As promised, here is my much-anticipated review of the Metropolitan Opera’s Tristan und Isolde from yesterday’s matinee. To see which I did not even have to drive into Manhattan! I was able to see and hear the whole show from the small backwater town that I live in, thanks to HD-live-streaming into movie theaters via the “Met Live in HD” series. I have praised this technology before, and cannot praise it enough, it really brings opera to you up close and tells the story in an intimate way that surpasses even the experience of watching it on the stage.
Having said that, this might have been a good time to visit Lincoln Center. Given the fact, as Hostess Deborah Voigt mentioned, this this season marks the 50th Anniversary of the Metropolian Opera’s new home at Lincoln Center! One of the nice features of the movie-theater approach to opera is that we, the viewers, get to watch bits of backstage magic-making, interviews with the cast, and also some other neat stuff during the intermissions. In addition to buying popcorn, of course. During the Tristan show, we were treated to a historical vignette showing the Met at its old (39th and Broadway) and new locations, with some fascinating behind-the-scenes scoops and interviews with iconic opera stars.
On Love’s Radar
The Met produces many many shows during each season, and only ten are picked for the “Live in HD” Saturday matinees. Each one of these matinees requires extraordinary resources to produce: In addition to the usual opera machinery there is a whole other, secondary, production crew involving the movie cameras and equipment. It was doubly ambitious to open this season with Wagner’s already technically challenging work Tristan und Isolde, in this rendering by brilliant Polish theater director Mariusz Treliński, whose “high-concept” production already features elements of cinematography. Opening with an image of a giant circular radar screen bleeping away, Treliński sets his “Tristan” aboard an unnamed World-War II era American mine-sweeper. Let’s call it the “USS Caine”, helmed by a highly neurotic Captain (“Queeg”) Tristan, who has a nervous habit of playing with his … (metal marbles?) … no – his zippo cigarette lighter!
The persistent naval theme allows Treliński to combine, with the on-stage action, mysterious and hypnotic projected images of waves, sun-flares and bizarre underwater creatures, all to illustrate the fraught emotions and unnatural impulses of the lead characters. In several cases, this artistic technique really works well and highlights the hypnotic chromaticism of Wagner’s extraordinary music. In particular, I never saw physical orgasm illustrated better (using a giant revolving sun emitting flares) during the “coitus interruptus” sex scene in Act II. But we’ll get to that later.
Before diving in any further to this salty tale, I must give the backstory, as best I can piece it out, namely all the action which occurs offstage before the curtain opens on Act I. Being of a logical mind myself, I like for stories to make sense and have internal consistenty. Wagner can be frustrating because he is so incoherent. He will have his characters spend literally hours laying out detailed exposition, and yet omit some vital component which logically ties parts of the story together. Wagner borrowed “Tristan” from medieval sources, of course, Tristan was a Knight of Arthurian legend. His love story with Isolde predated and foreshadowed the later love-triangle of King Arthur, Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot. Wagner just assumes that people know most of Tristan’s backstory, yet at the same time twists it all around to meet his own purpose, painting a devastating picture of a psychologically damaged hero. Therefore it is my job to re-tell Tristan’s story without recourse to the external sources and just within the framework of the Wagnerian concept.
So, once upon a time there was King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s sister had gone off to marry some prince or other in Karelia. They had a son named Tristan. Tristan’s dad had died several months before he was born (possibly, Wagner hints, while in coitus producing the lad). And Tristan’s mom then proceeded to die in childbirth. Thus, it could rightfully be said that baby Tristan murdered both of his own parents. Thus explaining his extreme neurosis and his suicical tendencies. It is in Act III that Wagner explores these themes of Tristan’s childhood, using the haunting melody of an English horn to accentuate Tristan’s despair, his loneliness, and his longing for a woman’s nurturing love to compensate for the death of his mother.
With both parents dead, baby Tristan is shipped off (literally) to Cornwall, to be raised by his Uncle, the Good King Mark. Mark himself is a widower, his wife had died childless. Mark’s retainers keep urging him to take a second wife and produce an heir. But Mark takes such a shine to his little orphaned nephew that he decides to remain unmarried and pass his kingdom on to Tristan. A plan which does not sit well with everybody, apparently.
