Mind sex and ‘Tristan’

08.03.10
Asher Fisch
Crosscut

By Fred Hauptman

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is central to any understanding of nineteenth-century opera, music, or dramaturgy. While its harmonic vocabulary, so arresting in its time, is now common parlance to modern audiences who can accept Elektra without blanching, many aspects of Tristan, despite endless imitations, have remained unsurpassed in the 145 years since its creation.

Unlike the Ring operas, Tristan makes only minimal use of leitmotivs, those recurring figures attached to people, ideas, objects, etc. Instead, Wagner develops several melodic-harmonic ideas with looser associations into larger structures, enabling him to create long stretches of music of symphonic scope and development which, with the addition of new material, reach an almost unbearable intensity and emotional focus.

The most important of these are the love duet in Act 2, the Liebesnacht, and the scene of Tristan’s delirium in Act 3. In no other opera is such a level of consistent mastery sustained at such length and power. Experiencing it in the theater is therefore a must.

Seattle Opera presented us with this valuable opportunity with its new production (through August 21), conducted by Asher Fisch, directed by Peter Kazaras, and with sets and costumes by Robert Israel. I attended the opening night performance, this past Saturday.

Tristan is a famously difficult work to stage and to cast. I have seen many attempts, and none approached the ideal. There is not even a recording that is wholly satisfying, so it came as no surprise that there were problems on Saturday.

The most successful aspects were the conductor and orchestra. Asher Fisch is an experienced Wagnerian and understands how to maintain the overall structure while not slighting too many momentary pleasures. I found his Tristan much more exciting than his previous efforts here, especially in the two long scenes discussed above.

Fisch was occasionally perfunctory. The wonderfully lyrical horn music at the start of Act 2, so different from conventional hunting scenes, was garbled by excessive speed. The conclusion of Act 1, where Wagner’s wish for a broader tempo during the ironically triumphalist chorus in praise of King Marke, (while his oblivious bride and friend are blissfully swooning), was passed over to hurry to the final chord.

There were the usual first-night bumps in the road but the orchestra did a splendid job, with special praise going to the English Horn solo played by Stefan Farkas, and the orchestral horns. Kudos as well for the inclusion of a wooden trumpet at the end of the Shepherd’s scene. Wagner suggested such an instrument to replace the English horn at the joyous moment of the sighting of Isolde’s ship, and one was discovered at one of our national treasures, the music museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermilion. (A great place to visit, by the way.) The instrument, a natural trumpet made of wood, was well played by Justin Emerich. High praise to the chorus as well.

There was one magnificent singer in the cast. Stephen Milling’s King Marke would be hard to surpass. Marke’s scenes are usually endured as boring filler, but on Saturday they were riveting. After his first few notes one could almost hear the audience thinking aloud about how wonderful it would be if everyone in the cast could sing like that.

Alas, ‘twas not to be. Annalena Persson made her local debut as Isolde. I have no knowledge about the source of her current support problems but it is probable that singing this role on many stages is a primary cause. In certain registers and on certain vowels she can produce a clean tone but for the most part the general effect is a vibrato of indefinite pitch. Some great Isoldes are sensuous and some are commanding, but Persson was neither.

It is also implied in the program that it all takes place in the minds of the characters, a claim I always feel is an excuse for a basic lack of clarity and engagement.

Clifton Forbes as Tristan is a veteran of the Wagner wars and has more control of his instrument. He was able to harness his resources to save enough for the big scene in Act 3, in which he was most touching in the delicate passages at the start and convincing enough in the culminating madness and death. His is not a beautiful voice, but any reliable Tristan is a plus these days. Margaret Jane Wray is a fine singer but doesn’t have that velvet mezzo gloss that can make Brangäne’s Watch so entrancing, and Greer Grimsley’s Kurwenal was more at home in the bluff heartiness of Act 1 than the heart-broken grief of Act 3. Among the small roles Jason Collins as Melot produced some ringing tones that showed promise for his future. All in all, a good-enough cast.

Visually the production was baffling to say the least. There is talk in the program about director Peter Kazaras deriving inspiration from the great short story by Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which led me to hope for a Civil War Tristan, which does actually take place during strife between Ireland and England. Abraham Lincoln as King Marke would be irresistible: I’m certain that if Lincoln ever heard a bass clarinet he would have loved it! No such luck. No visible trace of poor Ambrose at all, just people in drab costumes slowly wandering around in large spaces with no physical or emotional contact.

It is also implied in the program that it all takes place in the minds of the characters, a claim I always feel is an excuse for a basic lack of clarity and engagement. This looks like a production whose concept has been revised a few times, perhaps omitting the Bierce entirely, and is still in the process of “becoming.” I have always admired the work of Robert Israel but was surprised by the unattractive material used here. The sets do allow room to move in but don’t say much, and the costumes say even less. Poor Milling is saddled with an outfit that will remind many of Star Trek but for an oldster like myself it called to mind the great Albert Dekker in “Dr. Cyclops.”

What was startling was the complete lack of romantic, sexual attraction in an opera that is usually held to be all about sex. Unless I’m mistaken the lovers don’t touch at all, although they do casually sit down on the steps during the Liebesnacht. It was Shaw who said that the “Count di Luna (the villain in Trovatore) can never be allowed to sit down,” and the same thing might be said for Tristan and Isolde. Similarly, Melot was not killed by anyone at all: he just sang his last line and walked off. Maybe these are signs that the opera is about the mind rather than the body but this is surely the wrong way to approach Tristan, as physical as a work of art can be.

Still, Tristan is never an opera about staging. The music is always totally dominant and this performance was at its best in the great music of the last two acts. More than enough reason to see it and be startled by the incredible flow of invention and passion that never ceases to amaze.