I had the opportunity to attend the first Met HD broadcast of the season last Saturday. It was a wonderful and brilliant production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The composition of this opera is perhaps one of the greatest musical achievements of the 19th century. Wagner’s musical accomplishment is remarkable. He is able to represent the sense of longing and unfulfilled desire over multiple hours through his brilliant mastery of harmony. We move from key to key and from one unresolved chord to another and never is there any resolution, until finally at the end during what has become known as Isolde’s Liebestod (“Love-Death) we arrive at a complete musical climax in B major. What is it Wagner was trying to achieve? This is not an easy question to answer and everyone seems to have an opinion. There is the intensity of sexual desire. In fact some have suggested the music represents the experience of human sexual intercourse. Act 1 builds to a climax that is left unresolved. Act 2 again builds and builds until finally we feel like resolution (orgasm) is about to break and it is brutally interrupted by the arrival of King Marke. Finally Wagner brings the work to a complete resolution (orgasm) at the close of act 3 in the Liebestod. Finally, desire is sated and we experience peace in death. The lovers have finally consummated their love in their mutual deaths.
This focus on death – love reaches resolution in death and love can only be consummated in death - is quite a foreign concept for us in the 21st century. While I think it is easy for us to acknowledge that a sense of desire often does drive human behavior, for us in our society intense desire can drive both bad and good behavior. And the idea that death is the only way to achieve peace and unity is really quite an odd (and dangerous) notion I think for us. But for many in the 19th century (especially men as it seems) – this makes perfect sense. And the idea is put forth in any number of literary works from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther to Schubert’s gorgeous but disturbing song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. The idea of finding peace from the intense suffering brought by unfilled desire was a part of the zeitgeist of the 19th century. Even Wagner himself represents various versions of this attitude in his earlier operas: In Flying Dutchman the heroine Senta sacrifices herself and her life for this Dutchman and through her sacrifice they both find peace, in death; In Tannhauser Elizabeth and Tannhauser both find peace in the purity of death as Tannhauser finally rejects sensual, sexual love and joins Elizabeth in death. But we reach a new level in Tristan, both musically and philosophically. And this is directly the result of Wagner’s having discovered the philosopher Schopenhauer and having enthusiastically devoured his work.
Schopenhauer is complicated and I am not a philosopher, however the basic premise of a dimension of his work holds that human life is bleak and filled with pain and suffering. There is no way to avoid this experience of suffering, because of human being’s desire, and it is desire that brings about suffering. This desire is often discussed in sexual terms but desire extends way beyond the dimension of sexuality. In fact, it is desire that brings into the world everything that is horrible and evil. (As an aside it is particularly interesting to note that this idea of desire being at the root of all the world’s misery actually can be traced back to Rabbinical interpretations of the Genesis text of the creation of humanity and the subsequent temptation and taking of the fruit of the tree in the Garden. According to Avivah Zornberg in her incredible works “The Beginning of Desire” and “The Murmuring Deep” she demonstrates how desire is a catalyst of the events that follow the creation. Also, quite a lot of this is dependent on Schopenhauer’s study of Buddhism. Back to Schopenhauer) The only way desire can be sated is through death. It is only in death that humanity can find peace and rest from the driving winds of desire. Only death can allow human beings to escape the incredible suffering of the misery of human life in the world. Schopenhauer goes on to discuss how there are only three experiences in life which can bring temporary and minimal relief, therefore they are worthy to be pursued since they do provide a slight break from the misery of desire. These three experiences are: 1. Sexual love; 2. The pursuit of the arts, especially music; 3. Spirituality of any kind, specifically the spiritual journey, shaped in particular by his study of Buddhism. It is interesting to note that Wagner’s last three operas correspond to these three: Sexual love – Tristan; the Arts and Music – Meistersinger; Spirituality – Parsifal. One last little point – which has some bearing on the subsequent discussion of the Met production – Schopenhauer condemned suicide. For him, suicide was not a solution, because it simply increased the pain, suffering and misery of others in the world.
The opera Tristan und Isolde then has the philosophy of Schopenhauer woven into the core of both the libretto and the music. The famous Tristan Chord is the representation of unfulfilled desire in that the chord never resolves. One cannot fully appreciate the opera Tristan without some basic understanding of Schopenhauer. The libretto itself is based on a German retelling of the ancient story by the 13th century German poet Gottfried von Strassburg. Strassburg’s version is based on a French language12th century version of the story by Thomas of Britain, which is believed to have been written specifically for Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are other early versions of the story, notably there is a French-Norman trouvére version of the story by Beroúl. All of these versions have a variety of different episodes and the plot varies extensively between versions.
