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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Monday, 31 March 2008 19:00|
With the epically proportioned operas of Richard Wagner, the contrast between the creator's vision and its physical representation on stage can sometimes be acute. The Metropolitan Opera's latest production of Wagner's five-hour long melodrama of doomed medieval love, Tristan und Isolde, which ran for six performances this month starting on March 10, has now gained a certain notoriety for the problems it has had to overcome simply in order to complete its run.
First, before the opening performance, the superstar tenor, Canadian Ben Heppner, was forced to withdraw due to a virus. His initial replacement, fellow Canadian John Mac Master, was underwhelming, receiving scattered boos at the final curtain (a common practice in Europe, but quite rare in North America, where audiences tend to be more forgiving). American tenor Gary Lehman was duly brought in to replace Mac Master.
Then, during the second performance, headlining soprano Deborah Voigt was forced to abandon the stage in the middle of the intense love duet in Act II, suffering from a stomach flu. (Heppner and Voigt had originally been signed on to the project as a celebrity tandem, as two of the only singers in the world capable of performing such demanding roles with not only competence but flair and enduring power.) Understudy Janice Baird stepped in, with the result that both leads were being performed by singers making their debuts in their roles. (This is like a hockey team having to replace its entire starting line-up with call-ups from the minors halfway through the playoffs.)
Voigt returned for the third show, as did Lehman; but the problems did not stop. At the beginning of Act III, with Lehman portraying the mortally-wounded Tristan lying prone on a platform that was slowly gliding from the back of the stage to the front, the platform collapsed. Lehman slid backwards and headfirst into the prompter's booth, eliciting gasps and cries from the audience, and stopping the performance for almost ten minutes while he received medical attention. (The first words he had to sing upon his reappearance were, "Where have I been? Where am I?")
The fourth show, on March 22, was the one that was broadcast around the world, to more than 500 movie theatres in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. The Met had hired yet a fourth tenor, American Robert Dean Smith, to fly in from Germany. Fortunately, it went off without a hitch, unless you count some unfortunate cinematography decisions that led to the screen splitting into half a dozen or more images at a couple of the most dramatic moments in the story.
Heppner finally recovered in time for the fifth show - but this time, Voigt again was ill, and Baird was forced to fill in again.
At the time of writing, the sixth and final performance has not yet occurred; but it would hardly be a surprise now if the Finnish bass Matti Salminen, playing King Marke, slipped on a banana peel and tumbled into the percussion section; that would be the cue for Chico Marx to run on and play a piano solo while Harpo and Groucho chase Voigt around the stage.
Such troubles should not really be surprising though, considering the opera's tortured history. Richard Wagner spent five years of his life -- 1854 to 1859 -- conceptualizing and then writing the music and libretto to Tristan und Isolde. It was a tumultuous time for him. During this period, he was living in Zurich, under the patronage of a silk merchant, Otto Wesendonck. Wagner was married, but soon began an affair with Wesendonck's wife Mathilde, who would visit him regularly in his cottage on the Wesendonck estate. At the same time, Wagner was deepening his relationship with the wife of his friend, the conductor Hans von Bulow; this woman, Cosima (the illegitimate daughter of composer Franz) would became Wagner's second wife within only a few years. At one point, Wagner recited his completed version of the libretto of Tristan und Isolde to a small audience containing all three of these women.
In 1858, Wagner's wife found out about his dalliance with Mathilde, and he was forced to separate himself from both women, by moving to Venice, in order to find the peace required to complete his work on Tristan und Isolde. At the same time, he was under constant threat of being extradited to Saxony, where his participation in a failed popular uprising against the king several years earlier had made him a fugitive.
Once he had finished the work, however, it turned out to be such a monstrously challenging opera to stage that, for a while, it looked doubtful if audiences would ever be able to experience it. The first tenor hired to play the role of Tristan was unable to memorize his part, even after months of rehearsals -- he eventually had to be fired -- and various concert halls passed on the extravagant cost of setting up productions. It wasn't until 1865, after Wagner had secured the patronage of the then-teenaged "Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria (he of the Sleeping Beauty castle in the Alps) that the opera could go ahead at the National Theatre in Munich.
The sheer scale of the opera soon made it just as famous for the torturous demands it made on the technique and stamina of the singers and musicians as for its sublimely majestic and haunting music and ultra-tragic story. The first tenor to portray Tristan, in 1865, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died three weeks after his fourth performance, supposedly due to the strain caused by the mammoth demands of the role. (In 1911 and 1968, two conductors, Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth, died while performing Act II.)
