In June of 1857, Richard Wagner reluctantly suspended work on Der Ring der Nibelungen, his projected cycle of four operas based on Norse mythology. As usual, he was having money problems. The Ring would have to wait. Meanwhile, he would compose a potboiler—a simple love story with a small cast, modest scenery and costume requirements, easy to stage. In short, wrote Wagner, “a thoroughly practicable work” that “will speedily yield good revenues, and help keep me afloat for awhile.”
Poor Wagner. Did he really think that he was capable of composing opera on a small scale? The “thoroughly practicable work” he envisioned soon morphed into Tristan and Isolde, a four-and-a-half-hour-long epic music drama that made such unheard-of demands on both the singers and the orchestra that it was widely dismissed as unperformable.
Nor were the skeptics silenced by the opera’s eventual premiere in 1865. The first Tristan was a strapping, luxuriantly-bearded tenor named Ludwig Schnorr, who was 29 years old and built like a blacksmith. When Schnorr died just two weeks after singing the first four performances of the controversial new work, Wagner’s enemies were quick to insinuate that the singer had succumbed to an acute case of Tristanitus.
Even today, Tristan is extremely difficult both to cast and to perform. Happily for its current production of the work, the Houston Grand Opera was able to secure the services of two of the greatest singers in the world for the leading roles—Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and Swedish soprano Nina Stemme—as well as an excellent supporting cast. Acoustically, the performance I attended last Thursday night was thrilling. The staging, however, left me a bit befuddled.
Wagner based his opera on a medieval German romance. As the story opens, Isolde, an Irish princess, is on a ship bound for Cornwall, where she is destined to marry King Marke, uncle of the knight Tristan, who is her escort on the voyage. So when the HGO’s curtain rose on a stage that was empty in front but with what appeared to be a fancy mess hall in the background, I assumed that this was a modern production and that Tristan was conveying Isolde to Cornwall on a ship of the Royal Caribbean line. The tables, chairs and candelabras at the rear of the stage were evidently designed to suggest the main dining room.
Not quite. Act 2, which takes place King Marke’s castle, had the same set in the background. Was it now supposed to represent the castle’s banqueting hall after the wedding feast?
By then, I was combing the program notes for clues. I discovered that that director Christof Loy and set designer Johnannes Leiacker had intended that the stage be divided into two “rooms”—the one in the rear symbolizing the world that the characters normally inhabit, and the one in front representing a different dimension in which they grapple with great existential questions about love and death. That wasn’t much help, but it did explain why Isolde spent so much time straightening the chairs and checking the place settings at the dining tables in the back room. Clearly, had she and Tristan not drunk a fatal love potion on the voyage to Cornwall and been consumed with a desperate passion for each other, she would have made King Marke an admirable consort and society hostess.
Still, the stark, unsettling modern production did serve as a reminder of how radical, even shocking, Tristan must have seemed to mid-19th Century operagoers accustomed to pretty tunes and predictable set pieces. Even Wagner grew concerned that the raw passion and primitive sexuality of the work would cause it to be banned—or else would drive audiences insane.
Grappling with subtleties of the HGO production didn’t do much for my own mental health, but at least the staging didn’t spoil the singing. In addition to splendid performances by the lead artists, there were a couple of standouts in the supporting cast as well. German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke was touching as Brangäne, Isolde’s maid, particularly in those moments when she expressed remorse over her role in the tragedy by giving Tristan and Isolde the fatal love potion. American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny was impressive as Tristan’s friend and brother-in-arms, Kurwenal. Mr. McKinny is of a type that today is popularly called a “bari-hunk.” Handsome, athletic and assured, he is as good an actor as he is a singer, and he fairly radiated energy and authority.
An agonizing, unfulfilled longing permeates the whole opera. This emotion has been attributed to Wagner’s own frustrated passion for Mathilde Wesendonck, a beautiful, artistic young woman half his age who was married to his friend and patron Otto Wesendonck, and also to Wagner’s discovery of the works of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Yet Tristan is not so neatly explained. It also derives from Wagner’s intense interest in Eastern mysticism, which predates his encounters with both the lady and the philosopher. Indeed, as early as 1851, Wagner could write: “This love-yearning, the noblest thing my heart could feel—what other could it be than a longing for release from the present, for absorption in an element of infinite love, a love not to be found on earth, and reaching through the gates of Death alone?”
Wagner really needed no more than that to have conceived Tristan. Tristan and Isolde are star-crossed lovers who can be united only in death. The Liebestod (Love-Death) which ends the opera, celebrates that consummation through the most sublime love music ever composed.
In a rare moment of humility, Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck, “Tristan is, and remains, a marvel to me. I am more and more unable to understand how I could produce such a thing.”
The greatest giants of the world of opera have concurred with Wagner that Tristan is a marvel. I will quote just one of them, Giacomo Puccini. There is a story that Puccini was playing parts of Tristan on the piano for a friend of his. Suddenly, he slammed the score shut in frustration. “Compared to this,” he burst out, “we’re a wretched band of dilettantes and mandolin-strummers.”
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.