does a good job of welcoming newcomers.
At least that’s how I felt yesterday after stepping inside the
auditorium for the first time in my life.
I slipped in to my seat rather comfortably, I must say. For years I had heard that comfort was not
something that Richard Wagner’s
theater was known for. Save for the
wooden back (no wonder people bring cushions for lumbar support) it’s not a bad
way to listen to a Wagnerian act.
I can’t describe properly, at least not yet, what it was
like to step inside a place that you always wanted to go to all your life. Aside from a great feeling of accomplishment,
there is also the believability factor that stayed with me throughout the
evening. At times I had to forget the
opera, look around, and say to myself: “Oh, my God, I’m at the
Festspielhaus! I’m actually here! I made it!”
After an eight-year wait for tickets the sense of finally having arrived
is very big. And my first taste of the
place was with Wagner’s mature work Tristan
For those in 1865 who were musically trained, the harmonic
landscape of Tristan und Isolde must have been mystifying and exhilarating. They were listening to Wagner hijacking
Romantic music into an undiscovered musical territory that Western composers had
not explored. Its daring new musical
language quickly influenced many, and it is safe to say that no work written after
“Tristan” has failed to be influenced by this astonishing work. For the ordinary listener, in the mid
nineteenth century, however, this opera must have been musically incomprehensible
and truly disorienting. Even now, for
modern un-initiated audiences, Tristan und Isolde can sound challenging, and
its musical landscape obtuse and murky. To
fully understand the work one has to analyze its musical language.
It all happens within the first ten seconds of the
opera. The “Tristan Chord,” a diminished
chord that fails to resolve the previous notes, and instead leads us to another
unresolved harmony, serves as the perfect metaphor for the forbidden sexual longing
between the two lovers. It also arguably
serves as the starting point in the history of music for the disintegration of
tonality. Wagner dares to carry this
experiment for hours, right to the end of the work. Resolution is only allowed to occur minutes
before its conclusion. The tonal landscape
resolves itself with the death of the lovers, and on top of that it is not an
easy resolution. Wagner resolves his
music in a way that opens the door to another harmonic development. To us, the “Tristan Chord” no longer sounds
puzzling. Our modern ears are accustomed
to this kind of unresolved dissonances. We’ve
heard it in contemporary classical music, jazz, and punk rock. However, for mid nineteenth century audiences
it was the unheard of music of the future.
Wieland Wagner, the
composer’s grandson and director of the Bayreuth
Festival from 1951 to 1967 described the work as “the acknowledged summit
and supreme crisis of Romantic music, and at the same time the gateway to the
atonality of our century.”
current production is odd. Set in either a has-been ocean liner or a run-down hotel in
a totalitarian state (I can’t decide which), it focuses on rings of light in the
sky and walls.
The characters are always looking up at the ceiling, or touching the
walls, where oftentimes one finds a switch that turns those lights on and
off. It is a rather odd way to interpret
Wagner’s libretto where the lovers constantly sing about wanting to be alone with one
another in the darkness of night.
This cast has been singing this production, more or less,
since its premiere. Tenor Robert Dean Smith has sung every
performance of this work. Last night, he
sounded a bit weak, and many times covered up by the amazing playing of the
orchestra under the capable hands of Peter Schneider. Iréne Theorin is one of the great Isoldes of our time. Her singing was forceful, able to ride the orchestra, and even overpower it at times. Likewise, Kwangchul Youn was a sonorous, dark King Mark. Unfortunately, during the last part of his
Act II monologue an old lady in the audience fainted, and this brought the kind
of disturbance that takes your mind totally away from the stage.
There was some ugly sounding singing from Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal, and a
beautiful interpretation of Brangäne by South African singer Michelle Breedt.
All in all, the truth of the matter is that I will never
forget this “Tristan” because it was my first time in Bayreuth. Perhaps, in future visits to the Festspielhaus during this trip I will be able to distance myself
from the place and concentrate on the performance. As a first timer, I think it's going to be