Okay, Tristan

Being a short ramble on Wagner’s unique Tristan und Isolde, a deep dark foray into the realms of human experience…not for the faint of heart. But maybe for you...

The Metropolitan Opera opens its second half century at Lincoln Center Plaza on September 26 with a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in the title roles. Though it’s hard to imagine a confirmed opera lover who doesn’t know Tristan und Isolde, not to say ‘who doesn’t love Tristan und Isolde’ (but I do), the opera’s musical and vocal demands render performances as special occasions, even more so when the stars as well are highly anticipated, as is the case this season. It’s not performed as frequently as La Bohème with a ‘wait, who’s singing tonight?’ cast in other words.

I find Wagner's Tristan und Isolde to be among the great operatic masterpieces of any century, let along the 19th. It can be, it should be a unique musical dramatic experience for those willing to take the plunge. Life's too short to recount my own journey with Tristan. Besides, it's your turn.

It's an impact piece: its music especially influenced a generation of composers and intellectuals. Tristan und Isolde was the hook that drew a young Friedrich Nietzsche to Wagner, and also rocked virtually every other composer’s boat; Marcel Proust, James Joyce, T. S. Elliot, Thomas Mann, among others, allude to it in their writings. Its sound haunts one. Check out Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, also a tale of love and death, if you’re not convinced how powerfully gut-wrenching Tristan’s music can be.

But special as it is, and, as I say, I very much believe that this opera is so very special in context of the standard repertory, Tristan und Isolde is, I think, the least user-friendly opera, emotionally speaking, in the Wagner canon, which means that, like Ulysses, you have to give it time and some effort. Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin are a relative walk in the park, easy to digest, just sit back and enjoy; the Ring has lots of quotable music and scenes, thus more accessible to the general public on a highlight disc, so one can more or less prepare for the sound picture, play ‘name that motif’ in the process. Plus, on stage, the Ring has an epic grandeur, big scenic effects, and a damn good story: Brünnhilde’s awakening at the end of Siegfried carries with it the accumulation of all of the emotional baggage you’ve packed up from Die Walküre, thus making it a real hyper moment. Wotan’s there at the foot of the mountain, the Magic Fire Music sizzles again, then the first high strings in the whole evening, it seems, just to set the stage, so to speak. Wagner nailed that one! Die Meistersinger is longer but brighter, every section is more lyrical and easily palatable, and I find Parsifal to be deeply satisfying because, in the end, it’s peaceful, all is set right with a world that was not right at the beginning of the opera. He’s a fool, yes, and it’s not the world I live in, but I very much love the journey in Parsifal. Check out OM’s review of a few Parsifal DVDs.

The great Birgit Nilsson as Isolde, circa 1966

The great Birgit Nilsson as Isolde, circa 1966

Alas, Tristan und Isolde is less user-friendly because it dwells, it just dwells, and it’s never happy or, if so temporarily, trouble lurks in the shadows. It dwells because Wagner wants you to connect with each prolonged moment. Tristan and Isolde, the two of ‘em, almost wear you down with their back and forth about everything. In Act I Isolde goes on nearly forever about how pissed off she is and her plans for revenge; in Act II the two of ‘em go on nearly forever about night and day (Cole Porter, bless him, was far more succinct) and about the spiritual/emotional meaning of the word ‘and,’ and and and this is followed by King Marke’s usually dull downloading, depending on who's singing, about being betrayed (no small wonder Isolde refers to him as a ‘weary King’ in Act I). And then in Act III, for god’s sake, Tristan goes on forever about his journey from darkness of death to the light of day, the meaning of all that, but then he dies, in spite of all his new-found delirium, just as Isolde arrives. All joking aside, Act III of Tristan is one of the most perfectly formed, forward moving acts in all opera. If done correctly it should be something you'll not soon forget.

This said, I should have issued the spoiler alert about the 'before she arrives' thing. Oh, and the repeated ands above were intentional, not a stuttertypo, if such a word exists.

There’s no real peace, not musically, not dramatically, not really emotionally in Tristan und Isolde. Most of the time it takes you to places you’d otherwise avoid. It's a trip.

True, there is Isolde’s Liebestod, which, usually paired with the Prelude to Act I, is the only other frequently excerpted music from Tristan. The Liebestod should be a blissful, transcendent moment, but after the emotional turmoil of almost all of Act III, it’s hard to find and attain that state of consciousness.

Why is Tristan like this? If anything Richard Wagner knew exactly what he was doing. A few quick introductory words are necessary.

