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'Tristan': Thoughts on Fourth Performance

Ian Storey (Tristan), Iréne Theorin (Isolde), and Elizabeth Bishop (Brangäne)
in Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Director Neil Armfield, in his production of Tristan und Isolde currently at Washington National Opera, adds action to all three of Wagner's preludes. This generally irritates me, distracting from a moment intended for non-visual listening with extraneous movement. It struck me at the fourth performance, heard on Tuesday night, that the dumb show that leads into Act I changes the context of the prelude music, from a rumination on what is to come to some of the background of the two title characters. Armfield has the singers playing Tristan and Isolde walk slowly toward one another, on the raised walkway at the back of the stage. As they come near, Tristan turns away from the welcoming gesture of Isolde, leaving her to enter the ship cabin alone, where she remains until the end of the prelude, reacting to some of the music.

Joseph Kerman, in an essay in the compilation on Tristan in the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series, believed that the prelude to Act I is a key to understanding the whole work, in a way more profound than in any opera before or since: "Wagner's dramatic vision," he writes, "hinges on the way the opera emerges from the Prelude, on the way the Prelude plays in to the opera." Kerman analyzes more than just the over-analyzed harmony in this music, taking into account the slowed-down, hard-to-parse rhythm (the least dance-like 6/8 ever conceived) and the orgasmic dynamics, which give the listener the "first explicitly sexual tinge" in the score, a "spasm of desire" that is pulled back as Wagner returns to the cello, in the same range and sound as the opening theme of longing. If we accept Kerman's idea about the prelude, to add action to that music, which Wagner did not intend, is risky business. Armfield's decision reinforces what is already in the score, however, that the love story predates the drinking of the potion.

Iréne Theorin (Isolde) and Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Marke) in Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, 2013 (photo by Scott Suchman)

Previous reviews:
September 15 | September 18 | September 21
Indeed, to add so much unsung action -- during the Act II prelude, Isolde and Brangäne sit down next to the burning torch and adlib some playful movements (Theorin and Elizabeth Bishop did different things at this point all three nights I have seen so far); during the Act III prelude, Kurwenal gives the unconscious Tristan a sponge bath, which undercuts the gloom of the scene a bit -- to Tristan seems a crazy idea. For Wagner already included in Tristan the most notorious dumb show in opera history, actions that the two singers are supposed to mime after drinking the love potion. Wagner's stage directions instruct Isolde to drink and throw the goblet aside. Terrified, they gaze into each other's eyes, seized with trembling, clutching at their hearts, raising their hands to their heads, as desire grows in their hearts. Kerman singles out these "shenanigans" as "an embarrassment to Wagnerians," stage directions that indicate actions the two singers should take as the orchestra plays out what they are feeling, a "musical semaphoring of onstage gestures."

Armfield staged this quite convincingly, mostly in keeping with Wagner's demands. Darkness falls over the scene, leaving Tristan and Isolde in spotlights on opposite sides of the stage. Facing away from one another, hanging onto the ship-like cables at the edge of the raked stage, they mirror one another's actions -- a decision that mostly kept the audience from laughing, which is the danger for directors in this scene. (I heard a lot of laughter only at this performance. It was especially when the two singers looked longingly at each other that people tended to start tittering.) Kerman also puts a lot of emphasis on a moment in the second act that most viewers would probably not notice, that is, Tristan's cursory response to Marke's speech ("O King, this I cannot tell you, and what you would ask, you can never experience"), which Kerman feels is of primary significance. "These words administer an intolerable snub" to Marke, Kerman adds, leading to Melot's challenge. Armfield underscores the moment by having Tristan remain seated on the floor when he sings them, rather than standing in his king's presence.

This was the final performance for both lead singers, and where Ian Storey's performance stayed the same, perhaps even weakened slightly in vocal power, Theorin's grew in my estimation over the course of three performances. I had hoped that, on her final night, she would have let it rip a bit more in the Liebestod, which remained, as it had the previous two performances, a little too much on the ethereal side.

A few tickets remain for the final performance of this production, this evening (September 27, 6 pm), with Clifton Forbis and Alwyn Mellor taking over the title roles.

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