Wednesday, August 08, 2012

My first opera at Bayreuth: Tristan und Isolde

The Festspielhaus 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 und Isolde.

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.”

Christoph Marthaler’s 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 hard.


Adrian Thorne said...

Interesting review - looking forward to seeing it myself now.

Don't feel the need to separate performance from venue - isn't that what Wagner wanted Bayreuth to be about? A combination of venue and art.

Dave Rosenbaum said...


Your account of what it's like to be in the Festpielhaus for the first time was just like mine, which happened to be about a week after yours. I think I spent as much time looking around the house as I did looking at the stage. My wife kept catching me and smiling. Four nights later, I was doing the same thing.

Unforgettable, thrilling…I still have dreams about it and probably always will. I'm glad you enjoyed your trip. I hope it isn't once-in-a-lifetime.

Dave Rosenbaum

Vincent Vargas said...

Dave, I'm glad I'm not the only one. I'm hping that soon I will be selected once again to get tickets. I hope you have a chance to go back as well.