The Opera That Changed Music: Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

On the eve of the 20th century, Alma Mahler wrote in her diary that ‘only one opera exists in the whole world: my Tristan’. A quarter of a century earlier, Clara Schumann had described Wagner’s opera, premiered in 1865, as ‘the most disgusting thing I have ever seen or heard in my life’. She wrote further: ‘To be forced to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not only the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted – that is the saddest thing I have ever experienced in my artistic life… During the second act the two of them sleep and sing; through the whole last act – for fully 40 minutes – Tristan dies (so that’s what he was doing!). And that they call dramatic!!!’ Brahms, meanwhile, claimed that looking at the score put him in a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Elgar, however, when he first heard the Liebestod in 1883 (the climactic end of the opera, as Isolde sings over Tristan’s dead body), wrote in his concert programme: ‘I shall never forget this’; when he received a vocal score of the work for his 36th birthday he was fully effusive: ‘This Book contains the Height,’ he wrote inside, ‘the Depth, – the Breadth, – the Sweetness, – the Sorrow, – the Best and the whole for the Best of This world and the Next.’ After attending a performance at Covent Garden in 1933, Benjamin Britten reported in his diary: ‘Dwarfs every other creation save perhaps [Beethoven’s] Ninth. The glorious shape of the whole, the perfect orchestration: sublime idea of it and the gigantic realisation of the idea. He is master of us all.’ Grieg, a lifelong admirer of Wagner, if not an uncritical one, couldn’t contain his mirth when his friend Björnstjene Björnson, by contrast, described the opera in a letter to him as ‘the most enormous depravity I have ever seen or heard, but in its own crazy way it is so overwhelming that one is deadened by it as by a drug’. Björnson continued rather less delicately: ‘Even more immoral…than the plot is this seasick music that destroys all sense of structure in its quest for tonal colour. In the end, one just becomes a glob of slime on an ocean shore!’

Just these few choice quotations suggest that no opera, or even musical work – at least before the 20th century – has inspired such visceral and varied reactions as the ‘sublimely morbid, consuming and magical work’ that, according to Thomas Mann, was Tristan und Isolde. Friedrich Nietzsche famously called it the ‘true opus metaphysicum of all art’, writing elsewhere that ‘I am still looking for a work with as dangerous a fascination, with as terrible and sweet an infinity as Tristan – I look through the arts in vain’. On first seeing a score of the Prelude, the philosopher – in what might serve as a warning for anyone setting out to write about the work – reported: ‘I simply cannot bring myself to remain critically aloof from this music; every nerve in me is a-twitch, and it has been a long time since I had such a lasting sense of ecstasy.’

Wagner’s operas have not featured much on the Perth opera scene. There was a fully staged version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Perth in 2006, which we thankfully missed. As part of their 90th anniversary celebrations, WASO staged a concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. In the enduring battle between opera administrations in Australia (“Nobody wants to sit through Wagner”) and the opera-going public (Wagnerian devotees and those who’d like to know what it’s like), this was a win for the latter.

Tristan und Isolde has little action, so there is little need for props, costumes and extraneous effects. It is so rooted in orchestral playing and singing for its success, that a concert performance is a perfectly reasonable choice. The most significant theatrical element otherwise might be said to be the acting chops of the singers.

We knew what it’s like to sit through Wagner, having survived the Ring Cycle in Vienna in 2009. Fully recovered from that experience, I decided to have another go at sitting through Wagner, Tristan und Isolde this time. Little bears told me in no uncertain terms that I was going to do that on my own 🙂 Even the wondrous cor anglais solo in the opening of Act 3, played by Leanne Glover, wasn’t enough to convince them to attend. So full house and no bear in sight in the almost acoustically perfect Perth Concert Hall 🙂

The only bears present were hiding on stage 🙂

One reason to attend is the singers, WASO got together quite a stunning international cast.

The scheduled Isolde – Eva-Maria Westbroek, a dramatic soprano with a heavy, full soprano voice which is ideally suited to Wagnerian roles – withdrew due to illness earlier this month. Her replacement, the German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin, gave an extraordinarily complete portrayal, all the more remarkable given that this was only her second go at Isolde.

German soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Isolde

With an intriguingly girlish timbre allied to an instrument of substantial weight and steel, Barkmin’s Isolde was every bit the proud, Irish princess in the first act. It’s always a joy to hear a singer in their native tongue, and the soprano’s linguistic authority made every syllable count in the Perth Concert Hall. Although some climactic notes didn’t come quite that easily, and intonation was just shy of the mark in a few instances, Barkmin more than compensated for it with her assured dramatic instincts and innate ability to give shape and point to phrases. She also has a solid lower register and sings with a keen musicality, meaning any wishes for greater tonal refulgence were put to the side.

The first act belonged entirely to Barkmin, Isolde’s Narrative and Curse (where she describes how she was unable to slay Tristan, the man who has murdered her betrothed), a self-flagellating mixture of shame, rage and grief. The way she spits out “now I’m servant to the vassal” with a shiver of disgust will stick in your mind. A surprisingly pacy reading from Fisch helped Barkmin put her own stamp on the Liebestod – rather than an Isolde consumed by her wondrous visions, this was a deeply human account that felt frank and conversational, the beatific smile on Barkmin’s face signalling an end to grief and the discovery of joy.

Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was no slouch either. A frisson ran through the room when Stuart Skelton strode onstage, hailing the return of an Australian artist who’s had great success abroad. The tenor seems only to grow in stature with each assumption of the role, and his stage experience translated well to this concert setting – this was a considered dramatic portrayal as well as a vocally thrilling one. He achieved an easy rapport with his loyal servant, Kurwenal, and nailed the mixture of concerted aloofness and courtliness that Tristan puts on to conceal his true feelings about Isolde.

Stuart Skelton is a heldentenor – the term is commonly used to describe the tenors of leading roles in Wagner’s operas. The original meaning of heldentenor is more precise, it implies a tenor voice of great weight and sonority, particularly strong in the middle and bottom of the voice, in fact a tenor voice with some of the characteristics of a baritone. Unlike a baritone, however, is its tenorial ability to sing high. His Tristan was an unflagging, glorious lighthouse of Wagnerian singing, with inexhaustible power, vibrant resonance allied to warmth, subtlety and grace, and committed dramatic expression, with particularly beautiful singing at the end of Act 2.

Stuart Skelton, Asher Fisch and Gun-Brit Barkmin

The rest of the cast rose to the fearsome standard set by the central pair, particularly Ekaterina Gubanova’s committed Brangäne. Her lush, port-coloured mezzo was utter bliss, particularly when wielded with so much musicality and understanding of drama. Having performed the role all around the world – she appeared opposite Skelton’s Tristan in the Met’s 2016 production – Gubanova knows her stuff and it showed. Sung from the gallery, Brangäne’s warning during the lover’s tryst provoked sighs of delight from the audience, while her nuanced, eloquent portrayal made her a perfect foil for Isolde.

Asher Fisch, Gun-Brit Barkmin and Ekaterina Gubanova

Boaz Daniel is a much experienced Kurwenal. Deftly effective as Tristan’s confidante, he brought rich tone and sympathetic stage presence to the part, bringing him into clearer focus than is often seen elsewhere. His is an honest, forthright Kurwenal that plays off his Tristan well.

The Estonian bass Ain Anger was nothing short of brilliant as the wronged Marke, King of Cornwall. Naturally imposing, with oodles of presence, he showed audiences a man who has discovered an irreparable fracture in his world. His questioning of Tristan was deliberately done and performed without overt emotion, but all the more affecting for it – this is a man whose iron grip on self-discipline is the only thing left to him. Just as Tristan and Isolde experience the most human, even base emotions, so too does Marke – he is a walking embodiment of humiliation and disappointment in the second act.

The rest of the supporting cast acquitted themselves well – Angus Wood’s suitably slimy Melot, Paul O’Neill’s finely sung sailor and shepherd, and Andrew Foote’s steersman. The WASO Chorus, amplified by the St George’s Cathedral Consort provided a vigorous male chorus.

When WASO intoned the famed final B major chord of Tristan und Isolde, 5000 bars and four hours of music later, with what Richard Strauss described as the ‘the most beautifully orchestrated B major chord in the history of music’, while Gun-Brit Barkmin stood with arms outstretched in rapture singing “Waves of beautiful fragrance, how they billow and sweep me away”, the final effect was totally overwhelming. The harmonic and erotic tension Wagner had spun for nearly four hours finally resolved with the richness of a pipe organ and the notes lingered ethereally in the Perth Concert Hall as Isolde died alongside her beloved Tristan.

The audience responded with an instantaneous standing ovation, a sight not often seen in Perth.

