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The Anti-Aristotelian Seduction that is Tristan & Isolde

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

For the second performance of the Washington National Opera’s production of Tristan and Isolde, on September 18, I brought my oldest daughter, almost 16 years-old, with me. It was her first opera. This was a bit like asking someone to read War and Peace as their first novel—not exactly fair.

On the other hand, under any circumstances, Tristan is not a fair opera. By this I mean that the music is better than any production of the opera could possibly be. This must be what 20th-century music critic Paul Bekker, quoted in the Kennedy Centers Playbill, meant when he said that this is an opera on whose stage “walk sounds, not people.”

On that score, the passionate sounds of Wagner’s work walked confidently and expressively under the surefooted direction of company music director Philippe Auguin, who led WNO Orchestra to a night of glory. By itself, this made the evening worthwhile.

However, Wagner said that the actual drama is “a visible image of the music”—a “deed of music made visible.” So what did we see? First of all, we saw a raked glass floor suspended on either side by cables, surrounded by billowy, white, ceiling-to-floor fabric. Under it was water, reflections of which dappled the fabric, which stood in for sails. This was a neat abstraction of a ship, brilliantly uncomplicated. It set the tone for the evening—the simplicity of the set and the staging were effectively set against the richness of the music.

However, it turned out that this was all the set there was going to be, for all three acts. It did not serve quite so brilliantly as an evocation of King Marke’s palace or of Tristan’s home. On the upside, it did not interfere. It also practically served the purpose of reducing the width of the stage to a manageable proportion for the action of the opera – which for long stretches has only two people on stage.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, who substituted for Deborah Voigt, was a satisfying Isolde, which is not faint praise. She reached her first expressive peak in the third scene of Act I when she related how she was forestalled from slaying Tristan when he looked into her eyes. This was a marvelously delicate and touching moment, which displayed the softly lyrical side of her voice. The second expressive peak for Isolde was her ferocious embrace of the idea of death later in the same scene. Here, Theorin showed her impressive voice in its full force, which was ample enough soar over the entire orchestra. She was very ably abetted by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, who sang Brangäne, Isolde’s maid and confidant. They made for an impressive pair, and both convincingly acted their parts.

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
F.Reiner / LPO
K.Flagstad, L.Melchior et al.

British tenor Ian Storey is a very good actor and effectively conveyed Tristan’s discomfort when he first entered Isolde’s presence in scene five. However, his voice did not seem large enough nor did it seem as well matched with Theorin’s as it might have been with Voigt’s (pure speculation, admittedly). In any event, the first act was very near a complete success.

Act II, which is the emotional heart of the opera, was curiously inert in long stretches. Of course, much of it is physically static, but it must be emotionally volcanic. I admit to prejudice here: I grew up with the famous RCA recording of the Love Duet made by Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in November, 1937 (now available on Naxos, or try the 1936 live recording on Naxos of the opera with Flagstad and Melchior with the London Philharmonic, under Fritz Reiner at Covent Garden). The singing is molten and the voices are perfectly matched. I know that this is an unfair standard to apply. It is the kind of singing one expects to hear in heaven. However, I can’t get it out of my aural memory, and there it remains to spoil my enjoyment of the merely adequate.

Act II certainly came alive with the entrance of German baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer (making his WNO debut) when, as King Marke, he discovers the lovers nearly in flagrante. Schwinghammer gave an affecting and powerfully sympathetic depiction of the injured king. I was surprised to learn later how young a man he is, for his portrayal of an older man was so natural that I thought he was one.

Act III opened with bass-baritone James Rutherford’s Kurwenal ably ministering to the stricken Tristan. Rutherford was in very good voice, and Storey was far more vocally convincing as the wounded hero, slowly awakening, hallucinating and hoping for Isolde’s return. Both his acting and singing were highly expressive. It was only with the reappearance of Isolde that one was reminded again of the disparity in their voices. Nonetheless, he had the stage mostly to himself for a good deal of the act and he held it well. The final scene of Act III reminds me a bit of the last scene of Hamlet, when the full tragedy is carried home. And so it was borne well here, as was Isolde’s moving expiration.

Tristan & Isolde on ionarts:

On CD:

Dip Your Ears, No. 7 (C. Thielemann, DG)
July, 2004

Dip Your Ears, No. 9 (D. Barenboim, Warner)
September, 2004

RNNR: Tristan, the Terrible (V. De Sabata, Myto)
April, 2010

In performance:

Tristan & Isolinda in Munich
Munich, Kent Nagano, P.Konwitschny
November, 2007

T&I @ 2008 Munich Opera Festival
Munich, Kent Nagano, P.Konwitschny
July, 2008

Dortmund, Esa-Pekka Salonen, B.Viola
September, 2010

Poppycock in Oslo
Oslo, John Helmer Fiore, D.Slater
May, 2012

Solid, Stolid, Staid, and Not a Little Boring
Bayreuth, Peter Schneider, C.Marthaler
August, 2012

Konwitschny's Tristan, Meier's Isolde: Still Young at Fifteen
Munich, Kent Nagano, P.Konwitschny
March, 2013

'Tristan und Isolde' at Washington National Opera
Washington, P.Auguin, N.Armfield (CTD)
September, 2013
Director Neil Armfield dared to avoid extraneous actions and, therefore, there were no distractions. As so much of the action in this opera is interior, there must have been a strong temptation to move people around simply to avoid monotony—as so many opera directors do. Armfield successfully resisted it and simply allowed the singers to be still when no physical movement was called for. He let the music do the walking. This is a sign of a director who trusts his material. The costumes aimed at a vaguely period style and fit in perfectly. For the most part, this production proved the old adage that “less is more.”

I cannot resist some closing comments on Wagner’s theme. He called Tristan “a monument to love, this most beautiful of all dreams.” But of what kind of love was he speaking? When I asked my daughter what she thought of the opera, she answered that it did not depict real love, which, she said, is a matter of will, not of compulsion. In other words, this was not a love that was chosen, but compelled. Where is the free will in that? And what are the moral dimensions of it? When King Marke exonerates the lovers in the end because he learned about the love potion that ensnared them, he did so because the compulsion removed their moral responsibility. Tristan’s and Isolde’s adultery is simply swept up and away in the apotheosis of eternal yearning.

Certainly, Wagner meant to portray ceaseless longing over which one has no control. He did not shy away from dramatizing the consequences of giving in to such yearning. Everyone possessed by it, or near it, is destroyed. There are four dead bodies on stage at the closing curtain. This is an old lesson: Eros, unconstrained by the moral order, leads to death. Limitless desire is not ordered to any end that can fulfill it. That is why it is destructive, and self-destructive. Such was the teaching of many a Greek tragedy.

However, this is not Wagner’s teaching. Though he saw the affliction, he ended up celebrating it and inverting the moral order – substituting night for day and death for life. Eternal yearning leads to a kind of eternity—if only in oblivion. This is redolent of Goethe’s celebration of eternal striving as self-redemptive in Faust. God never appears in Tristan, nor is he ever mentioned. He is not the transcendent object of this eternal longing. Tristan and Isolde, so Wagner’s music tells us, as does his text, achieve a kind of self-transcendence in their extinction. That is all. Passion is all—then the void. This of course is a decidedly anti-Aristotelian and anti-Christian view; it is a profoundly modern one. Wagner’s music is the best propaganda it has ever received. You can discover how hard it is resist in this fine production.

The performance will be repeated on September 24 and 27 (with cast changes).

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