Wagner-Tristan und Isolde (Metropolitan Opera) (1999) (NTSC)

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Released 1-Dec-2003

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Opera Discography-Catalogue
Gallery-Photo-"Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera
Web Links
Rating Rated E
Year Of Production 1999
Running Time 238:03
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (80:18)
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Brian Large
Metropolitan Opera
Universal Pictures Home Video
Starring Ben Heppner
Jane Eaglen
René Pape
Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Brian Davis
Katarina Dalayman
Mark Schowalter
James Courtney
Anthony Dean Griffey
Case Scanavo-Opaque-Dual
RPI $49.95 Music Richard Wagner

Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None German Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 (1536Kb/s)
German dts 5.1 (768Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.29:1
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.29:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles German
Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    On the afternoon of February 13, 1883, Richard Wagner was writing an essay at his desk in the Palazzo Vendramin in Venice, where he had retired for the winter in the hope that a change of climate would be good for his health. He wrote the following sentence:

    However, the process of emancipation of the Woman takes place amid ecstatic throes.

    In the margin he wrote:

    Love - Tragedy

    Already he must have been feeling a shortness of breath. At about 2:00pm he was heard to cry out in pain, and within an hour he was dead from a heart attack.

    The above were the last words he wrote (his actual last words were something like "my watch") and could quite easily sum up his music-drama Tristan und Isolde. Composed in one Herculean effort in 1856-59, it was first performed in 1865 and remains one of the most influential works written for the operatic stage.

    The story is taken from the legend of Drystan and Essyllt, or Tristram and Iseult, a tale which dates back to mediæval times. As usual, Wagner wrote the libretto himself and adapted the story to his own philosophical ends, the work of Schopenhauer being strongly influential in the theme of the transcendence of love. Musically, the work dared to ignore the musical rule of the resolution of chords, holding that back until the orgasmic finale, while the use of dissonance paved the way for modern music. It is not untrue to say that Wagner rewrote the musical textbook: in fact, around 1850 he wrote a book called Opera and Drama in which he propounded a new theory of musical drama. Unlike most theorists, he not only acted on his theories but succeeded, changing the course of Western music and resulting in major works like Tristan.

    Highly controversial due to the erotic elements, early performances were somewhat scandalous. The work also places huge demands on the performers. Placido Domingo is currently recording the work for EMI but has never essayed it on stage, as he freely admits he would not be able to do it. It has also been the undoing of some conductors, with the celebrated Wagner interpreter Joseph Keilberth dying in the midst of conducting Act Two of the opera in Munich in 1968. The first Tristan was to be one George Ander, but he went mad while studying the role. His replacement, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died of a chill caught during the fourth performance of the opera, just over a month after the premiere, aged just 29.

    This performance is from a television broadcast made in 2000 from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and is one of a series of releases of such broadcasts on DVD. As with most Met material of the modern era the conductor is James Levine. Levine has a tendency to linger over the details of scores and thus most of his performances are slower than the norm, some at funereal pace. This performance is a case in point, running about four hours, or about 20 minutes longer than most. This time it does not matter so much, as the music is able to sustain the longer running time and no real pressure is put on the singers.

    The principal singers are Jane Eaglen as Isolde and Ben Heppner as Tristan, and here we have the second problem with this release. Tristan and Isolde are supposed to be young lovers, and this illusion is shattered by the appearance of these two singers. Eaglen is, well, substantial, and the older, badger-like Heppner is larger than life as well. One should expect that singers of this repertoire are bigger than your average singer, because of the lung capacity and stamina required by the roles. But when the soprano part is taken by someone who seems to have restricted mobility, and who does not fall lifeless over the body of Tristan at the conclusion of the drama (something I'm sure Heppner is grateful for) then part of the dramatic aspect of the work is lost. Heppner sings well, but as the evening wears on Eaglen is found wanting, becoming ragged and losing power and stability well before the end of the night. René Pape is an excellent Marke, Katarina Dalayman adequate as Brangäne and Han-Joachim Ketelsen a reasonable Kurwenal.

    The staging is somewhat minimalist. The first act ship is represented by a mast with a sail in the centre of the stage, with floorboards for the deck. The garden in Act Two has a couple of bushes at the sides plus a slender building in the middle - I assume this is meant to be the castle. Kareol looks like it is built on the floorboards from Act One. The background in each is three large triangular sheets, which change colours according to the lighting. The whole is relatively effective, and certainly better than that which passes for stage design in Europe these days. The costumes are reasonably in tune with tradition. Brian Large's television direction is very good, as is usual with this omnipresent veteran

    This would not be a first choice among available Tristans on DVD, though the others all have their problems. I have not seen the 1996 staging from Japan and featuring Dame Gwyneth Jones, but secondary sources indicate that she and the tenor are in poor voice and that the stage design is terrible. I have seen the performance that appears on DVD with Waltraud Meier and Jon Frederic West, though I have not seen the DVD itself. Again, this has a poor Eurotrash-style staging, with the ship a modern cruise liner, the garden featuring a bright yellow sofa and Kareol housing a slide projector showing holiday snaps. Tristan and Isolde walk off from the front of the stage at the end, as the curtains open to reveal two coffins side by side. More disturbing than enlightening in my opinion. That being said, the performance by Meier is exceptional, and while West is not in her class this is still enjoyable sound-wise if not visually.