Briefly, the story of its inception is both simple and complicated. This is the simple version of the story: We’re in the mid-1850s, Richard Wagner, now in exile from Saxony, under sentence of death, commits himself to revolutionizing operatic forms in Oper und Drama and in other prose works of the period, the Ring being the first fruit, or, more correctly, the whole orchard. But he eventually stalls in its composition (in the middle of Siegfried) due to despair over the improbability of ever seeing the massive cycle performed on any existing stage. Around this same time, Wagner’s wife Minna and other friends encourage him to take a break from the enormous undertaking and write something more stageworthy, like, how about a simple story with just a few characters, only basic scenic demands, like nothing under water involving swimming semi-clad nixies and hairy lusty nibelungs, no giants, no dragons or flying horses, no magic fire, in other words, something that he could more easily sell to an opera company even in smaller cities. Minna, his nagging wife, never understood Wagner’s enormous inner creative fire as much as Wagner never understood her need that he support his household with earned income.

At the same time Wagner reads Schopenhauer, who effectively gives him the philosophical green light to represent extreme inner emotional states with music, which, in fact, would make his new operas ‘music dramas,’ not just another ‘opera’ in which the music is just a catchy tune underlying the verses of an aria. The score of Die Walküre, especially Acts I and III, is his first chance to really let it all hang out.

Coincident with this, Wagner meets the young and beautiful Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy merchant who consents to let the Wagners shack up in a cottage on the estate so that he can compose in peace. It’s not clear to this day how physical, if at all, the two became, but their letters indicate a passionate admiration at least of an artistic sort. In Mathilde he found a tender soul who ‘understood’ him and his art; in him she found a man who was deep, soulful, alive and a composer to boot. She wrote five songs which he set to music by 1858, two of which form a ‘study’ of Tristan; it is said that the score of Die Walküre, especially the love scene in Act I, contains coded love scribbles to her.

But she was of wealth and rank whereas Wagner was bourgeois at best. All of these factors underlie the genesis of Tristan und Isolde.

Wagner claims that the story of Tristan and Isolde and the conceptualization of the music more or less erupted between 1854 to the completion of the text in 1857. The composition of the score of Tristan, which derailed the Ring, was completed by 1859; Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich in 1865 after Wagner was 'rescued' by King Ludwig II of Bavaria.

It fit his needs, too: simple story, just a few characters, and basic scenic demands. Not a dragon in sight. The ideas underlying the plot are also relatively simple, in spite of its length. In a few words, Tristan is about the issue of the artificial distinctions assigned to us in the world of the day (honor, title, rank, reputation, wealth, race, nation, etc.), the self as conceived by civilization, in other words, distinctions which are totally at odds with the world of the night where none of this matters. Only in the night is the selfless unity of the souls possible. Or in death, should the ever approaching dawn be a nuisance.

As an agent of King Marke of Cornwall, Tristan slays Morold, the Irish warrior and also Isolde’s intended. But, wounded, he seeks release from the world through death by casting himself adrift in a small bark, only to drift ashore and be rescued by Isolde herself and Brangäne, her faithful companion. Is it fated that they should meet?

They nurse him back to health, but, as his strength returns, Isolde discovers that the notch in Tristan’s sword matches the sliver taken from Morold’s severed head. She then realizes his true identity. As she lifts the sword above his prostrate body to dispatch her enemy forever, their eyes meet, their love is sealed. All this happens before the curtain opens, we learn about it in the section known as Isolde’s Narrative and Curse in Act I.

Think about it. I’ll bet he did: Wagner stumbled at the composition of Siegfrieds Tod (The Death of Siegfried) in 1848 because he felt a lot of the backstory about Siegfried and the Dragon and the awakening of Brünnhilde should be performed on stage, so that it could be directly experienced by the audience. He sketched a prequel opera Junge Siegfried, but then realized that Brünnhilde’s story also would have greater impact with an opera of her own (Die Walküre), all in context of a more universal issue (greed and power versus love) in Das Rheingold. At least Wagner didn’t cave in to the inclination to write a Junge Tristan.

Back to the story! Tristan concocts an idea, creative, but ultimately foolhardy: in order to be near the woman he loves, he proposes that Isolde, the Irish princess, will make a good match for his elderly uncle, King Marke, thus cementing a peace between the two realms. But the civilized world, the world of Day, demands that Tristan respect this courtly arrangement and thus he is cordial and deferential to her on the journey to Cornwall in Act I. And she’s pissed off at all this, hence the Curse part alluded to above.

As Act I moves on, note that Brangäne and Kurwenal (Tristan’s trusty right hand man) roundly praise Tristan’s heroism (reputation and honor) while Isolde is simply scornful. Isolde plans to poison herself and Tristan rather than submit to the humiliation of being another’s wife, but, so the plot goes, Brangäne swaps out this vial for the love potion. T & I, thinking their last moments are near, embrace ecstatically until it’s evident to both that in fact these are not their last moments. Nearly three more hours of opera to go, kids.