Tristan und Isolde is about longing for something you never reach. The consummation of a relationship. The resolution of a chord. The ideal performance. The next intermission!

Wagner was never a great one for gauging the dimensions of a project in advance. Tristan und Isolde, in contrast to the massive Ring cycle that he was in the middle of writing at the time, was supposed to be relatively small and easy to stage. The resulting opera, it’s true, has only a few lead characters and three acts, but it’s also one of the biggest workouts for singers and orchestras in all of opera. In 1863 in Vienna, attempts at a first production were abandoned after 77 rehearsals, and the work was deemed unperformable, though it finally did make the stage in 1865. For his next opera, Wagner opted to change pace with a light-hearted comedy — and produced the five-hour-long Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Nonetheless, Tristan und Isolde does indeed stand apart in the Wagner oeuvre for a certain compactness. Most of Wagner’s operas were agonized over for years; Tristan was written relatively quickly, within a span of two years. And where some of his operas sprawl, Tristan, for all of its length, is musically and dramatically unified, elegantly and symmetrically constructed. Wagner, who had long struggled to work out a theory of music drama and realize it in his operas, had finally internalized some of his techniques, enabling him to compose fluidly. He himself referred to the process of writing it as a ‘fixed improvisation’, folding the flexibility and innovation of improvisation into the more permanent framework of a written score.

Wagner called it a ‘drama in three acts’ – for all intents and purposes a paradoxical designation, given that the work is characterised precisely by the fact that remarkably little happens on the surface. In all three acts, the drama is primarily related to what has happened before the curtain rises: be it Tristan’s murder of Isolde’s bridegroom and his inauspicious mission to bring the daughter of the Irish king (whom he loves) to a former vassal of her father, and the resulting inner conflicts of the two main characters (First Act); be it the disputes that Isolde – by now the wife of King Marke – has with her maid Brangäne about the reliability of her lover’s friends (Second Act); be it the attempts of Tristan’s servant Kurwenal to alleviate the hallucinations of his feverish lord by telling him what happened since Tristan walked into the open sword of Melot, who has remained devoted to King Marke (Third Act).

Not much ‘happens’ in the opera plot-wise: Tristan and Isolde drink love potion, embark on a passionate love affair, and finally die. Most of the activity is in its ideas and in its music. It’s based on a musical hypothesis: What would happen if you wrote a work in which the chords continually shift toward resolution without ever quite getting there? This musical embodiment of the idea of insatiable yearning starts with the opening chord of the prologue, known as the ‘Tristan Chord’ (heard almost immediately in the Prelude after the cellos’ first three yearning, ambiguous notes) and itself responsible for reams and reams of musicological analysis. The four notes of the chord have been the subject of endless musicological wrangling, which has attempted to define its significance in the opera itself, as well as how it has gone on to have a life of its own, as signifier of heightened and frustrated desire and tension not only in Wagner’s later operas but in all manner of fin de siècle works, good and bad.

The tension ebbs and shifts for the entire opera, the oceanic orchestra expressing the scale of the love that is unfolding above it.

The story was compiled from medieval lays and legends, Gottfried von Strassburg’s epic 12th century poem Tristan chief among them. Wagner was becoming adept at synthesizing elements from a wide range of sources to produce his own mythology. In the Ring, he created his own pantheon of gods based on Norse epic; in Tristan, he leaves Western religion altogether. There is no mention of God in Tristan in contrast to many of Wagner’s other works, such as Tannhäuser or Parsifal.

Instead, Tristan orients itself toward the philosophy of Schopenhauer and, more obliquely, Wagner’s interest in Buddhism. The opera in fact aspires to be Schopenhauer made manifest, starting with the idea that music can express concepts beyond the ability of words. It gives narrative form to the philosopher’s idea of physical love as a manifestation of an insoluble yearning that can only find release and absolute consummation in death. As for its Buddhist overtones: one of its main tropes is the contrast between the daytime world of illusion — what most people think of as “reality” — and the night-time world of the higher spiritual plane on which the lovers dwell.