    The other available performance on disc is from the open-air theatre at Orange in France, a performance conducted by Karl Böhm and recorded on film in 1973. The filming is poor, with often inept use of hand-held 16mm cameras, a poor quality video transfer, equally poor quality sound and the worst audio sync I have seen on disc (though this is in the source, not in the transfer). Despite that, this is a compelling, ecstatic and near-definitive performance by Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers, which shines through despite the obvious problems. I have the Region 1 disc of this from Kultur which has good subtitling, but the one that seems to be available in Region 4 is from Hardy Classic Video, so I cannot comment on whether that is a better transfer. In any case, this is the one to have, though not if it is your first experience of the work.

    So, in summary, this isn't a terrible performance and is acceptable given that there is no perfect alternative.

Plot Synopsis (contains MAJOR spoilers):

    Act One takes place on board the ship carrying Isolde to Cornwall. Tristan has slain her father and is taking her to be the bride of his uncle, King Marke. It transpires that Isolde had brought Tristan back to health after her father had wounded him, instead of taking her revenge when she had realised who he was. It seems that they were in love, but now Isolde feels that he has betrayed her. Before the ship lands in Cornwall, Isolde proposes to Tristan that they drink a toast of atonement, but she has arranged for her handmaiden Brangäne to pour a death potion into the goblet. Brangäne, though, has substituted a love potion, and on drinking the potion Tristan and Isolde find themselves in love.

    Act Two takes place in a garden near Marke's castle. While they think the rest are on a night-time hunt, the lovers meet and sing of their love for each other. Brangäne has warned Isolde that they are suspected, and when King Marke arrives it turns out that Melot, who has been posing as Tristan's friend, has in fact betrayed him to Marke. Marke is naturally disappointed in Tristan. Tristan provokes a fight with Melot but does not defend himself and is seriously wounded.

    Act Three finds an unconscious Tristan back on his home island as a plaintive tune is heard. Tristan's friend Kurwenal waits for him to recover while a shepherd keeps a lookout for Isolde, the sombre melody indicating that she cannot be seen. Tristan regains consciousness. He is determined not to die until he is with Isolde. When the melody becomes joyful and Isolde is seen to arrive he reopens his wound so that she may heal him, and when she appears he dies in her arms. Marke then arrives with his retinue. Kurwenal thinks they have come to kill Tristan and he fights with Melot, killing him but suffering a mortal blow in the process. Brangäne appears and says that she has told Marke about the love potion. He has forgiven the lovers and intends to let them be together, but he is too late. Isolde stands over Tristan's body, has a vision of him calling her to him and falls lifeless as if transfigured over his body.

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Transfer Quality


    The video is in the original television aspect ratio of 1.29:1 and is not 16x9 enhanced. This is in NTSC format as was the original recording.

    The transfer reveals the usual problems of standard analogue video recording, in that it is as sharp as it can get but does not approach digital video recording quality. There is a slight lack of clarity and vividness to the video, which is exacerbated by the low light levels required of a live opera performance. Despite this, shadow detail is not an issue, as the lighting seems to be well configured.

    Contrast is not as dynamic as would be ideal, and colour looks slightly washed out and lacking in vibrancy. That being said, it is perfectly satisfactory for this kind of material.

    I did not notice any artefacts of any description.

    This is a two-disc set, with the first disc containing the first two acts complete. This disc is RSDL-formatted. Unusually for a Universal opera disc the layer change is perfectly placed in the break between the two acts, at 80:18. The second disc has just Act Three and is single-layered, thus there is no layer change to contend with.

    Optional subtitles are available in several languages. They are switched off by default. I watched the programme with the English subtitles, and they are in a reasonably sized white font and are quite readable. US spelling is used. I found the subtitles problematic, as not all of the libretto is translated. There are some lines for which there are no subtitles, and at the climax of the great love duet of Act Two the subtitlers seem to have given up trying to translate anything. This is critical for understanding the work as Tristan and Isolde speak of their love for each other being consummated by joining together as if one, which prefigures the transfiguration at the end of the work.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There are two audio tracks available, the default Linear PCM 2.0 stereo track and a DTS 5.1 surround mix. I listened to the latter track in full and subsequently compared the two tracks in detail in selected passages.

    Firstly I should mention that both tracks fully capture the bronchial Met audience in all their glory. I suspect that they wait until the quieter passages before coughing, spluttering and clearing their throats. You will be left in no doubt that this is a recording of a live performance.

    There are subtle differences between the two tracks. Surprisingly, to my ears it favoured the DTS track. Firstly, I though that it had greater clarity in the orchestral music, with individual instruments easier to pick out. On the other hand, the voices of the chorus were clearer in the PCM track. Secondly, the bass was richer and fuller on the DTS track, even with the subwoofer switched off. Low frequency effects are plentiful on the DTS track, and the subwoofer is in use throughout the programme. The rear channels are used more for ambience than for directional effects.

    Audio sync on each track is unexceptionable.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



    This extra is on both discs and consists of 27 photographs of the covers of other DVDs on the Deutsche Grammophon label.

Photo Gallery - "Tristan und Isolde" at the Metropolitan Opera

    This extra is on both discs and consists of ten photographs of historical productions, singers and conductors of the opera at the Met. All are black and white.

Trailer (12:20)

    This is a newer version of the trailer on other DG opera discs, and contains highlights from a number of DG releases. It only appears on disc two.


    These are links to the Deutsche Grammophon and Universal Classics web pages. This extra is on both discs.


    A 38-page booklet is included. This includes credits, track listings and timings, a brief essay about the production and a lengthy synopsis, the last two repeated in several languages. There are also a few photographs of the performers.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    This release is identical to that in all other regions, so there is no reason not to shop locally.


    A good but not ideal rendering of this seminal work.

    The video quality is pretty good.

    The audio is very good.

    The extras do not amount to much.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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