The basic plot as laid out in Strassburg is as follows: The story begins with Tristan’s father Riwalin travelling to Cornwall where he meets and falls in love with Marke’s sister Blanschefleur. She becomes pregnant but before he is born his father is killed and when Blanschefleur hears the news she dies but is able to give birth before her death. The child is named Tristan (Sorrow) because of the sorrowful events that have led to his birth. There are a variety of heroic episodes here as the child Tristan becomes a great knight. Ultimately he makes his way back to Cornwall where Marke becomes like a father to him (Marke is his uncle after all). Eventually Tristan takes part in a military conflict in Ireland. He challenges the Irish King’s brother Morold to decide the conflict by a duel to the death. He then fights and kills the Irish warrior Morold in this battle, but is wounded mortally by a poison arrow. Assuming a different identity (Tantris) Tristan washes up on the Irish shore and is nursed back to health by Morold’s beloved/betrothed/wife Isolde the Fair (Their relationship is actually one point where the various versions differ quite a lot). Her mother, Isolde the Wise, the Irish Queen, is particularly skilled in the dark art of alchemy and Isolde the fair has learned her skills from her mother. Eventually Isolde is able to figure out who this strange knight is and decides to kill him to revenge Morold. But she cannot bring herself to do it. One has the sense that the love between them is sparked at this point in the story. Tristan eventually recovers and returns to Cornwall and to the court of King Marke. The court wants Marke to take a wife, mostly in hopes that if Marke would have his own child then Tristan would be disinherited from being the heir to the throne. Tristan suggests Isolde the Fair. Marke eventually agrees and Tristan is sent to fetch her and bring her to Cornwall. (It is here that Wagner begins the story, having skipped all of the previous story and only referring to it occasionally. It can be confusing since one needs to pay close attention in order to pick up these back story pieces, and they are not always laid out in a comprehensive way. And Wagner picks and chooses what he includes also). In the Wagner Isolde resolves to murder Tristan and to commit suicide and she orders her maid Brangäne to prepare a poison drink. Brangäne however substitutes the love potion instead. This potion was prepared and sent by Isolde’s mother specifically to be consumed by Isolde and Marke on their wedding night. This point in the plot is Wagner’s for the most part. In the original versions of the story the ship is dead in the water baking under the hot sun and there is no water to drink. A second maid finds the love potion and without knowing what it is gives it to Tristan and Isolde. Brangäne discovers this mistake too late. But the lovers are now completely under the spell of the potion. Isolde marries Marke, but Brangäne manages to substitute for her in the marriage bed, thus Isolde remains completely pure. Eventually Marke slowly comes to recognize the love that the couple holds for each other. He banishes them from court and they live together in a hut in the forest - pure and chaste by the way, there is never any sexual relationship between them in the original sources, and there is no sex in the opera either, the sex is all in the music. Marke eventually goes in search of them and finds them sleeping together and his anger is kindled. He is about to strike and kill them when he notices that as they sleep Tristan’s sword lay between them. He realizes they are pure and chase and decides not to kill them, rather he pardons them and welcomes them back to court. But the tension between the lovers is too intense and difficult to deal with, so finally Tristan decides to leave Cornwall forever. He travels to Normandy where he marries yet another Isolde – Isolde of the White Hands. They never consummate their marriage and she cannot understand why. Eventually he is wounded in battle and asks his faithful servant Gorvenal or Kurvenal to return to Cornwall and bring Isolde the Fair to him in order to heal him. He instructs that if she is able to come he is to sail with a white sail, if she cannot or will not come he should sail with a black sail. This conversation is overheard by Isolde of the White Hands who now understands why her marriage has never been consummated. She is enraged. As Tristan waits he gets weaker and weaker. Finally a ship appears. “What color is the sail” Tristan asks his wife. “It is black,” Isolde of the White Hands responds. This is a lie and it leads to Tristan dying dejected and alone. Isolde the Fair overcome with remorse at not having arrived in time dies. Marke has the bodies returned to Cornwall where they are entombed side by side. A vine then grows out of the tombs and entwines together. Several times the vine is cut back, but it always grows back bigger and greener and stronger. Finally Marke orders that the vine be allowed to remain.
Obviously very little of this is in the opera. Wagner takes the Strassburg and completely reworks it leaving only a basic outline of the plot. He changes key points as well – such as the adding the death potion and the possibility of the murder/suicide. He also adds the scene where Marke catches them and expresses his deep sense of betrayal. I think understanding the original story can be helpful in filling in the blanks but ultimately I think we need to take Wagner’s retelling on its own terms.
The Met Production by Marius Trelinski
This then leads me to some comments and impressions of the production by Marius Trelinski and the Met performance from October 8. From a standpoint of the musical performance, this performance is simply brilliant. Simon Rattle conducts a magnificent performance. Nina Stemme is wonderful as Isolde, Stuart Skelton is Tristan and they are both outstanding. The entire cast is magnificent. I have no complaints at all. From a strictly musical standpoint this performance was one of the great Met performances. For me the runaway star was the orchestra. This score is difficult and this orchestra is incredible. Special mention goes to English Horn Pedro Diaz from his beautiful playing in act 3 and to long time Bass Clarinet player James Ognibene for his beautiful playing in the Marke monologue.
