Tristan Und Isolde - A song of Love and Death
edited: Sunday, January 06, 2002
By Rose G rose.moss@LineOne.net
Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2001
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Some thoughts after seeing a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
was looking forward to attending a concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde with my friend, Susan, as it is my favourite opera, but had no great hopes of a spectacular performance, as the singers, apart from the veteran Donald McIntyre as King Marke was were either unknown to me, or inexperienced in singing Wagner.
However, I was in for a revelation, as Susan Bullock, a noted Puccini interpreter, proved herself quite the best Isolde, I’d ever heard. Resplendent in a green and gold gown, Miss Bullock’s beautiful voice soared effortlessly above the orchestra, delivering the curse with biting venom and the love duet with melting sweetness. Not only could she sing the part, but her varied facial expressions showed she was living Isolde’s emotions, as her features expressed shame and suffering as she cursed the man she secretly loved, rapture during their love duet and anguish at her lovers death. I’d love to see her again in a staged performance, as Miss Bullock truly understands Isolde's complexity as well as being a delight to the ear. She was obviously immersed in the character as it took her a few moments to be aware of the applause as the opera ended.
She was partnered by Mark Lundberg as Tristan, who sang Tristan’s music valiantly, but with little tonal variety or expression of feeling. His voice, though rather monochrome is powerful and pleasant enough to listen to. Tristan is known to be a near impossible role, which is said to have let to the death of the first tenor to attempt it.
After Tristan died, he sat with his eyes closed on a chair.
Despite his advancing years, Donald McIntyre was a superb King Marke, who sang with rich and full bass tone, His monologue, which can be boring, was a highlight of the evening, as he endowed every word with the character’s anguish and sense of sorrowful betrayal.
Anne Marie Owens was a sympathetic Brangaene singing the role with warm rich tone, though her purple dress might have looked better on Isolde.
As Kurwenal, John Wegner emphasised the character’s gruffness rather than his warmth. His performance was adequate without being outstanding
The small parts were all well sung. I liked the way Melot (Christopher Booth Jones) poked Tristan in an attempt to make the duel scene more realistic!
Steven Sloane conducted the excellent English Northern Philharmonia in an impassioned and moving interpretation of Wagner’s great score.
The first chord of the Prelude is one of the most revolutionary in the history of Western music and immediately plunges the listener into the mystical, beautiful, all consuming world of Wagner’s doomed lovers. Theirs is so ordinary romance, but the all consuming passion, which some schools of Hindu thought define as the highest form of love, which consumes the participants with its intensity, like a moth drawn into a flame.
Wagner was inspired to write this opera while in the grip of a hopeless passion for Mathilde Wesendonck , the wife of his friend. He was also immersed in the Philosospy of Schopenhauer, who’s ideas were similar to those of Buddhism, which sees the individual as trapped in an endless cycle of craving from birth to death and rebith, the only escape from which, is the renunciation of all earthly desire in order to reach the bliss of Nirvana.
Isolde is one of the most complex and fascinating opera heroines, as she processes a Shakespearean complexity. Is she a victim or a femme fatale, a healer or would be murderess, a petulant princess or a hostage to political expediency, a loving woman or a witch? She’s all this and more, giving the singer who plays her, a wide variety of interpretations to choose from.
At the beginning of the opera, she finds events out of her control, maybe for the first time in her hitherto sheltered life and resorts to the separate measure of a suicide pact with the man she loves and hates at the same time. Her fury is understandable as Tristan killed her betrothed, send her his severed head, then came to her in disguise to be healed before demanding her as a bride for his Uncle, Yet she’s still enough of a spoilt child to tell her maid to prepare the poison, with which she intends them both to die from. Brangaene substitutes a love potion, which frees Tristan and Isolde to reveal their innermost feelings. Though we never know, whether that is from the potion, or the belief that they’ve only moments to live. Isolde is very much the protagonist of the story, as Tristan is unable even to die without her.
The love duet transports the listener to a magical world of shifting chromatic harmonies. It begins on a frenzied note of animal like passion, which gives way to the calm beauty of “O sink’ hernieder “ and the almost hymn like “ So stuerben wir”
I always feel that Isolde’s life could have taken a much less tragic turn had she not met Tristan, who’s very name means sorrow, and seemed destined for it from the moment he was born. He is haunted by his mother’s death in giving birth to him, feels his birth flung him from the enchanted world of “Night” into the cruel realm of “Day” His wish to return to “Night” permeates the story from his lack of resistance to taking the drink, which he believes to be poison, his invitation to Isolde to follow him into the world of “Night” before throwing himself on Melot’s sword The anguished delirium in Act three when he tells Kurwenal he has been where he always was and must always be, in the realm of “Night”, but felt compelled to return the “Day” because Isolde was still in the world of the living. Moreover, they perceive each other as encompassing the world. Yet, she has by this time become so much an ideal that he tears off his bandages and dies, when the real Isolde arrives.
This monologue is one of the most gruelling and demanding in the entire operatic repertoire, and can either come across as boring self pity, or a gripping, harrowing account of the nature of suffering and the meaning of life. Once, I heard Jeffrey Lawton sing it with such feeling and conviction, that I was in tears.
Isolde, after pouring out her grief for Tristan, and her anger that he has abandoned her, faints then recovers to sing her glorious “Liebestod” in which she has an ecstatic vision of Tristan and feels herself dissolving into an eternal cosmic union before falling lifeless beside him. The listener usually leaves the theatre feeling both drained and elated at the final mystical consummation of the tragic lovers .In a good performance one can echo their sentiments of not wanting to let go of the all too fleeting moment of ecstasy when you feel, however briefly, that you’ve reached a state of cosmic awareness, that can never be put into words.
The sea and what it represents, frames the story, from the journey to Cornwall, where Isolde refers cryptically to her mother once having the ability to conjour up storms, to the end where Tristan awaits death on the Breton coast. The scientists tell us that life came from the ocean and the unborn child grows in a watery environment. Many of us yearn for the seam, as if we still feel some primeval connection.
“Tristan und Isolde” an endlessly fascinating, complex and beautiful work, which changed the course of musical history. Both a simple love story and a complex psychological study. I can listen to this opera again and again. For me, it’s a personal love affair, which has endured for over twenty years and I believe will last a lifetime.