Tuesday night, I found myself walking up the broad, shallow steps of Lincoln Center toward the lit-up Christmas tree and the jewel-like chandeliers of the Metropolitan Opera, on my way to see this season's production of Tristan und Isolde.
My very first job that wasn't babysitting was as an usher at the Met, and I have fond associations with it and with opera, which when done right is glorious and absurd and tragic and larger than life, like love. Which is why it's so often used as a representation of it, as in Moonstruck and Pretty Woman, though in the movies opera is usually in Italian (La Boheme and La Traviata respectively) or, occasionally, French, which are, after all, Romance languages.
Tristan is not nearly as accessible. It's five hours long; it's sung in German by large people with lots of lung capacity; it's relatively dissonant (Wagner is the master of unresolved musical tension, and presaged much 20th-century music); and the Met's set is a spare dreamscape that brought to mind both Hopper and Dali.
Nonetheless, it was a stirring performance that brought me to tears, conducted by Daniel Barenboim in his Met debut, with outstanding appearances by Katarina Dalayman as Isolde and Kwangchul Youn as the cuckolded King Marke, and a new Isolde (Susan Foster), who stepped in for an ailing Dalayman for the third act and the climactic final Liebestod and was warmly acknowledged for triumphing in a classic showbiz moment.
But was it romantic? It is, after all, a dramatic story of doomed love. But it's ultimately sordid, using the notion of bliss (for which the German word, as this erudite review points out, is Lust) as an excuse for very bad behavior on the part of the title characters. And the plot hinges on a love potion, the creakiest of devices.
Then again, so is dying for love. Which ensured that Tristan and Isolde never found themselves sitting on the couch watching reruns with nothing to talk about.