Perambulating the Bounds

Thursday, December 18, 2008

My night with Tristan und Isolde

I splurged this week and went to the Tuesday night performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera. Thanks to my father and the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, the Met was part of my childhood’s sonic background and I’m still attached to it. But outside of a bad touring company performance in DC, maybe at Wolf Trap, in the 70s, I’ve never heard it live. I happened to be in New York this week, and happened to be there on one of the weeknight performances of this production.

This is the first time Daniel Barenboim has conducted the Met, and it’s been reviewed extremely well . I don’t have too much to add, other than concurrence. And some fragmentary comments that follow.

As a neophyte Wagnerian, this proved to be an intense experience a bit different from anything I’ve encountered before. I was tired, so I had trouble staying awake in parts of the second act, but by the end I desperately didn’t want it to end. I was pleading inside for each note of the Liebestod to stretch to infinity, and then for the last few orchestral chords that end the opera exquisitely and almost understatedly. It reminded me of the immersion effects of an Indian music performance, where the urgency of the performance builds by accumulation over a couple of hours and the music, the very notes and sounds themselves have an effect on the cells of your brain and body. As you move towards the third hour of a concert at Sri Ganesha, you start to enter a realm of timelessness. Same with Wagner.

The Met orchestra sounds amazing. The string sound is maybe the best I’ve heard, buttery. They responded so well to Barenboim of course. Often his direction consisted of holding a closed hand out and then opening it suddenly, prompting the orchestra to release a burst of tension building in its lines. It wasn’t always a burst of sound, often much subtler than that, a pulse of energy. There was great evidence of his knowledge of the score—I feel like an idiot even mentioning this. One example was seeing him bring out a little inner line that was nothing more than some tremelo notes in the strings, not a melody at all, but that little bit of texture was essential.

The singers were uniformly great, although it was “one of those nights” and the Isolde, Katarina Dalayman, had a cold and had to step aside after the first two acts. This was disconcerting, and one man near me left before Act III started. She was replaced by Susan Foster, whom I don’t know much about, but I thought she did a fine job—a strong voice, although not as subtle as Dalayman. Still, you do get attached to singers as actors, and it was strange seeing her emerge onto the stage when Isolde enters well into Act III. Most of Act III belongs to Tristan and Kurvenal (Peter Seiffert and Gerd Grochowski). Isolde shows up half way through, sings just a bit with Tristan, he dies, King Mark (Kwangchul Youn—very impressive throughout) shows up, Kurvenal and Melot (Stephen Gaertner) are killed, and then Isolde sings some of her most important music, the Liebestod. But it’s not like Acts I and II where she is singing reams of music, and much of it as duets with Tristan, so it makes more sense to bring a substitute in for this last act, if you have to. (I've mentioned all the other primary cast members, so let me add Michelle DeYoung who sang Brangane to complete the main roles.)

Act I was about the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I teared up from the sound of it, the progress of the sound. It is exquisitely constructed as music and drama, and when the Tristan and Isolde drink the potion that frees them to become lovers to each other (as the opera opens they are nominally distanced from each other and even antagonists, their underlying attraction is apparent from the start—Isolde is fixated on the hero, and the hero cannot trust himself to meet her gaze) the music breaks off starkly and then is set loose through the reappearance of the famous “Tristan” chord from the opening into an arena of harmony unleashed from solid ground, ethereal and cosmic. The characters and the sound are in a state of pure transformation at that point. It’s overwhelming to experience directly.

I’ve been listening to Tristan und Isolde in an ongoing but disorganized way in the last year or so. I’ve got a Furtwangler recording with Flagstad on my iPod. What’s struck me about that recording is how the music seems intent on embodying passion and bliss (Lust is the German word used) in the most extended way possible. In this performance, I was aware of how discursive the piece is. Tristan and Isolde’s engagement with each other and passion for each other is expressed through and across passages of dialogue where they talk about the nature of passion and everyday life, playing word games about light and dark, day and night, and making a claim for the primacy of passion, lust/Lust. These ideas go back to the Troubadours’ alba (and the Minnesingers’ Tagelied), in which the lover curses the coming of the day which will require separation from the beloved. But this is a dialogue, not a poet’s monologue, and lengthy dialogue, not a short lyric in Provencal, and it leaves you with two people making love to each other by entwining their words, wrapping them around each other ever more tightly as the music follows suit.

Wagner glorifies Lust in a highly idealized way, no doubt utterly ridiculous. It’s hard for me to avoid thinking that only a man could quite go here, utterly disregard the practical sides of passion and seek something so ethereal and sublime.


  • Thank you for this insightful review. I saw the same performance, and linked here from my post at

    By Blogger Glamourbrain, at 4:40 AM  

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