A music teacher in Thomas Mann’s early novel, Buddenbrooks (1900), when presented with some piano arrangements of Tristan und Isolde, recoils in terror: ‘I won’t play this ... This is not music ... It is pure chaos! It is demagoguery, blasphemy, and madness! It is the end of all morality in the arts. I will not play it!’ This is perhaps a trivial example of the effect of Richard Wagner’s music on his contemporaries and later generations, but Tristan is the opera that encourages the most extreme reactions. It is difficult for us to imagine just how disturbing this music must have sounded on 10 June 1865. There had been nothing like it before on the operatic stage.
Tristan symbolised the decadence of the late nineteenth century when culture appeared unstable and in flux. Wagner knew this well: he described the sound world of the opera in colour terms as ‘mauve, a sort of lilac’. In Western music, and in the development of opera in particular, Tristan is a crucial moment when the nineteenth century peers into the next. Wagner pushes traditional Western harmony to its limits: the dam would finally break early in the next century with the music of Schoenberg and Berg.
The first chord of the prelude of the opera, the so-called ‘Tristan chord’, contains the most widely analysed four notes in Western music. Wagner was famously to parody this a few years later in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He interrupted his composition of the Ring for twelve years to write what were originally going to be two rather small-scale works, but which later turned out to be two of the longest and most complex operas in the repertoire. But also in terms of dramaturgy, this opera is revolutionary. Wagner takes opera into its own head: the music provides access to the interior lives of its two protagonists in a manner that had not been achieved before.
‘he described the sound world of the opera in colour terms as ‘‘mauve, a sort of lilac’’’
Wagner viewed the opera as consisting essentially of ‘three love scenes’: the dialogue that ends act one; the extended love duet in act two; and the end of act three, culminating in Isolde’s sublime Liebestod. Using techniques he had refined during the forging of the Ring, Wagner creates a web of musical complexity linking ideas and emotions; however, the work has an austerity of structure that Nietzche admired: he described the opera as ‘the voluptuousness of hell’, but ‘the world is poor for him who has never been sick enough to experience it’. Despite their falling out, Nietzsche admitted: ‘Even now I am in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as Tristan – I have sought in vain in every art.’
On one level this is an opera that should not be compromised by a concert performance. Some might see this as a distinct advantage in their desire to escape from the excesses of contemporary Regietheater. The music, perhaps more than in any other opera, is the mise en scène: one does not need elaborate sets and costumes to make this drama work. David Robertson conducted the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with precision, and a sure sense of musical architecture and pacing, but at times a little self-indulgently, with the focus more on the orchestral than on the vocal side of the equation. Alexandre Oguey’s cor anglais solo in Act Three was magnificent.
‘The music, perhaps more than in any other opera, is the mise en scène’
The principal roles pose extreme vocal challenges – the first Tristan died after four performances – and these were met with aplomb. One needs large, focused, and beautiful voices for these roles, but also textual clarity. Like Shakespeare, Wagner’s is a theatre of words, and singers must have excellent articulation and projection. Wagner’s injunction to his singers at the first performance of the Ring was: ‘Distinctness! The big notes will take care of themselves; the little notes and their text are the chief thing.’ Here, this concert performance disappoints; rather bafflingly, the singers are placed behind the orchestra and have to sing through the wall of music rather than over it as in a theatre, with substantial loss of textual clarity and subtlety of tone. And make no mistake, these are all true Wagnerian voices with the vocal heft to ride any orchestra.
Christine Brewer sang Isolde with a voluptuous, yet finely focused tone, rising to great expressivity in Act Two, though somewhat vocally subdued in the final scene of the opera. Lance Ryan tirelessly met the murderous demands of Tristan; his voice has the baritonal quality of the true Heldentenor, but a sweetness of tone when needed – no ‘Bayreuth bark’ here! The secondary principals were outstanding, led by a warmly expressive-voiced Katarina Karnéus as Brangäne. This is in some ways a thankless role, but Karnéus embodied the character with well-judged, burnished tonal oppulence and a Nordic gleam in the sound. John Relyea as King Marke and Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal both brought powerful vocal and dramatic presence to their roles. The smaller roles were impressive.
The opera is the latest in a series of concert performances of Wagner by the SSO, and is certainly a musical highlight of 2015.
Tristan und Isolde, by Richard Wagner, conducted by David Robertson, for Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Performances at Sydney Opera House, June 20 and June 22. Performance attended June 20.