As Tristan is growing up, his best friend is a fellow Knight named Melot. As they get older, both Melot and Tristan join the chorus urging Mark to take a wife. Word arrives about a possible prospect: a lovely girl named Isolde, the Princess of Ireland. A state to which Cornwall is currently vassal. (So, realistically, she is out of Mark’s league.) Isolde’s dad is the King of Ireland, and her mom in addition to being Queen, is also a talented herbalist and healer. Talents which she happened to pass along to her daughter. Coming of age, Isolde is betrothed to Ireland’s best fighting Knight, a behemoth named Sir Morold.
Something happens, we’re not sure what, and suddenly Cornwall is at war with Ireland. Cornwall’s best Knight, Tristan, sails off to Ireland to fight Morold for dominance. And this is where the sequence of events gets murky. In combat, Tristan is seriously wounded but keeps on going, he plunges his sword into Morold’s head, killing him, but also breaking off a splinter of the hilt. Tristan, a blossoming psychopath, cuts off Morold’s head and ships it in a box to Isolde, to whom he has not yet been formally introduced. When studying Morold’s head in the box, Isolde (a budding CSI!) retrieves the splinter.
And this is where it gets even murkier. Tristan sets sail back to Cornwall, but his boat is wrecked by a storm, and he washes up on the shore back in Ireland. Where he is rescued, coincidentally, by an unknowing Isolde, along with her servant girl Brangäne. Dying from his wound, Tristan lies to the two girls and tells them his name is Tantris. They bring him inside and start to patch him up. Tristan loses consciousness. Isolde strips him and removes his weapons. While examing the stranger’s sword, she notices the missing splinter in the hilt. Something clicks in her mind — This is the same guy who killed her fiance!
Doctor Isolde wakes up her patient and angrily confronts him: Wielding Tristan’s sword high above his head, she threatens the Knight, as he lies helplessly on his sick bed. Tristan gazes up fearlessly at this ferocious young woman, their eyes meet, and … Isolde falls hopelessly in love. She can’t bring herself to kill this handsome man. She lowers the sword. Without revealing the secret to Brangäne, Isolde finishes patching up the enemy Knight. She uses her knowledge of herbs and balms to cleanse his wound and bring down his fever. When Tristan is medically ready to be discharged from Isolde’s intensive care unit, she sends him on his merry way, back to Uncle Mark in Cornwall.
Despite his wound, since Tristan technically won his joust against Morold, then, technically Cornwall won the war. Is no longer a vassal state to Ireland and even gets to call the shots. It is decided at the highest levels of international diplomacy, that the middle-aged King Mark will wed this slip of a girl, Princess Isolde. Their marriage will seal the truce between the two kingdoms. Mark sends his favorite nephew Tristan, back in a boat to retrieve and escort his new bride.
As the curtain opens on Act I, we are onboard this boat, the USS Caine, along with a neurotic, zippo-fiddling pyromaniac Captain Tristan; his Second in Command, Kurwenal; a small crew of hostile and sexually harrassing sailors; and their prize, an enraged and resentful Princess Isolde.
What Tale Do The Tritones Tell?
In order to discuss the Prologue and Act I, we are forced to resort to musicology. A discussion for which I am completely unqualified, since I don’t have a music degree. However, even though I may not know much about music, I know what I like. And I do loves me some Wagner music. But smart people are able to get into my head and tell me why I love Wagner. For example, this piece talks about the famous “Tristan Chord”, with which Wagner opens his copious score. This chord has been called “the most famous chord in the history of music”. Other smart people say that with this single chord Wagner changed the history of Western music. Here is what the first 20 seconds of the opera sound like, there are 3 introductory notes, followed by THE CHORD:
According to wikipedia, the so-called Tristan Chord “is made up of the notes F, B, D♯, and G♯. More generally, it can be any chord that consists of these same intervals: augmented fourth, augmented sixth, and augmented ninth above a bass note. It is so named as it is heard in the opening phrase of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde as part of the leitmotif relating to Tristan.”
Note that last bit. This leitmotif belongs to Tristan. We already know from the backstory that Isolde is in love with Tristan. Imagine her bitterness when her true love came to fetch her as bride … for another man!
Wagner never specifically states in the libretto that Tristan mutually fell in love with Isolde during that first encounter when he was pretending to be a guy named Tantris. Does Tristan love Isolde at all? I mean before he drank the love potion (I’ll get to that later…) The libretto does not say. Tristan keeps his poker face right up until the end of Act I.
