Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I Held My Nose, I Closed My Eyes, I Took A Drink

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.


  1. GB, I think your post gets at something I was inching up to at the end of my review, that as compelling as this opera is, you can't help but think that only someone who was able to insulate himself from much of practical life would be able to sustain this vision. I picture someone like Wagner, a superstar of his day, living in a way in which he assumed other people would take care of things so he could live for art. No couches and reruns for him. And it seems to me that in the 19th century, this sort of privilege was a male domain.

  2. Agreed, David. And isn't it interesting that Wagner and Puccini created heroines who lived that way themselves, whether tempestuous Isolde or Tosca, whose "Vissi d'arte" expressly equates art and love? Of course, there's more than one way to insulate oneself from practical life; think of Blanche duBois in her "belle reve" of a 19th century fantasy world, forced to live in the brute reality of the 20th century.