Seattle Opera took the kudos in 1998 for its production of Tristan und Isolde, gloriously cast with Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen, who seem, by virtually unanimous worldwide critical acclaim, to be not only the ideal singers for these roles, but perhaps the only singers performing today fully capable of doing the roles justice. (CV regrets missing the Seattle performance.)
The roles are notoriously difficult and the orchestral score is also exceedingly demanding. Indeed, the world premiere of Tristan, scheduled for Vienna in 1862 was canceled and the opera labeled unplayable. Why then, one might ask, do so many opera companies around the world continue to stage it with such regularity?
CV attended the October 21 performance at San Francisco Opera, and did so, we might add, with great trepidation. Local reviews were just about uniformly poor. The Isolde, Elizabeth Connell, was a late substitution for the originally scheduled soprano, whose departure was announced with that great operatic euphemism, "artistic differences."
But we went and we stayed right through the entire five hour performance. While clearly not up to the drama of the role, Connell was in good voice and it is a respectable instrument. The tenor (we will be kind and leave him here unnamed) would have been a disgrace at the most provincialof houses. The orchestra, on the other hand, conducted by Donald Runnicles, was in fine form.
The key is the sheer magnificence of the music, as well as the fascination and Jungian psychological draw of the libretto. Despite the serious drawbacks in the quality of the lead vocal performances, there were, nonetheless, some moments of great beauty. And, in the second act, for CV, the music of the great love duet transcended the limitations of the performers and we were genuinely moved.
Opera is a demanding art and we do not always find it at its zenith. The devotee returns again and again in hopes of the thrilling, memorable experiences, but, more often than not, takes what pleasures can be found.