Tristan und Isolde

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I’m a regular opera-goer, I’m by no means as much of a devout fan of Richard Wagner as many of that ilk, including some of my colleagues. Nevertheless, I have decided to persevere in much the same way as I have done with Brahms. Last night I had an opportunity to do just that by going to the first night of the new run of Tristan und Isolde by Welsh National Opera. I was particularly delighted to see this opera on the WNO schedule for this year, because it is an opera with which I am a little bit familiar, and thus provided me with an excuse to persevere a little bit more, for reasons I shall explain…

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing. Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless, I took enough out of it to want to see a full performance. Last night was my chance.

I think the first thing to say about Tristan und Isolde is that the music is completely wonderful. Not only ravishingly beautiful, but also haunting and complex. The opening bars establish a vividly chromatic orchestral palette which is used to brilliant effect to create the atmosphere of tragedy that pervades this work. The opening chord, the Tristan chord, is dissonant and its effect is strengthened by its resolution into another dissonant chord.

It’s often been said – probably with justification – that the freedom with which Wagner composed this opera opened up a whole new set of possibilities for Western classical music. It’s also wonderful to listen to.

So as a music drama it scores nearly 100% for the music. As a drama, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The plot in Act I is absurd even by operatic standards. Isolde plans to poison Tristan and then take poison herself, but her servant Brangäne does a nifty switch of the vials and the two drink a love potion instead. This ignites a mutual desire that had previously been dormant and leads them into a tragic confrontation between love and responsibility. Isolde, you see, is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is his most loyal and virtuous knight. You know this isn’t going to end well, but the bit with the potions reminded me of that old Danny Kaye sketch about the “Vessel with the Pestle”.

Act 2 finds Tristan and Isolde in a dark wood, having embarked on an illicit love affair. It’s basically just the two of them on stage expressing their love to each other in wonderful music. Dramatically, however, nothing at all happens for the best part of an hour until right at the end when the King and his men find the couple in flagrant deliciousness. Now I understood why this opera works so well on the radio..

Tristan is stabbed by one of the King’s cronies at the end of Act 2, but the start of Act 3 finds him back in his ancestral home in Brittany, mortally wounded, lying under a very large plank of wood. In despair he hopes that Isolde will find him and mend his wounds with one of her potions (hopefully the right one this time). She arrives, but he snuffs it before she can help. Then another ship arrives, carrying King Mark and his boys, who have obviously been in hot pursuit across the English Channel. Isolde sings of being reunited in love with the dead Tristan and as she sings the stage and other actors fade from view. She dies.

Full marks to Isolde, Ann Petersen, a wonderful dramatic soprano with an electrifying voice; she’s from Denmark, incidentally. Canadian-born Ben Heppner as Tristan, was also in good voice, although he sometimes struggled to project and his rotund appearance called for a bit of audience imagination for him to be seen as a dashing knight. Mezzo  Susan Bickley was a splendid Brangäne too.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs were excellent too, after a rather nervous opening during which they seemed almost to be in awe of the music they were playing. And a special word for the staging, which was rather stark but also very clever, especially during Act I when a translucent screen divided the front and back of the stage and allowed some intriguing lighting effects.

I’d prepared myself psychologically for the 5 hours plus of this performance – not too bad actually, when you realise that includes two intervals, of 25 minutes and 50 minutes respectively – so I coped well enough. The piece definitely has its   longueurs, but you can always shut your eyes and imagine you’re in the garden at home..

17 Responses to “Tristan und Isolde”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I am familiar with the great talents of both Ben Heppner and Susan Bickley from concert halls. They are excellent singers. I’m not familiar with Ann Petersen, unfortunately.

    Peter’s view of Wagner’s operas seems rather similar to mine: the music is absolutely excellent, but some of the drama can border on the unnatural, convoluted or bizarre, and the drama is often too drawn out.

    My favourite Wagner opera is Götterdämmerung, although it is something that I know mainly from audio recordings and broadcasts, not as a visual drama. The music is excellent, but without seeing the opera as well, it becomes a more abstract musical experience. At times the sound can have something of a symphonic character.

    I know the full irony of this, but I really do wish that the mature Wagner had written symphonies.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      And I should have balanced my positive comments about Wagner’s music with a reference to his deeply unpleasant personality and prejudices. I choose to separate the music from the person, but Israel as a state, very understandably, chooses not to do so and his music is not performed in Israel.

  2. Mime's cave Says:

    Bryn, I enjoyed your comments – thoughtful as they were in the first instance but am confused with your need for addendum qualifying your earlier remarks with a note on Wagner’s noted antisemitism. As abhorrent as it is, it is not found anywhere – and trust me there are many that have looked closely enough – in Tristan. Indeed, the claims that it can be found in any of the dramas is hotly disputed.

    It is strange that when we talk of Shakespeare or Dickens we do not feel the need to make the same qualifying remarks.

    Anyway, I hope that you can forgive my mentioning this.

    To telescoper: I enjoyed your thoughtful and well written review immensely and am glad that you had a pleasant evening with Wagner. Although whether it was was entirely fair to Mr Heppner to comment on his “rotundness” so negatively is debatable. To me it is pleasing to know that vocally he is back in top shape after a very difficult few years.