Born out of such a turbulent period in its creator's life, Tristan und Isolde bears the signs of Wagner's frustration with the petty hassles of his romantic troubles, his financial situation and his legal and political problems. The opera is a tribute to the protagonists' insatiable yearning to escape the physical and social bonds and distractions that keep them from being wholly united in their desire for each other. Wagner himself wrote, in a letter to his friend and mentor (and future father-in-law) Franz Liszt, "As I have never in life felt the real bliss of love, I must erect a monument to the most beautiful of all my dreams, in which, from beginning to end, that love shall be thoroughly satiated." This monument was the story of the doomed relationship between Tristan and Isolde, who are madly in love with each other, but must deal with the fact that she is the wife of the king to who he has sworn his honour and loyalty.
This tension, between the ethereal bliss of pure love felt by the protagonists and the agonizing limitations placed on that love by their societal responsibilities, is symbolized in the opera by the use of light and dark imagery.
The opera opens with Tristan, the nephew of King Marke of Cornwall, returning home from Ireland having captured the beautiful and strong-willed Irish woman Isolde, to give as a wife to the King. Isolde, ashamed of her powerlessness over her own fate, orders her servant Brangaene to serve a death potion to Tristan, and plans to drink it herself afterwards. Brangaene, however, unwilling to have a hand in the death of her mistress, instead prepares a love potion. Tristan and Isolde then, of course, immediately fall in love. Not surprisingly, complications ensue. The ship lands, Isolde must marry King Marke, and Tristan must return to his position of loyal subject.
It is in Act II, in which Tristan und Isolde try to carry on their affair under cover of night, that the imagery of light and dark is brought most dramatically to the fore. Forced to curb their passions during the day, when they must perform their expected roles in society as King Marke's wife and nephew, and his loyal subjects, it is only in the darkness and oblivion of night that they can be perfectly happy in their love for each other. The light of day is what they most fear and hate, when they must separate themselves from each other. Tristan especially sings passionately of his yearning for darkness, for the extinguishment of light -- and, ultimately, for a death in which he can experience complete and eternal love for Isolde.
In Act II, in which Tristan and Isolde have planned a night-time rendezvous while King Marke is off hunting with his entourage, the crucial moment is Isolde's extinguishment of the single torch in the garden. It is only after this that Tristan is safely able to approach her; and once they are together, they sing (at considerable length) about their mutual desire for oblivion -- not just in mere darkness, but in death:
Isolde then sings, "May our Night endure forever!"
The effect of this intensely expressed desire for oblivion and death can be unsettling. While the audience may recoil from the idea that true, pure love can only be experienced in death, the artistic beauty with which these concepts are transmitted is captivating.
The effect only heightens in Act III when the couple have inevitably had their illicit affair exposed and torn apart, and Tristan lies dying and delirious outside his home castle, staying alive only in the hope that he will be able to see Isolde again. Once she arrives by ship, he dies almost instantly; and she follows quickly, after giving one of the most famous arias in all of operatic history, the Liebestod, signifying the lovers' consummation of their love in death:
Let us in untroubled bliss
And finally, just as she expires, she gives a glimpse of the vision that awaits her:
On the page, without appearing in the context of the story as a whole, the words can seem overwrought and absurd -- but sung slowly, hauntingly, piercingly, and with Wagner's harmonically rich and roiling orchestration, the surreal dreams of eternal bliss through death are made to seem realistic and tangible. Fine examples of this can be found online, here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLoHcB8A63M&feature=related), here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mOA8pZ_I4M&feature=related) and here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAk5EQZIhv8).
Like Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Tristan und Isolde does not present a course of action for all of us to follow. Rather, it simply shows, with immaculate emotional control and manipulation through both music and plot development, the transcendent power of which love is capable, in its most extreme form.
To be able to see a performance put on by the stellar cast of the Metropolitan Opera company without having to travel all the way to New York is a remarkable opportunity. Watching the opera in high-definition on a movie screen will never quite match the immediacy and power of a live performance, but the experience is certainly capable of producing a powerful emotional effect.
Ultimately, Tristan und Isolde is a supreme example of what the Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz has said, that "[a]rt will remain the most astonishing activity of mankind, born out of struggle between wisdom and madness, between dream and reality in our mind."
Art by Nika Dias,
© 2008 Brendan Blom, Illustration by Nika Dias; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.