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde hands Lauritz Melchior as Tristan the goblet in Act I

Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde hands Lauritz Melchior as Tristan the goblet in Act I

In Act II, Isolde awaits Tristan in the garden at night. The long love duet, the apex of the musical dramatic arc from beginning to end of the opera, is a real induction into an altered state of consciousness, a timelessness, especially the first part of the duet and short section known as Brangäne’s Watch (Wacht, in German, meaning a night watch, not a timepiece). James Levine always got it just right. It’s also, as fitting, a discussion of selflessness and oblivion. Even if cut, and one chunk just before the actual duet often is, you’ll get the gist of their perspectives.

Sadly, their love is interrupted by the dawn and the arrival of King Marke and his retinue, on a tip from Melot, formerly Tristan’s confidant. On Isolde’s assurance that she will follow him, Tristan runs himself onto Melot’s sword, thus starting his journey toward Death, the eternal Night. In Act III, the beginning of which is among the more gloomy moments in all of opera, Tristan emerges from his near-death experience to the call of the shepherd’s pipe to explore his fate from birth, which is to yearn but never achieve fulfillment, and therefore suffer, which pretty much sums up Wagner’s state of mind at the time of its composition. He poured out his suffering in his letters to her. Wagner IS Tristan, make no mistake of it.

Frieda Leider, Flagstad's predecessor, is a formidable Isolde too

Frieda Leider, Flagstad's predecessor, is a formidable Isolde too

I always recommend that you listen to the sound picture and text before the live performance. Knowing the sound picture, the pacing, and the structure are a big help for the newcomer. I’m leaving out DVDs this time.

To my ears, two studio recordings are engaging: one is Wilhelm Furtwängler’s epic Tristan on EMI with Kirsten Flagstad and Ludwig Suthaus. Furtwängler is magnificent and Suthaus especially is very moving, even more so the more frequently you listen to him; Flagstad is, always she was, more monochromatic, more even, but at this time also more ‘mature’ than I prefer, not to ‘say over the hill.’ Don’t let that or the monaural sound stop you though.

It’s not complete, but Frieda Leider, who just preceded Kirsten Flagstad, has a very listenable, often thrilling album of excerpts with Lauritz Melchior recorded in the studio in 1929. But I digress.

The other studio recording recommended is Antonio Pappano’s newer essay on EMI with Nina Stemme and Placido Domingo. I anticipate a great night at the Met with Nina Stemme. Domingo is lighter in voice, though no lighter than Wolfgang Windgassen, but Domingo is sincere and never strained. A bonus DVD has the entire opera in 5.1 sound with projected translation. Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording with Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem on Teldec is very respectable as well.

Of live on stage recordings I would not do without Birgit Nilsson and Windgassen from Bayreuth 1966, under Karl Böhm, either in reasonably good stereo sound on DG (recorded in the Festspielhaus, each act on a separate day without audience, so I’m told) or in relatively decent sound of the actual radio broadcast from August 13 that season on Frequenz (hard to find).

But hard core Wagnerians will want to experience for themselves a younger Kirsten Flagstad and the great Lauritz Melchior in their prime. The 1937 Covent Garden performance (actually the recording is patched together from two evenings), he 47, she a week or two away from 42 at the time, under Sir Thomas Beecham is highly recommended as is the 1938 Metropolitan Opera matinee performance under Artur Bodanzky, which is one of the operas in Sony Classical’s Wagner at the Met box. Both are cut, the Met’s more heavily, and Bodanzky wastes no time on the score. But both singers are really hot. Easier to find perhaps is the Fritz Reiner 1936 Tristan from Covent Garden, available on Naxos and VAI labels. My dear mother saw Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior in Tristan und Isolde at the Met in 1935. In answer to my questions ‘what were they like, how did they sound??’ she mainly seemed stuck on the fact that Tristan is mortally wounded at the end of Act II but takes almost all of Act III to die. But she was only 19 and probably hadn’t heard a note of it before that day.

Of my memorable Tristans, Jess Thomas, Jon Vickers, both with Birgit Nilsson at the Met in the early '70s, Siegfried Jerusalem with Waltraude Meier at Bayreuth in the '90s, and Ben Heppner back at the Met are on the list. Of memorable Isoldes not yet mentioned I’d place Hildegard Behrens and Johanna Meier in the '80s high up there. Conductors? All stars.

All this said, take the plunge! Enjoy Tristan und Isolde, give 'em a group hug.  It’s an incredible musical experience, an opera not to be missed. I wouldn't trade the opportunity for the world.

If you can find it, Joseph Kerman's Opera as Drama from 1952 (Random House, but mine is a later now brown-edged Vintage Books paperback about to fall apart if I open it) is a good read. He puts Tristan und Isolde in the chapter "Opera as Symphonic Poem."

A word on the photos: that of Birgit Nilsson was scanned from the booklet in the DG Bayreuth recording from 1966; the photo of Flagstad and Melchior was scanned from the album cover from the Wagner at the Met box from Sony Classical; Frieda Leider, obviously caught at a bad moment, is from the Legato Classics 2 CD set of studio and live excerpts of her performances. 

JRS. Still feels like summer. Savor it!