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Epic Soundtrack

Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at Lyric Opera

Music review, February 18, 2000

Say what you will about Richard Wagner, the guy knows how to capture a crowd. His opera Tristan und Isolde, in a new production at the Lyric, runs almost six hours, and it has virtually no suspense, no character development, and no comic relief. The few brief flurries of dramatic action are surrounded by interminable stretches of stillness, and the cast just stands around and sings, hour after hour, hardly making a gesture. Toward midnight one of them falls to the floor in a dead faint, and it's like a thunderbolt--you'd forgotten they could move. And how did the Lyric audience respond to all this? They were spellbound. They walked around during the intermissions as though they were in a trance, and at the final curtain several openly wept. Afterward, a couple of people told me the experience had convinced them that Tristan is the greatest opera ever written.

That's Wagner for you--the most perverse, willful, and magical figure in the history of music. Tristan isn't so much an opera as a conjuring trick. Everything about it that seems most off-putting--its vagueness, its plotlessness, its cardboard characters, its Twilight Zone setting--is a deliberate tactic. Wagner's other operas demonstrate that he was perfectly capable of contriving sturdy plots and creating vivid characters and settings; the world of Die Meistersinger, for instance, is so realistic you can practically calculate the barometric pressure. With Tristan he threw that all away, making a highly self-conscious gamble that he could hold an audience's interest by his musical imagination alone.

His source, the medieval romance of Tristan, is a meandering succession of sword fights, battles, magic spells, and disguises. He reduces all that to a throwaway back story, dramatizing only the last few moves of the endgame. Tristan and Isolde drink a magic potion and fall in love; they're caught by King Marke (Isolde's husband), Tristan is fatally wounded in a sword fight, and Isolde dies of grief. In a Verdi opera all that would take about a half hour, and there'd still be time for a peasant dance and a ceremonial parade. In Tristan each event seems to be unfolding in real time. We're an hour into the first act before we get the first faint stirrings of drama, when Isolde's servant Brangayne surreptitiously switches the love potion for the vial of poison Isolde intended to use; another half hour goes by before anybody gets around to drinking it.

The imaginative world of the opera is just as vague. The setting is nominally Cornwall and Ireland, but the specifics of history and geography are gone. All we see are a few primordial landscapes: a forest, a shoreline, a ship at sea. The tangled society of the original, with its warring clans and conflicting loyalties, has been reduced to a pale schematic: there's the king and his knights, and there's a maidservant, a sailor, and a shepherd. Tristan and Isolde themselves must be the most indistinct lead characters in the history of opera: after more than five hours with them, we know next to nothing about their personalities or their past. We can't even say for sure what they thought of each other before they drank the magic potion, because Wagner carefully plays up the ambiguous hints that they'd already fallen in love--in which case the only decisive act in the plot may be redundant. The closer you look at Tristan, the more things dissolve.

All that remains is love, and there's nothing in opera--or for that matter anywhere else--like the love of Tristan and Isolde. To say that it's passionately romantic is to trivialize it. It's a ceaseless hunger, an unappeasable addiction. It makes the two lovers not actors in a psychological drama but victims of a natural disaster. They betray their loyalties and abandon their friends and families and bring ruin and madness upon themselves without once satiating their need. As the opera goes on, the core issue stops being the conflict between passion and loyalty and becomes whether a desire this transcendent can coexist with the physical world. That's why Wagner empties out the external reality of the opera of everything but a few arbitrary props--even with every trace of the contingent, the accidental, and the local removed, the two lovers are still unable to achieve their perfect communion. They long to merge their souls into one, but they keep running into the walls of sheer material being.

Wagner's famous phrase for this is "liebestod," which means "love-death." This is one of the most curious ambiguities in the opera: it's as though the love potion isn't switched for the poison, but that the two are somehow mixed together. The desire for transcendence merges with the desire for annihilation--the more in love Tristan and Isolde are, the closer they come to death. As they die together, their love is still on its steep curve up out of the world.