But Wagner’s music tells us subliminally what is really going on. Throughout the 90 minutes of Act I, this music, in all its dissonance, tells us, over and over again, that Tristan is suffering from unquenchable and unrealizable longing for Isolde. A love which he is forced to deny and sublimate, because of his oath and his loyalty to King Mark.
And once again, back to the smart people, the musicologists: To Western ears, at least, a chord of this nature is considered “unresolved”. It only works in transition to a more harmonious chord. You hear the dissonance, and you want it to move to a “resolution”, a “TADA” moment. But Wagner won’t give your ears what they need. Not until the very last note of this 5-hour opera, when climax is finally achieved, in a beautiful moment of epiphany. Until then, Wagner keeps tormenting you with one dissonant interval after another. From a vulgar point of view, this can be interpreted as endless sexual longing, with no chance for orgasm. The resolution of the chord would represent climax, or completion. Instead of that, Wagner only provides partial satisfaction, with an intermediate “deceptive resolution”. Let’s call that the “False Consummation” of Act II.
Listen to this youtube video where the “deceptive resolution” to the chord occurs around 2:38 minutes in. To my ears this chord sounds like a wave cresting and bringing at least a quantum of relief from the unending and unendurable pain of existence:
Please watch this other interesting youtube video by Antonio Pappano. Spoiler alert: The final resolution to the Tristan Chord happens with Isolde’s very last breath, as she falls lifeless upon Tristan’s lifeless body. We’re talking Liebestod, baby. Final Resolution only in Death. Which is the actual message of Wagner’s masterpiece. This is not a message which I personally agree with. But it is His message.
Act I: The Confrontation
Now that we know that Tristan is as much in love (or longing) for Isolde, as she is for him, this only adds to the piquancy of the confrontation between them, which occurs in Isolde’s cabin on the boat. This first act of the opera was performed brilliantly on the stage of the Met. In fact, it was one of the best Act I’s I’ve ever seen. (Acts II and III – not so much, but I’ll get to that later…)
Since the beginning of the trip, Tristan has been avoiding Isolde and won’t speak a word to her. Her stoic rage finally brims over. Nina Stemme, as Isolde, burns the stage up, not just her big Wagnerian voice, but her acting talents as well. First she confides to Brangäne every little thing that is bothering her. This is Wagner, so the heroine’s emotions are very complicated. But she manages to untangle them and lay it all out there in a more or less logical fashion: Her complete sense of humiliation is not confined to the fact that the man she rescued, and loved, seems not to return her love and in fact just using her as bait for another man; if it was just that, it would be agonizing enough; but no, there’s more: And here Wagner shows his complete mastery of female psychology. Wagner’s heroines, like real-life women, are extremely status conscious. It really burns Isolde up that she is to marry a former vassal, King Mark. Such a match is completely beneath her. And even worse — the man she actually loves (=Tristan) is the vassal of a vassal. To whom she unwittingly made herself vulnerable, by revealing her love. And who scorned her in return, and now treats her like a piece of expensive baggage. This is a come-down which a proud young noble woman cannot endure.
Isolde’s emotions are very similar to those of Wagner’s other powerful female heroine: Brünnhilde. Who found herself in a similar situation, in Götterdämmerung. Namely, scorned by the man she loves, the vassal of a vassal, and carted off in a boat to marry a coward.
Unable to bear this humiliation, Isolde resolves to die. But not without taking the ingrate down with her. Amongst her luggage, Isolde remembered to pack her medicine kit, which contains vials of every possible substance: From poisons to antidotes to healing pharmaceuticals. And Isolde’s mom also threw in a bottle of a powerful love potion. See, Mom was worried that her daughter would not impress King Mark, so the love potion was just in case.
Isolde orders Brangäne to prepare two glasses of poison. She then issues an ultimatum to the sailors: Even though they are close to arriving in Cornwall, she refuses to leave her cabin unless Tristan comes in to talk to her in person.
