“Lose Self, Find Ecstasy”
Richard Wagner’s “most beautiful dream,” his opera “Tristan und Isolde” was given new life at the Metropolitan Opera by one of the great conductors of our age, Daniel Barenboim, and the Met singers and orchestra. An all-too-brief run of six performances began on Nov. 28 and ended on Dec. 20. Amazingly, this was Barenboim’s Met debut as conductor. The following is a review of the Dec. 12 performance.
Barenboim’s career has been prodigious in both senses. As a child prodigy, he had under his belt by age eighteen such trifles of the piano literature as the 32 Beethoven sonatas, the “Goldberg” variations, and the “Diabelli” variations. He is prodigious in the other sense as well, with an encyclopedic command of the entire musical landscape from piano solo to chamber music to Lieder and orchestral music, a high-visibility performing career, and even (for our scandal loving modern age) his outspoken political views on Palestine and Israel.
As a Jew and conductor of the Israel Philharmonic, it was he who programmed the “Prelude” to “Tristan” at a concert in Tel-Aviv, placing it last, as a sort of encore, so that offended audience members could choose to leave if they wished. To this day Wagner performances are anathema or outright forbidden in Israel, due to the unfortunate interpretations made of some of his more strident ideas by the Nazis and their adoption of his music as a standard-bearer for German patriotism. Currently, Barenboim leads the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, formed of Israeli and Palestinian youths who risk death by gunfire just to reach rehearsals. Barenboim believes that the cooperation shown by young people, and the music, speaks for itself. Clearly Barenboim isn’t willing to sacrifice one note of music for polemics.
Barenboim describes “Tristan” as a “perpetual becoming” rather than a “being,” a statement that sounds rather Buddhistic, appropriate in light of Wagner’s own mystical synthesis of some Buddhist and Christian elements in his final opera “Parsifal.” The pessimism of Schopenhauer, a main influence on Wagner, which states in part that our fond dreams of romantic love are just illusions of our “will to recreate,” was amended by Wagner, perhaps to fit his own personal needs. Schopenhauer, a gloomy little philosopher who is scarcely read anymore, went on to say that the only perfect fulfillment could be found in total renunciation. Wagner’s amendment consisted of his epic insistence that romantic, sexual union was also a viable path to transcendence and the dissolution of the self into mystical oneness.
If we read the “Tristan” story only for its surface plot, a tale of medieval adultery and its consequences, we are missing the archetypal drama that foreshadows the modern depth psychology of Freud and Jung. Romantic love, if it remains selfish, is doomed to dissatisfaction and ending. Only through a supreme act of renunciation, in this case death, a return to the primordial pre-conscious state, can the lovers be united forever without impediment.
Wagner, a relentlessly self-aware person who also chronicled his own creative process more than any other artist of the nineteenth century, was also a voracious reader and absorber of contemporary intellectual trends in his environment. To this end, his reading of Hegel is even more important than Schopenhauer in what became the opera “Tristan und Isolde.” Hegel’s insight, in a “nutshell,” was that reality is not a state of affairs but a process, as Barenboim describes “Tristan”: a becoming. This is similar to the ancient Greek ideas of Heraclitus: the idea that the world and everything in it is in a perpetual state of flux.
The new harmonic language of “Tristan,” with its endless deceptive cadences and frustrated goal-seeking, so fluid and restless compared to the first portion of the “Ring” operas completed prior to “Tristan,” becomes a deeper representation of this eternal change, sending it directly into the listener’s psyche without the listener even having to be consciously aware that that’s what is happening. This may account for the sense of trance or delirium that many avid Wagnerites report and, like sexual exploits, probably exaggerate.
The much discussed tonal wandering of the music creates the metaphor for the endless longing that can never be satisfied. The slithery half-steps permit almost limitless pivoting from one suggested key center to another. Often, tonalities are suggested by their absence, an intriguing philosophical concept, or by chords that are preparatory to the key without stating the “actual” key. All this is organized with psychological leitmotifs of the greatest subtlety, whose value and coherence is strongly musical, allowing the five hour span to hold together without one superfluous note. In fact, as one deepens one’s understanding of “Tristan” one realizes how concise it really is. The motifs are themselves characters in the opera, as important as the singers, having their own history and progression as shown through subtle changes of meter, tempo and key.