To describe this ecstatic anguish Wagner invented a new musical language. Any random page of the score studied in isolation seems conventional enough. It can be assigned to a particular key, and while the chromatic harmony is irregular, it isn't wholly incomprehensible. And there are long passages, especially those concerning "daylight" characters such as King Marke, that seem positively old-fashioned in their tonality. Yet there are none of the regular structural elements of conservative opera--no set-piece arias or duets or ensembles, no formal markers of any kind to interrupt the ceaseless flow of melody. The music wanders all over the chromatic universe, through ever more remote and ethereal keys; it becomes a ceaseless froth of strange harmonies modulating into one another and melting away before they can resolve. In the years Wagner spent trying to get Tristan first staged, the rumor was solemnly passed around European operatic circles that any musician who tried to perform it would be driven insane. Even now some music theorists call it the real beginning of the modernist revolution, because when audiences proved willing to accept its formal anarchy, the game was up with all the old rules of classical style.

But what's most obvious to listeners now isn't its avant-garde experimentalism--that's become routine. Most of Tristan's stranger innovations were absorbed back into the classical tradition, and its characteristic tone of lush frenzy eventually became a staple of Hollywood sound tracks. Tristan remains singular because of its raw beauty. Nobody before or since has written music that rises to such a peak of dazzling splendor so quickly and is then sustained so effortlessly hour after hour. The effect is intoxicating, engulfing, overwhelming, as the music flows with perfect assurance from the highest ecstasies to the deepest dreads, from the most evanescent reveries to the most urgently sensual passions. Some of Wagner's effects still have the power to shock: as in the second act, when Tristan and Isolde confess their love in a rising tide of passion and the orchestral accompaniment keeps getting louder and more intense until it seems to be mimicking the physiological sensations of an approaching orgasm. From any other composer this would be just a dirty joke; only Wagner could have made it seem like a form of metaphysical torment. The love of Tristan and Isolde is technically chaste--they never do more than hold hands--but the music insists on its aching eroticism. It makes no difference what they do physically, because their desire is too intense for mere bodies to enact--something like T.S. Eliot's lines in "Whispers of Immortality": No contact possible to flesh / Allayed the fever of the bone.

Tristan ultimately belongs with the greatest works about passionate love in Western culture. Or maybe it doesn't. When it's put with that kind of exalted company--with Plato's Symposium or Shakespeare's sonnets-- then the great passion of the hero and heroine suddenly becomes a little stagy and false. Wagner said he'd never experienced that kind of true love when he wrote Tristan; he was just describing what he wanted it to be like. But Shakespeare's sonnets--the full set, not the handful you find in anthologies--are a much more exact and honest description of the torments of desire, particularly how the highest ecstasies are blurred, denied, and betrayed by the very specifics of the real world that Tristan leaves out. (And there are other problems--W.H. Auden was fond of saying that Tristan really ought to be about two lesbians, because no man was capable of going that long without thinking about something else.)

The real problem with Wagner is that his imagination was so unrelentingly theatrical. He was barely even a composer in the traditional sense, because every note of his music was calculated for its immediate dramatic impact. This is why with Tristan he could shake free of every traditional device of operatic drama and still grip audiences like a vise: the music by itself is melodrama, soap opera, and metaphysical thriller all in one. But that's also why it's so hard to tell whether Wagner really means it, or if on some level he knew he was turning out an ersatz version of transcendence--because for a man whose creative energies are wholly expressed through showbiz effects, what exactly does sincerity look like?

That's not a problem I expect any production of Tristan to solve--but I would like to get the feeling that it's what's at issue. Unfortunately it won't be, given the current vogue among designers and directors for absurdist postmodern foolery. Even a staid house like the Lyric has been wholly caught up in the delirium; nobody would think of staging an opera anything like the way it was written. Sometimes the results are worth it--the Lyric's wondrous Alcina last fall, for instance, where the title character's magic island became a dreamlike drawing room in an impossibly lush forest. More often we get a travesty like the recent restaging of Verdi's Macbeth, which was turned into a splatter-punk farce set in some kind of down-market 1950s rooming house with decor by R. Crumb. In a production like that insincerity isn't the issue--it's the goal.

The Lyric's Tristan rates about average on the inscrutability scale. The ship in the opening act is an art moderne luxury liner, and everybody wears what look like castoffs from a Gilbert and Sullivan revival. OK, you say, I can cope--until a panel slides back and you glimpse the engine room, a lurid red inferno where shirtless young studs do calisthenics and pantomime shoveling coal, as though in some kind of trendy health club. Is that supposed to be a joke? I don't know, and I'd guess the production team isn't sure either. Tristan and Isolde spend most of the last two acts, whether in the forest or on the shoreline, standing inside a box with one side open to the audience. I think I get the idea--isolation from the world and all that. But why is the box an abstract construction of steel and glass, as though it had been designed by Mies van der Rohe? And about that forest scene--the libretto makes it explicitly a lush summer night, so why is the Lyric's forest squarely in the middle of winter?

