New York, N.Y.
I’ll admit, I had been a little skeptical when I purchased the tickets to Tristan und Isolde earlier in the summer. Wagner is a major undertaking for the largest, most established opera houses in the biggest of cities — what could we possibly expect from a newly formed company (Tundi Productions) based in a town of 12,000 and performing in a jewel-box theatre mostly used for movies?
And even though Tristan is relatively modest by Wagnerian standards — five main singing roles, plus a few in support, plus a chorus, plus a decent but not gigantic orchestra — the demands that it makes on its performers are legendary.
When it was new and decades ahead of its time, the best orchestras in Europe found it incomprehensible and essentially unplayable. There’s a good reason that gentlemen who can pull off the first-named title role are unironically called “heldentenors” (“heroic tenors”).
The first Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, sang four performances then promptly dropped dead. It’s been implicated in the deaths of more than one conductor. Isolde is no less taxing a role, though it seems to have claimed fewer lives.
Of course, sheer stamina in the leads is not nearly enough; they require artists of rare sensitivity.
Tristan is essentially an interior drama; it’s about as interior a work of art as I can think of, some late Beckett monologues excepted, and it’s fundamentally concerned not with nonsensical plot contrivances but rather with expressing nearly inexpressible inner feelings of overwhelming longing and erotic desire for both a beloved and for death.
Anyone brave enough to take on the one or the other has to be thespian enough to make manifest those nearly inexpressible feelings, singer enough to meet the demands of a hugely difficult and beautiful score, and athlete enough to perform (usually at high volume) for hour upon hour.
Not many singers — or, should we say, singing actors — have all those tools at their disposal.
And even if a production is fortunate enough to find two who do possess them, that’s no guarantee of success. They have to be supported by excellent secondary singers, and excellent musicians in the pit, and, arguably most importantly, they have to be given a staging that helps them bring forth the inner lives of their characters.
There are a lot of elements that have to be just so to yield a decent Tristan. Even the greatest opera houses, with all their resources, are only occasionally able to gather them all, which is why I’ve attended many more mediocre Tristans than extraordinary ones.
So I was intrigued by Tundi, and the sheer audacity of the undertaking. But, as I said, I was skeptical.
It was extraordinary.
* * *
I’d like to say that after the first few notes of the famous prelude, I was able to relax and breathe easy. Except that a good performance doesn’t allow you to relax or to breathe easy. This is music that upsets the nerves. Decadent music. Unhealthy music. (And I mean that as praise.) Music that leads you on, moment after moment, hour after hour, always keeping you in its grip, never granting you the release of resolution, until the very, very end.
I was caught up in it from the beginning. Hugh Keelan, a conductor with whom I was previously unfamiliar, led a vigorous but rich and well-considered performance. And what made it even more remarkable was that it was, reportedly, Maestro Keelan’s first time conducting a complete Wagner opera.
Not only that, he had assembled the orchestra ad hoc, from all over the country and the world, and the musicians had never played all together until they began rehearsing, fewer than 10 days before the premiere.
Given the circumstances, it was a heroic achievement.
But let’s not “grade on a curve.” Let’s forget the circumstances. A few minor missteps aside, mostly with the brass — and the brass is always a problem with Wagner — this was a performance at least equal to many I’ve heard from more established ensembles led by more famous conductors. And better than many.
The singing was equally strong. The title roles were taken by Alan Schneider and Jenna Rae, two more artists previously unknown to me. Their combination of beauty and strength would have been the envy of many internationally renowned singers.
I’ve seen Tristan tear tenors apart. Just a week before this performance, I was at a Tristan in Wagner’s own theater in Bayreuth, Germany and I saw the respected Stefan Vinke at times reduced to shouting.
Mr. Schneider had power and tone to spare, even during Tristan’s long, long, mostly solo death scene in Act III. And Ms. Rae was his equal, closing out the evening with one of the most affecting live performance of the “Liebestod” — the song of love and death — I’ve heard in years.
They were ably assisted by Cailin Marcel Manson as Kurwenal, Roseanne Ackerley as Brangäne, Charles Martin as King Marke, and James Anderson as Melot.
Even the tiny roles of the Steersman (Dennis Ryan), the Shepherd (Stanley Wilson) and, especially, the Young Sailor (Kevin Courtemanche) were quite well sung.
I should perhaps make note of the somewhat unusual conditions these artists performed under. The main auditorium of the Latchis Theatre seats about 750 people — quite tiny compared to houses where Tristan is usually performed. It seemed to have a warm, resonant sound.
Since there was no orchestra pit, the orchestra occupied the rear portion of the stage, behind the proscenium, obscured somewhat by a large scrim. All of the action played out on the apron, or, occasionally, in the balcony or on the staircases — one on each side of the theater — leading from the stage to the balcony.