The past 153 years are littered with writers trying to express the fascination, revulsion, or both, that Tristan und Isolde inspires; for a further six years before that, we have people trying to fathom the piece either from just the score, published in 1859, or from hearing the Prelude, first performed in Prague that same year and in Paris in early 1860. Wagner sent Berlioz a copy, but even he was left scratching his head by the ‘strange’ first page: ‘I have yet to discover the least idea of what the author wishes to do,’ he wrote. Even today, Tristan remains a work that can inspire fierce devotion or baffled resistance: it eludes clear definition and explanation and encourages intemperate hyperbole at every turn. Maybe Michael Tanner’s thought-provoking description is one of the best: ‘Along with Bach’s St Matthew Passion,’ he writes, ‘it is one of the two greatest religious works of our culture.’ Even though there is no mention of God in Tristan!

Strauss was a day shy of his first birthday when his father, Franz, played the horn at the premiere of Tristan und Isolde, at the Munich Court Theatre on June 10, 1865. The staging of the opera, six years after its completion, was enabled by King Ludwig II, who had intervened decisively in Wagner’s life the previous year, offering him apparently endless funds (welcome) allied to advice and well-meaning interventions (less welcome). Wagner’s attempt to get the work performed at his own instigation proved fruitless: it famously went through 77 rehearsals at the Hofoper in Vienna in 1863 before the orchestra declared it unplayable. The premiere of the work itself, delayed by a month much to the delight of the hostile elements in Munich, might be counted a modest success. The title-roles were taken by the husband-and-wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the former an artist who Wagner admired perhaps above any other singer he worked with.

That the tenor died a matter of weeks after the event, however, only contributed to the legends that surrounded the new work: not only was it incomprehensible and morally reprehensible and dangerous, its detractors noted, it was also literally dangerous. Felix Mottl suffered a heart attack on 21 June 1911 while conducting his 100th performance of Tristan in Munich. He was taken to a hospital where he died 11 days later on 2 July, aged 54. Joseph Keilberth died in Munich in 1968 after collapsing while conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in exactly the same place as Felix Mottl was similarly fatally stricken in 1911. Another fun fact, Salvador Dalí died while listening to his favourite recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

The moral dubiousness of the opera was, and to a large extent still is, underlined by the biographical circumstances of the work’s composition and earlier history, a series of hardly innocent facts to which no one was afraid to add additional untruths. Wagner’s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck in the 1850s, while he was being hosted in Zurich by Mathilde’s wealthy husband (and now usually believed to have remained unconsummated), had inspired the composition. Wagner’s relationship with Cosima, meanwhile, had begun in earnest in 1863 and produced a daughter, Isolde, born exactly two months before the opera was premiered under the baton of Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow was still Cosima’s husband at the time, and the little girl was given his surname, but no one was fooled.

Wagner was disconsolate, depressed by the uncomprehending reactions of the public, but Tristan had at least been unleashed on the world, although it would wait another nine years for a second staging, in Weimar. After Liszt saw it there in 1875 he wrote to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein: ‘One felt overwhelmed, ravished, and enraptured all at the same time – in several places one could only weep!’ He added: ‘After so poignant a work I do not know what will be left for our opera composers to do.’ So how did Tristan change opera? Certainly for composers producing operas there was a difficulty of stepping out of Wagner’s shadow, and that of Tristan, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that even while at work on Turandot well over half a century after that Munich premiere, Puccini felt the pressure. He reportedly picked up his score of Tristan, before swiftly putting it back down, exclaiming: ‘Enough of this music! We’re mandolinists, amateurs: woe to him who gets caught by it! This tremendous music destroys one and renders one incapable of composing any more!’

Tristan also changed forever what opera could be expected to do, and how it was to be performed. The expectations on the singers are unprecedented, and still to this day Tristans, in particular, seem rarely to be judged by how good they are. The greatest, it seems, are those whose inevitable shortfall in realising Wagner’s unrealistic demands – one is reminded of Wagner’s promise to his publisher that the work would be easy to stage and economically favourable – is the least. In terms of staging, it certainly became clear at the premiere that King Ludwig’s penchant for pseudo-medieval costumes and decorations – given concrete form in the Disney-esque folly of his castle at Neuschwanstein – was fundamentally ill-suited to a work which, according to the German critic Paul Bekker, put ‘sounds not people’ on the stage. Ever since Alfred Roller started to introduce expressionistic touches to his famous designs for Mahler’s 1903 Vienna Opera staging, productions have moved increasingly into the realm of ‘suggestion’ rather than ‘illusion’, to borrow the distinction by the Swiss stage designer and theorist Adolphe Appia. One could spend a lifetime watching Tristan in the opera house today without seeing so much as a ship or castle on the stage.

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