Wagner’s drama of intoxicating passion unto death gets the full Met treatment here. James Levine brings a lifetime of experience to the podium, directing a musical performance that is both intensely lyrical and expertly paced. The lead singers, Deborah Voigt as Isolde and Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, are both Met regulars and seasoned interpreters of this, one of the most taxing operas in the repertoire for its singers. Although both are occasionally stretched vocally (all singers are in this opera) and sometimes sound a little edgy on the top notes, they both have the range and the stamina required, and the dramatic sensibility and chemistry to make these central roles convincing.

The production (Dieter Dorn) is visually clear and well defined, the large sets (Jürgen Rose) making effective use of just a few pastel colours to set the scene. The video production makes imaginative use of split-screen effects, often presenting close-ups of the two lovers with an image of the full stage. The approach is similar to that taken by Bill Viola in his video projection designed for concert performances of Tristan from a few years earlier, but it is less conceptual, designed more to clarify than to interpret.  

Tristan und Isolde is well served on video. Among the other recent contenders, the Glyndebourne production is well worth seeing, and has arguably superior singers in the lead roles (Robert Gambill and Nina Stemme). But this Met version is on a grander scale, and the music in particular benefits from the scope and breadth that the larger house can bring. It also may prove to be one of James Levine’s very last Wagner performances: the end of an era. He’s the real star here, a conductor with a distinctive vision of Wagner’s score and a company of world-class performers with whom he had worked closely for many years. A real ensemble performance, then, and one with no significant weak links.