Archive for Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , on May 20, 2012 by telescoper

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I’m a regular opera-goer, I’m by no means as much of a devout fan of Richard Wagner as many of that ilk, including some of my colleagues. Nevertheless, I have decided to persevere in much the same way as I have done with Brahms. Last night I had an opportunity to do just that by going to the first night of the new run of Tristan und Isolde by Welsh National Opera. I was particularly delighted to see this opera on the WNO schedule for this year, because it is an opera with which I am a little bit familiar, and thus provided me with an excuse to persevere a little bit more, for reasons I shall explain…

Years ago, when I lived in Nottingham, on a warm summer evening I decided to listen to some of the live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of Tristan und Isolde from Glyndebourne. I made myself a cocktail and took the radio out into the garden with the intention of listening to a bit of it before going out for the evening. This was back in the days when I actually used to go out on the town on Saturday nights; now I’m too old for that sort of thing. Anyway, I was hooked right from the Prelude. Act I came and went and I decided to make some dinner in the interval, opened a bottle of wine, and returned to listen to the rest of it. The glorious music washed over me in the sultry twilight. Darkness fell, a second bottle of wine was opened, and still I listened – no doubt to the consternation of my neighbours. The final Liebestod was so beautiful I almost cried. Eventually I retreated to the house having experienced my first all-out Wagner trip.

My enjoyment of that occasion was of course helped by the fact I could get up and walk around occasionally, as well as by the liberal intake of fine wine. Nevertheless, I took enough out of it to want to see a full performance. Last night was my chance.

I think the first thing to say about Tristan und Isolde is that the music is completely wonderful. Not only ravishingly beautiful, but also haunting and complex. The opening bars establish a vividly chromatic orchestral palette which is used to brilliant effect to create the atmosphere of tragedy that pervades this work. The opening chord, the Tristan chord, is dissonant and its effect is strengthened by its resolution into another dissonant chord.

It’s often been said – probably with justification – that the freedom with which Wagner composed this opera opened up a whole new set of possibilities for Western classical music. It’s also wonderful to listen to.

So as a music drama it scores nearly 100% for the music. As a drama, though, it leaves a lot to be desired. The plot in Act I is absurd even by operatic standards. Isolde plans to poison Tristan and then take poison herself, but her servant Brangäne does a nifty switch of the vials and the two drink a love potion instead. This ignites a mutual desire that had previously been dormant and leads them into a tragic confrontation between love and responsibility. Isolde, you see, is betrothed to King Mark of Cornwall, and Tristan is his most loyal and virtuous knight. You know this isn’t going to end well, but the bit with the potions reminded me of that old Danny Kaye sketch about the “Vessel with the Pestle”.

Act 2 finds Tristan and Isolde in a dark wood, having embarked on an illicit love affair. It’s basically just the two of them on stage expressing their love to each other in wonderful music. Dramatically, however, nothing at all happens for the best part of an hour until right at the end when the King and his men find the couple in flagrant deliciousness. Now I understood why this opera works so well on the radio..

Tristan is stabbed by one of the King’s cronies at the end of Act 2, but the start of Act 3 finds him back in his ancestral home in Brittany, mortally wounded, lying under a very large plank of wood. In despair he hopes that Isolde will find him and mend his wounds with one of her potions (hopefully the right one this time). She arrives, but he snuffs it before she can help. Then another ship arrives, carrying King Mark and his boys, who have obviously been in hot pursuit across the English Channel. Isolde sings of being reunited in love with the dead Tristan and as she sings the stage and other actors fade from view. She dies.

Full marks to Isolde, Ann Petersen, a wonderful dramatic soprano with an electrifying voice; she’s from Denmark, incidentally. Canadian-born Ben Heppner as Tristan, was also in good voice, although he sometimes struggled to project and his rotund appearance called for a bit of audience imagination for him to be seen as a dashing knight. Mezzo  Susan Bickley was a splendid Brangäne too.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera under the direction of Lothar Koenigs were excellent too, after a rather nervous opening during which they seemed almost to be in awe of the music they were playing. And a special word for the staging, which was rather stark but also very clever, especially during Act I when a translucent screen divided the front and back of the stage and allowed some intriguing lighting effects.

I’d prepared myself psychologically for the 5 hours plus of this performance – not too bad actually, when you realise that includes two intervals, of 25 minutes and 50 minutes respectively – so I coped well enough. The piece definitely has its   longueurs, but you can always shut your eyes and imagine you’re in the garden at home..

The Heldentenor

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , on August 28, 2009 by telescoper

Last week I was listening one of this summer’s Promenade concerts on the radio. The one in question featured the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group of young Arab and Israeli players conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Before the music actually started there was a lengthy discussion by the radio pundits and members of the orchestra about the decision to include in their programme a piece by Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had actually done this as an encore piece previously, but had never had in on their published programme. The problem was that Wagner was a notorious anti-semitic bastard and his music is considered by many to be emblematic of German Nazism. Many members of the orchestra – not only those who happened to be Jewish, in fact – did not feel at all comfortable playing music that carried such distressing overtones. After much discussion, however, they had decided to reclaim Wagner’s music from its awful past and treat it as their own. The performance they produced last week was really excellent, I should add.

For reasons which should become obvious fairly soon, this spurred me on to put something up here by the great Danish singer  Lauritz Melchior. Born in Copenhagen in 1890, Melchior was probably the greatest of all the Heldentenors. If you don’t know what a Heldentenor is, it’s a term used to describe the heroic lead in most of Wagner’s operas. In the words of Anna Russell, he

… is very big, very strong, very brave, very stupid. He carries a spear and wears a helmet. He talks to birds, laughs at dragons, and travels by swan.

Melchior had an immensely powerful voice, which is obligatory if you have to cut through a huge Wagnerian orchestra, but, unlike many other singers who can sing very loud, he was also extremely accurate and his voice had a very rich texture. Other dramatic tenors of his day had purer voices – but if Richard Tauber‘s was polished silver, Melchior’s was more like wrought iron. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I haven’t heard any modern singers anywhere near as good as him in Wagnerian roles. For me, Melchior is the Heldentenor.

The other thing I should mention about Melchior was that he was Jewish (NOTE: This appears to be incorrect – see comments). Although he performed frequently in German opera houses – including  Bayreuth – during the 1920s, he stopped doing so in 1931 when Hitler and his cronies started systematically persecuting Jewish musicians. He spent much of the rest of his life as a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and eventually took up American citizenship. Despite his ancestry and his hatred for the Nazis, however, he never stopped performing Wagner’s music.

When he  died in 1973,  Melchior’s body was transported back to his native Denmark and he was buried in the famous Assistens Cemetery in his home town of Copenhagen. His grave, in fact, is not far from that of the jazz musician Ben Webster.

I don’t know the date of this particular clip, but it was made for American television, I guess sometime during the 1950s. Melchior was already an old man by then, but I love the way he sets himself for this performance and you don’t have to make any allowance for his years. His diction is superb, there’s a wonderful timbre to his voice and when he unleashes the fortissimo his power is almost shocking. This is the narration In Fernem Land, from Wagner’s Lohengrin that also provides the theme for the exquisite instrumental Prelude to Act I of the opera, which also provided Anna Russell with her reference to travelling by swan..