It's all pretty silly. But then none of it is bad to look at. The winter forest is a lovely image: immense bare tree trunks, snow slowly sifting from the rafters, mist billowing gently along the rear wall. As the act goes on, and Tristan and Isolde give in to their passion, the scene slowly shifts into an outer-space vista filled with glittering stars--not a particularly original idea, but as eye candy it's dazzling. There's also a startling bit of stage business with the sword fight at the end of the act: Tristan is inside the box when he receives his fatal wound, and a couple of extras suddenly close off its open side with a glass panel bearing a stylized smear of blood. For my taste, this was just too gimmicky, but other people have told me they thought it was a brilliantly effective touch. In general, no matter how far-fetched the ideas were, their execution was consistently superb. I particularly admired the subtlety of the lighting: the slowly shifting and evolving play of color across every scene keeps the eye interested even when the onstage action stops for hours.

The stage direction was for the most part straightforward and effective. There was only one moment of grotesquerie: the final tableau, when Isolde doesn't sink down over Tristan's lifeless body but remains upright, while his hand slowly reaches up to her, as though from beyond the grave. This belongs in a Dracula movie, not in Tristan. The real problems are those posed by Jane Eaglen and Ben Heppner in the lead roles. God knows I'm in no position to criticize them for being overweight, since nobody will ever accuse me of anorexia. But there's no denying that much of the onstage lassitude is a direct result of their lack of mobility. Fortunately that's not as tricky a problem here as it would be in a conventional opera, since in Wagner's world it doesn't really matter what Tristan and Isolde look like--their affair is carried out by their voices, not by their bodies. Even when Eaglen and Heppner are just standing side by side for long periods, their singing conveys all the movement necessary.

As for the singing, the cast generally deserves the highest praise. The standout among the supporting roles is Rene Pape as King Marke, if only because his part is the most difficult. He has to sing his great aria immediately after the leads' most ecstatic duet, and it's almost impossible for anyone in this role not to bring the drama to a crashing halt. But Pape was superb. I don't think I've ever heard anyone bring out more of Marke's grief and sense of betrayal and still retain so much regal dignity; he was a wounded lion rather than a deceived husband. Michelle DeYoung as Brangayne was up against the production's essential foolishness; she was forced in the second act to pantomime a long and goofy turn as some kind of druid priestess conjuring up stage enchantments. But her singing was commanding and lovely; it's no mean feat to keep pace with Eaglen in the opening act, but she seemed to be doing it effortlessly. The orchestra sounded uncharacteristically powerful, and Semyon Bychkov's conducting was quite fine--he was able to coax the musicians and singers into slower and slower tempi all night without a stumble, and given the ordinary level of orchestral performance at the Lyric that's almost a miracle.

Then there were Eaglen and Heppner. I'd heard from a couple of the Lyric people that Eaglen was fighting a cold at dress rehearsal and on opening night. I was there a few nights later, and her voice was still weak. She was sometimes drowned out by the orchestra, and that's not something that happens to most singers at the Lyric. Heppner was in better form; he did blow a couple of notes here and there, but that's a pretty venial sin given how vast his part is. Wagner isn't as absolutely punishing to sing as his reputation suggests; he's careful even in Tristan to give the leads long periods of rest. But it's still the marathon of opera, and the strain did show for both of them with a couple of ragged moments in the inordinately demanding final act. Still, Eaglen and Heppner are as good as or better than anybody I've ever heard sing these roles, onstage or in recordings. Raw volume aside, Eaglen's voice was light-years away from the strident barking people associate with Isolde; it had ease and grace, it was unaffectedly pure, and it was radiantly lovely. Heppner was strong, forceful, and lyrical, a match for Eaglen in romantic passion and maybe a notch higher in dramatic intensity. Together their performances easily ranked among the finest in the Lyric's history.

It's a crying shame that the remaining Lyric dates are sold out, that Heppner is leaving this Friday (his replacement is Jon Fredric West), and that no classical label has shown the slightest interest in doing a recording with this cast. I'll gladly call this a once-in-a-lifetime event; I just wish I didn't have to mean it quite so literally.