Tristan arrives, reluctantly, and is then subjected to an hour-long tirade. Again, Wagner’s knowledge of female psychology is all-encompassing and probably reflects the many hours he spent in complicated verbal jousts with his wives and mistresses. Arguments which the woman always wins. Isolde attempts to retain a shred of her dignity: She pretends that she gave a rat’s ass about her fiance Morold and is super-chafed about his death. “I didn’t save your life because I cared about you,” she tells Tristan haughtily. “I saved your life so that some other Knight could kill you and avenge my fiance.” Tristan sees through this ruse in a second. “If you cared so much about Morold, then kill me now,” he offers, handing her his sword. (Only this is set in modern times, so it’s a Mauser.)
Having called Isolde’s bluff, Tristan is nonetheless quite ready, and even eager, to die at her hands. See, Wagner has been telling us all along, in the music, and later even in the libretto, that Tristan is completely suicidal. He yearns for death. Isolde is a different creature altogether: She doesn’t necessarily want to die, but she has resolved to die rather than submit to the humiliation of Tristan’s scorn and a forced marriage to King Mark.
By the time Brangäne returns from the kitchen to serve the drinks, Tristan, who is no fool, is fully aware that he is about to be poisoned. He tries to gulp the whole thing down. Isolde snatches the glass from his hand: “Half of it was for me!” she reproaches him. She gulps down the rest of the poison, and they both look at each other, wondering curiously how long it will take before they drop dead. But instead…. see, that cunning wench Brangäne served them the love potion instead of the poison. It was a loyal, but ultimately futile, attempt to save the life of her reckless mistress. And please recall that these two young people already loved each other passionately. Hence, the potion (which I am guessing consists of some cocaine-like endorphins) only increased their passion to the Nth degree and made it completely unbearable for both of them. The only thing that would provide relief is for them to have sex 24/7 and that’s just not possible. The rest of the opera is about their unconsummated longings for each other; their attempted but unsuccessful consummation; and about Tristan’s obsession with suicide and death.
Acts II and III – Where Is the Fire Marshal?
After that brilliant Act I opening, the rest of the opera was a disappointment to me. Not the music or the singing — it was gorgeous, as always. It’s just that I didn’t really buy into, nor endorse, Treliński’s “high concept” of Sir Tristan as an arsonist. There is absolutely nothing in either the libretto, or (more importantly) the orchestration which indicates that Tristan is a pyromaniac. On the contrary, his death-wishes seem to be all about stabbing or poison. Preferably both combined, as in a poisoned dagger. And yet Treliński egregiously adds visual imagery and cinematic projections showing Tristan as a little boy playing with fire (the zippo lighter again), and even possibly burning down his parent’s castle. Why? Why? Where did this come from? I do like the fact that he gave Tristan a nervous habit. Just to show us that the guy is a basket case. The artistic director has Isolde and Brangäne smoking cigarettes on the deck. (Which seems to have become a habit at the Met, ever since last season when we watched Mariusz Kwiecień smoke a cigarette onstage in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.) But that’s because, remember, this is World War II and all women smoked. He could have had Tristan nervously fiddling with a pack of cigarettes, if he wished. Or maybe playing with his lighter, okay. But burning down the whole castle?? Again, where the heck did that come from?
Even worse, Treliński almost completely ruins Act III by bringing a child actor onto the stage. A small boy who is presumably a member of the Met’s children’s chorus. Children’s chorus is fine, except there is no children’s chorus in Tristan. It is not good practice to put a child (or animal) on the stage, unless the story calls for it. People’s eyes tend to follow the child. Or animal. And that’s not fair to the tenor, who is trying to sing his guts out for us.
This particular child actor, who does not have a speaking or singing part, portrays Tristan as a boy. The young arsonist sneaks around the ship’s infirmary flicking his zippo lighter and plotting to set off a conflagration. All the time distracting audience attention from his future self, adult Tristan, who is belting it out while having his big dramatic moment stolen from him. Bad theater and again, an emphasis on an element (=pyromania) which is non-existent in Wagner’s source material!
It’s as if modern directors think that we (as an audience) are not capable of just sitting and listening to these great musical passages without some bit of visual business to keep our attention. And yet true Wagnerians would have been perfectly happy to watch Tristan sitting quietly on his cot singing and taking two hours to die. Heck, we’re willing to sit in our seats for five hours, simply because we love Wagner’s music. So, give us some credit, okay?