Wagner’s organization extends from the “micro” level of melodic pitch relationships, to phrases, key centers, and entire acts. The presence of the tritone (augmented fourth or diminished fifth), the “diabolus in musica” once forbidden in Renaissance counterpoint, adds the element of instability to the stock-in-trade diminished sevenths of nineteenth century musical practice. Key symbolism is important in distinguishing the realms of “Day” (societal expectation, duty) from “Night” (the enfolding dark that protects the lovers, but also the unconscious). The A-D-sharp (E flat) axis, a tritone, is crucial melodically and harmonically, from the Prelude on. The first note of the opera, a cello A proceeds via F to E to that D-sharp, the end of the “desire” motif, coinciding with the “Tristan chord.” Five hours later in Act Three, when we have finally been granted blissful resolution in B Major in Isolde’s “Transfiguration” scene (commonly referred to as the “Liebestod” or “Love-Death”), we realize that that D-sharp is the major third of that key. As if to underscore the point, the same D-sharp is tied, the only note sounding while the full orchestra repeats the final three B Major chords of the entire opera.
Much has been made of the famous “Prelude” (Einleitung, literally “lead-in” in the score) with its yearning cello notes leading to the “Tristan chord’ played by four-part winds in measure 2. That chord is formed of the superimposition of two fourths, one perfect and the other diminished (that tritone again, the “devil in music”), immediately creating the foreshadowing of trouble that underlies convention. The “chord” itself is not a new event in music history though, and can be found in a work as different in style and tone as Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in E-Flat, Op.31 #3. Of course, how that chord “behaves” makes all the difference.
There is a lovely detail, charming in its naivete, in the orchestral score where the required instrumentation is listed: in the string section Wagner’s annotation, “Players should be especially skillful and numerous.” The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, currently one of the top five orchestras in the country, indeed has numerous skillful players, probably surpassing what Wagner was able to hear in his lifetime. Their color was beautifully darkened and enriched by Barenboim’s leadership. He brought a certain “mystical humanism” to the colors of the score, always accentuating the colors of night in keeping with the desired submerging of the lovers’ identities into the anonymous cosmic womb. This was accomplished while keeping all lines of this complex score transparent. Barenboim’s command of long-range musical architecture is superb. Tempos were on the quicker side, thus leaving room for more flexibility at transition points and phrase joins. He restored a white-hot romantic ardor to this most romantic of scores, which can suffer from a certain ponderous monumentality of approach.
At this performance, the audience was treated to yet another Metropolitan Opera debut, in the role of Isolde: that of Waltraud Meier, who has sung the role worldwide to great acclaim but never in New York. She gave a finely nuanced reading of the score, with beautiful and credible visual acting, affecting vulnerability, and a Lieder singer’s attention to the text. From her first appearance on board the deck of the ship carrying her to her arranged marriage, and with Tristan nowhere yet in sight, you knew she was in love with him nevertheless, long before they drank the “wrong” potion. If you went expecting the usual waves of oceanic vocal tone sopranos tend to deliver in the role, then this performance wasn’t for you but it was totally convincing.
Her Tristan was Peter Seiffert, who had to sit out some previous performances due to illness, of which there was no trace this evening. In fact, ever since the original Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld died three weeks after the fourth performance of the opera, a legend of unperformability, even fatality, has surrounded the opera. Seiffert has stirred some discussion with his use of a wireless earpiece to receive prompting while he is singing. The role is seemingly endless and difficult, though many have managed it in the past with no such assistance other than the traditional prompter’s box. Some say that Seiffert needs further study and to live with the part more. Others say that the new technology is just a less intrusive way of accomplishing the same thing.
The role of Brangaene, Isolde’s maid servant, was sung beautifully by Michelle De Young, with her customary rich lyricism and dramatic emphasis, though amid so many native German speakers, her diction tended to be noticeably unidiomatic. Gerd Grochowski was an appropriately loyal, blustery Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal friend. The only “black mark” on this cast was the King Mark, on this evening sung by Kwangchul Youn, with a distressing wobble in his overly darkened voice, and a lack of the depth of compassion mixed with sorrow that the best King Marks portray.