I don’t know if these conditions made the artists’ jobs easier or more difficult. In any case, the results were excellent and should be instructive to anyone mad enough — or inspired enough — to repeat this experiment.
* * *
Now let me make a perhaps surprising, perhaps controversial, perhaps utterly wrongheaded statement: I fundamentally do not care about singing or playing. At least not in the opera house — certainly not in a Wagnerian opera house — at least, not as ends in themselves.
Does this seem outrageous? Well, technique is the foundation of art, it’s not art itself —and the worst insult I can possibly hurl at an opera performer is that they’re a mere note hitter. Because the notes are only a means to an end. That end is character, and the drama that arises from the collision of characters.
It’s as drama that this production truly excelled.
“Clarity!” was Wagner’s final instruction to his performers, just before the Bayreuth premiere of Das Rheingold in 1876, and clarity was the chief virtue of this Tristan.
Consider the most fundamental theatrical art: acting.
I have no idea how Mr. Schneider and Ms. Rae feel about each other off stage, but on it they managed to convince me, for several hours, that their characters actually loved and lusted after one other, and they took us beat by beat through the evolution of their relationship. They actually had that mysterious thing called chemistry.
This might not sound like much of an achievement, but having suffered through the Bayreuth Tristan in which Mr. Vinke and Petra Lang barely looked at each other all night, except when they pretended to copulate — and even that wasn’t eye to eye — I can state with every certainty that it makes an awfully big difference to have a Tristan and an Isolde who seem to be, well, into each other. Those were real people on stage, in whom one could profitably invest quite a lot of emotion.
* * *
The staging certainly helped the actors. Tundi obviously didn’t have a huge production budget, but that led to a salutary simplicity. The sets, such as they were, consisted of a few risers and a few pieces of furniture. So there was no clambering up and down enormous jungle-gym constructions — to no real dramatic effect — as in Bayreuth or at the Metropolitan Opera.
Rather, the main action was focused and concentrated into a small space, which raised the emotional temperature enormously.
All things being equal, if characters are fighting or making love — and what else do opera characters do? — it’s usually much more interesting for spectators if they do it close up, in each other’s faces, and not across the stage, at long distance.
Of course, there was an inverse strategy at work for some of the less central or less emotionally “hot” moments, placing them on the staircases or even in the balcony.
The chorus of sailors occupied the sides of the balcony in Act I, Brangäne kept her watch from a stair in Act II, and the brief battle in Act III was sung by the opposing forces across the auditorium, from both sets of stairs. This happy effect kept the focus always — always — on the main action.
Unusually, Tundi credited a design team — consisting of most of the principal artists, plus several others — and not a singular stage director. Worthwhile art is seldom produced by a committee, but it certainly worked in this case.
Collectively, the team crafted a number of moments that subtly but powerfully illuminated the drama.
During a part of the Night of Love, Tristan sat with Isolde’s head in his lap, the two gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes and blithely ignoring Branguäne’s warning from above of the approach of day and danger. That in itself wasn’t so noteworthy; I’ve seen that scene played reasonably similarly before. What was interesting was that it was rhymed with another scene in Act III, where Isolde sat with dead Tristan’s head in her lap, gazing lovingly into his eyes, completely unaware of the battle going on around her where people were dying.
Normally that battle is represented on stage in some way or other, so it was unusual that the Design Team chose not to do so — the participants merely sang about it up in the balcony. It was a great choice, though, because the battle is not really what the scene was about; it was about Isolde’s ecstasy and the way she had moved far beyond any concern with such minor matters as armed men murdering one another.
According to Keelan, it was the most difficult creative choice the team had to make. It was a risk, but it worked extraordinarily well in the particular dramatic moment and by rhyming with the Night of Love, it imparted a subtle organic unity to the whole production.
* * *
The strongest moment, though, was saved for the very end.
At various times, projected onto the scrim separating the orchestra from the actors were images: waves during the prelude, flowers during parts of Act II, supertitles throughout. While the images were often pretty and didn’t take away from anything, I didn’t think they were always entirely necessary.
But then, during Isolde’s Liebestod, as she sang in highly metaphorical language about drowning in perfumed oceans and dissolving into the breath of the universe, undulating waves were projected onto her and Tristan, and they actually seemed to dissolve into the cosmic oneness of death they had been longing for all night.
And as the music ended, the lights came down on them and they seemed to disappear entirely.
It was indescribably beautiful, an astonishing ending to an already astonishing evening.
* * *
In the first act of Parsifal, the young, foolish hero is privileged to witness the mysterious ceremony of the Holy Grail. Afterwards, the wise old knight, Gurnemanz, demands of him, “Do you understand what you have seen?”
It took a great deal of self control for me to not demand the same from each and every member of the audience: “Do you understand what you’ve been privileged to see?”
I hope I’ve understood, because witnessing this performance was one of the great privileges of my Wagnerian life.