Rather than wasting our time with elements which don’t exist in the material, Treliński could have done a better job blocking out the main action sequence. Which is executed with atrocious sloppiness. Dudes, cinematography is good, but opera is also supposed to be theater. So make sure to storyboard and block out your action sequences. Please!
The action sequence takes place at the end of Act II. Tristan and Isolde have finally found a chance to meet in secret and consummate their love (aboard the Good Ship Lollipop). Their love-making is interrupted when Admiral King Mark arrives on deck and catches them in flagrante delicto. There is a plot twist when it turns out that Tristan’s best “friend” Melot is the guy who snitched on him. And the plot thickens when Tristan, lashing back in anger, reveals that Melot has also been in love with Isolde.
According to Wagner’s libretto, Tristan flees from King Mark’s wrath, but is mortally wounded (again!) in the process. Isolde attempts to flee with him, but is captured by King Mark’s men. In the Met production, this scene is such a shambles that it appears like Tristan is also captured (he spends a lot of time crawling around on the ground and grovelling); and thus it comes as a big surprise, in Act III, when we learned that he did escape, after all. All the way back to his native castle in Karelia. (Which he apparently did not burn down after all when he was a young sprog.)
Liebestod Uber Alles
After Tristan spends two hours dying and, in the process, infecting also his First Mate Kurwenal with suicidal intentions; Isolde finally arrives in Karelia. See, Kurwenal sent for her, because Tristan is doing very poorly, and keeps tearing off his bandages. Somehow Isolde managed to sneak away from King Mark (who probably should have locked her up by that point), stole a boat, and sailed to Karelia. After she arrives, she and Tristan barely exchange two words before he drops dead. And this time he really is dead. At this point — and I did like this bit of staging because in some productions it is unclear exactly why Isolde also dies at the end — Isolde grabs a knife and slits her own wrists. She too, although not originally suicidal, has become infected with Tristan’s insistence on Death as the only solution to their problems.
While Isolde is waiting to die, there is another action sequence (sort of). King Mark arrives with his army, but it’s not what you think. He is not there to kill Tristan, nor to get his wife back. Turns out that Brangäne told him the whole story — about the love potion.
Mark accepts without question that neither Tristan nor Isolde could possibly have controlled their impulses under the influence of a love potion. And he is ready to make everything right by giving the lovers his blessing and allowing them to marry.
But it’s too late for that: Tristan is already dead, and Isolde is well on her way. But not before singing her famous Liebestod “Death By Love Song”:
Mild und leise
wie er lächelt,
wie das Auge
hold er öffnet, –
seht ihr’s, Freunde?
Säh’t ihr’s nicht?
wie er leuchtet,
hoch sich hebt?
Seht ihr’s nicht?
Wie das Herz ihm
voll und hehr
im Busen ihm quillt?
Wie den Lippen,
sanft entweht: –
Fühlt und seht ihr’s nicht?
Hör ich nur
die so wunder-
voll und leise,
aus ihm tönend,
in mich dringet,
auf sich schwinget,
um mich klinget?
sind es Wellen
Sind es Wogen
Wie sie schwellen,
soll ich atmen,
soll ich lauschen?
Soll ich schlürfen,
Süss in Düften
In dem wogenden Schwall,
in dem tönenden Schall,
in des Weltatems
wehendem All, –
How softly and gently
his eyes open –
can you see, my friends,
do you not see it?
How he glows
raising himself high
amidst the stars?
Do you not see it?
How his heart
swells with courage,
gushing full and majestic
in his breast?
How in tender bliss
from his lips –
Do you not feel and see it?
Do I alone hear
sounding from within him,
in bliss lamenting,
its sweet echoes
resounding about me?
Are they gentle
ringing out clearly,
surging around me?
Are they billows
of blissful fragrance?
As they seethe
and roar about me,
shall I breathe,
shall I give ear?
Shall I drink of them,
plunge beneath them?
Breathe my life away
in sweet scents?
In the heaving swell,
in the resounding echoes,
in the universal stream
of the world-breath –
to founder –
And, as the final notes of the orchestra come to a conclusion, the “Tristan Chord” is finally resolved to its righteous harmony. In a “transcendental” chord consisting of B-D#-F#. With her last dying breath, Isolde resolves the chord and falls down lifeless. Tristan und Isolde at last consummate their love together in death.