This production, dating from 1999, is nothing arresting visually, the deck of a ship bound for Cornwall, a lovers’ hideaway in the castle, and the bleak coast of Brittany, all stripped to essentials, but abstract “Tristan” productions have been the norm since Wieland Wagner started the vogue in the late 1950s at the “new Bayreuth,” part of a campaign to remove old, unfortunate associations with Nazi Germany. The Met’s version is practically Baroque compared with some of those abstract stagings, and most feel that the externals are not as important as the interior psychological drama, but the company does have to flatter their patrons and subscribers, and five hours of “nothing” to look at is just too extreme. At least they have removed the lurid “red” lighting that childishly used to mar the effect of Tristan and Isolde drinking the potion in Act One.
Special mention must be made of the superb English horn playing of Pedro R Diaz, whose rendition of the haunting, long and difficult “Alte Weise” (Old Song) during Tristan’s wounded delirium in Act Three was delivered with myriad colors, full of longing and mellower than I have heard him play it in the past. When Isolde’s ship finally appears and the tune spills over into the “happy” version, the release felt by the audience was palpable.
The orchestra and conductor were the real stars in this performance, and the audience response was overwhelmingly positive, demonstrating that when people are offered quality, it is recognized. New Yorkers just can’t seem to get enough Barenboim these days, and it is to be hoped that he will be reengaged for future Metropolitan productions.
© 2009 Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde
Roger Scruton © 2004 Oxford University Press
A marvelous, concise book. Scruton: “ . . . our lives are briefly irradiated by happiness as the physical and mental cherishing of another fills our hearts with a sense of freedom and uniqueness. But devotion wears thin, the beloved loses his or her character as an exclusive destiny, and little by little the thought arises of better versions and more rewarding deals. . . . But in those sublime moments when love prepares to sacrifice itself for the beloved—in other words, when it wills its own extinction—the shadow of accountancy disappears. And those moments in and out of time constitute our redemption: they are moments of consecration, in which life is shown to be worthwhile.”
The Tragic and the Ecstatic: The Musical Revolution of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
Eric Chafe © 2005 Oxford University Press
This is a detailed musical analysis of “how” Wagner translates philosophical ideals into musical dramatic reality. Difficult for the general reader.
The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy
Bryan Magee © 2000 Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co.
Opens the door to an understanding of Wagner, strengths and failings, with an emphasis on philosophy.
Wagner: The Terrible Man and His Truthful Art
M. Owen Lee © 1999 University of Toronto Press
Written by a Castholic priest, from a series of lectures in humanism. Lee: “The fact is that Wagner’s dramas plunge us through myth and music deep into ourselves, and what we discover there—often primitive, frightening, vindictive, and erotic—are the feelings that we who have constructive roles in society have suppressed.”
Beulah Cox says
Great reading! I lapped up every word today on the subway. I attended the Tristan performance on December 16th. At this performance Isolde was sung by Katarina Dalayman but she retired after two acts and Susan Foster sang the last act. At the bows, the loudest applause was for Kwangchul Youn (King Marke) and Gerd Grochowski (Kurwenal) followed by Susan Foster. I attended this opera accompanied by a non-musician who has little concert or opera experience. It was amazing to experience her complete absorption for her first Wagner experience — she said 5 hours felt like 1 hour. It was a great performance and was worth the trek down in the snow that evening. Keep up the interesting dialogue — I like Gomez and Mirabeau a lot!
Frank Daykin says
Thanks for your kind words. The non-musician friend was really on Wagner’s wavelength, subconsciously realizing that the work, despite its chronological length, is really “concise”!
David Eddleman says
Would you agree that the so-called “Tristan chord” is basically a French sixth resolving to an equally unsteady chord? Your description of Wagner’s “endless deceptive cadences” leads me to conjecture that Wagner’s V chord acts as his I chord. I’m eager to hear your thoughts on that idea.
Frank Daykin says
I agree that Wagner utilizes the dominant key-area (primary, and especially secondary) as a “new” tonic, that is, as an area of relative repose. As to the French sixth and all that, I try to avoid most functional labeling like that in my discussions, useful though it may be. I think we’re moving beyond theoretical chord names in a work such as Tristan, and that is what makes it so modern, and the “spearhead” of so many other -isms, searchings for, novel ways to write music, in the 20th century . . . Thanks for the great post. Sincerely, FD