    Never-the-less, a fine review and thank you

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      My view is that Wagner was an unpleasant person on a number of levels, with the antisemitism being just the most obvious. The extent of his racism is clear from his book Das Judenthum in der Musik. No, I cannot see any antisemitism in Tristan, but then there would not have been much opportunity for pushing any in to a tale of ancient Cornwall and Brittany, even if Wagner had wanted to try (which he may well have not wanted to do).

      My view is that we need to separate music from the composer to judge music on its merits alone, just as we should try to judge any works in the arts or sciences on their merits and not those of the creators.

      • Mime's cave Says:

        Bryn. Thank you for your reply. Believe it or not a number of commentators have found antisemitism in Tristan – just as some believe the opera is about a homosexual relationship between Tristan and Melot (for an overview see Reinhold Grimm’s “Re-reading Wagner, if memory serves me correct).

        I am unsure if we should separate the person from the music, one would not exist without the other. I was simply surprised that like many you felt the need to add your addendum . I think you would not have felt the need to do the same if discussing a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart/Da Ponte opera.

        This is in no way to be perceived as criticism of you but more reflective of attitudes to Wagner, that are not common with others.

        Anyway, it has remained a pleasure communicating with you and I hope you enjoy investigating Wagner further.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        I do think there is a need to balance praise for the music with criticism of the person in the case of Wagner because his failings as an individual were so noticeable.

        In contrast, neither Beethoven nor Mozart wrote tracts espousing hatred against vulnerable minorities, and neither would ever have wanted to do so. There is therefore no need to balance praise for their work with comments about their weaknesses. Indeed, Beethoven’s vision, though from a grumpy, cantankerous man, was for universal fellowship for alle menschen – all people.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Wagner’s anti-semitism was just one deplorable aspect of a personality that was flawed in many other ways too. Those of us who admire his music inevitably confront his failings as a human being. It’s perplexing that a person capable of creating such sublime music could also be such a shit, but perhaps we should think of it all the other way around? Even in the ghastliest person there’s the possibility to create something beautiful. Doesn’t that give us hope that none of us is beyond redemption?

  4. Mime's cave Says:

    Flawed in many ways, but not in many others. The thing with Wagner is this over-ridding obsession with his “bad points”. This is not the same with many other people with similar or greater failings. I think some of us just grow a little tired with it. But perhaps that is simply an age thing.

    And I think no one would be in disagreement with your comments about redemption – perhaps Wagner most of all.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with Phillip that Wagner gets singled out for his odious views because Hitler was a fan. Plenty of great artists (in the general sense) had unpleasant views and/or behaved horribly to people they were close to.

    I too go to Wagner more for the music than the drama, with the exception of Lohengrin which is a personal favourite. Tristan is well up to standard musically.

    I thought the non-paying of Wagner in Israel ceased some years ago?

    Phillip, I am a counter-example to your claim that “no-one says we need to separate Luther’s religion from his political ideas.”


    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I understand that Wagner’s music is performed only very rarely in Israel. It is certainly not banned but musicians usually choose not to perform it. A few attempted performances have attracted demonstrations and disruptions. And, for me, this is entirely understandable, even if I personally choose to separate the music from the man.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Oh, dear. Perhaps politicians should avoid wearing clothes like that, at least middle-aged one. I’ll stick to the pictures of Angela Merkel with parrots.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Evangelical Christians who make an active choice to avoid those protestant denominations that are recognised by the State generally take this view. Our model is Christ, not Luther, and He deliberately avoided politics until it came to get him. Of course we believe that Luther did more good than harm, or we would be Catholics.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: i find it interesting that you relied on Tristan to cure you of a deficit of wagner fanaticism, since I have the opposite problem. I’ve been a big fan of Wagner in general for a very long time, but I have trouble warming to Tristan compared to most of his other works. I think the reason is that it fails to live up to Wagner’s ideal of the complete work of art, with music and drama working as equals. It’s just too slow-moving to work as drama, and the main characters simply don’t have human warmth. The same criticisms apply to Parsifal, but in that case I feel the musical inspiration is on a higher level, so that the lack of drama doesn’t matter so much. With Tristan, although the oft-coupled prelude and liebstod are really fine, too much of the several hours in between are melodically unmemorable by comparison.

    How much one is missing becomes apparent when you compare with Walkure. The sizzling intensity of the incestuous affair of act 1 makes Tristan & Isolde sound like they’d been taking Horlicks, rather than a love potion; and the end of the opera, where Wotan has to punish his beloved daughter, has an emotional tenderness that I can’t detect at all in Tristan. And the music has a sweep and range that matches everything you see on stage. Experiencing this live in the theatre has been a treasured experience.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have seen a live performance of Parsifal, and that also dragged for me despite the wonderful music partly because of the rather abstract staging that made it difficult to understand to find a human dimension in it all. I’m reminded of the damning review of Parsifal that I heard ages ago:

      Parsifal is an opera, by Wagner, which starts at half past five. Three hours later you look at your watch, and it’s quarter to six.

      I haven’t seen any of the Ring Cycle performed live, but I enjoy my DVDs enough to want to try it out.

      Someone should make a concert featuring all the operatic Preludes by Wagner – now that really would be worth listening to!

  7. Truely a masterpiec. From the first notes all the way to the end, it keeps as at the edge of our seats. The chromaticisms keep the motion going and the musical suspensions are quite literally suspensions. Masterpiece.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: