, and visuals: That second act marks the first intense and open expression of desire between these characters, as they articulate an ardor whose gravitational pull can’t be denied. What living, breathing human can’t relate to this feeling at some point in their lives?
The ’98 Tristan aroused some controversy with its unusual blend of stark post-modernism and semi-period dress, but I can’t comprehend anyone faulting the visual presentation of the lovers’ duet that evening. It took place on a nearly bare stage, with Heppner and Eaglen singing beneath a lit arch and Mimi Jordan Sherin’s brilliant lighting subtly cueing daylight’s gradual slide into twilight, then into deep night, then back to the dawn. Both singers barely moved; director Francesca Zambello’s decision to have them nearly stationary much of the time allowed the audience to connect directly, emotionally, with the music and lighting in a way that would’ve been inhibited by a busier staging.
I’ve seen a lot of opera in the last twelve years. But between the subliminal use of the lighting and the multiple dovetails, detours, and flashes of magic conveyed by the music and singing, the 1998 Tristan und Isolde second-act duet still marks the headiest time I’d ever had at an opera--truly, magnificently hypnotic in its impact."
Ticket Office Supervisor
Photos of Seattle Opera's 1998 Tristan und Isolde by Gary Smith