Now to the production: I love the production. I thought it was not only brilliant. But I felt it was, on the whole, completely faithful to Wagner. Specifically, I feel that the production represents and takes the Schopenhauer dimension more seriously than any production I have ever seen before – and this is #6 for me. Some complain about the updating, as though placing this story in the fantasy early English middle ages has some inherent magic to it. I reject that idea out of hand. Wagner may have had settings in mind but I think for him they were functional settings which are rarely intrinsic to what he is trying to say. This updating not only worked but it was profound and was a wonderful vehicle to present the basic underlying philosophy of the work.
Some specifics: First - the overwhelming bleakness of the production is completely Schopenhauer. Life is nothing but pain and suffering and failure and ultimately is tragic. The drab costumes and uniforms represent this and are exceptionally appropriate; the violence of the sailors in the first act and late in the 2nd act is also representative of the tragic suffering of life. The only possibility of escape from this misery of life is death which will bring an end to suffering and will return humans to oneness with creation.
Second - There is always a question in this opera (and enhanced in this production) of what was real and what was not. Were the fantasies with the boy - the images of the boy and the father - were they real? What exactly is real and what is not real? What is darkness and what is light? Even the lovers were never certain of what is real? This is even more expanding on the above theme. And here Wagner moves beyond Schopenhauer a bit. Wagner is suggesting in the act 2 “love duet” that what appears in the day and in the light is really not real at all. Only that which is experienced in the darkness and in the night is truly real. Therefore the day, the light brings with it the reality of suffering and pain and misery and separation. But in the darkness and in the night those things all disintegrate and we can experience oneness and love and unity and joy. You can see how it is only a short step from here to the assertion that love is ultimately joyously consummated in death, that is the ultimate experience of the darkness and night.
Third - Human desire is intense suffering, but we cannot achieve the fulfillment of desire except for short intense bursts and then desire returns – this is true sexually and with all kinds of desire. Ultimately there is no remedy for desire. For it only leads us to intense suffering. Only in death is there the final consummation of desire. This was represented to me in the production quite starkly.
There is one dimension of this production that is not consistent with Schopenhauer and that is the dominant theme of suicide. Isolde is going to arrange a murder/suicide in act 1; in this production Tristan shoots himself at the end of act 2 and in act 3 Isolde slits her wrists and commits suicide. Many have complained about this. I myself am ambivalent. The fact is that Schopenhauer, as stated above, took a very strong position against suicide. Trelinski in this then has thus moved past Schopenhauer. But on the other hand, it seems to me that the important thing is that they both find death together at the end. Their suffering and misery has now come to an end and their love is finally consummated in death. It doesn’t matter I think how they actually got there, all that matters is that they have joined each other in death. That said, I will concede that this point has caused me to spend some time pondering this emphasis on suicide in this production. It is uncomfortable, but I think Trelinski wanted to make it absolutely clear that Isolde has died with Tristan. This I agree with. To have her simply fall lifeless at the end leaves open the possibility that she has only fainted and this is simply not acceptable.
Some have suggested that it was not Wagner’s intention that Isolde should die at the end. They use as their evidence the fact that the stage directions suggest she is transfigured and rapturous at the end. And that she usually simply falls lifeless at the end. I think that is nonsense. For Isolde to survive this opera would completely undermine the plot, the libretto, the philosophy and the music of the opera. Of course she is rapturously transformed. She has entered into death, she has now experienced the unity and consummation that comes with death and this has made her rapturous and transfigured. She and Tristan are now together forever, and are now both children on the night.
The last thing I will comment on are the projections. It is obvious that Trelinsky is using them to both enhance our understanding of the setting of the opera, and to deepen the characterizations with bits and pieces of the backstory. But therein lay some confusion. It is never quite clear who the guy in the white uniform is. Is it a form of Marke? Is it Riwalin, Tristan’s dad? And who is the guy that Tristan shoots? MaryJo Heath in the build up to one of the radio broadcasts said that it was Morold. But Stuart Skelton in an interview said quite forcefully that it was not Morold but simply a random prisoner, and the point was to deepen this sense of life as misery and Tristan as a full participant in the miserable world. This is obviously not clear. And then there is the flame that is also rather unclear. There was apparently a fire when Tristan was a boy. Was the fire set by those who attacked and killed Riwalin or did Tristan set the fire? The production seems to suggest the latter rather strongly, since as an adult Tristan seems fascinated by flames. But it is not clear at all and frankly is a bit confusing. There is nothing in any of the sources of this story that have any suggestion of a fire, much less the suggestion that Tristan was a pyromaniac. I don’t really have any objections, but I have to say it is perplexing and I am still not sure what it all means.
Some have objected to the hospital bed in the last act. I thought it worked great. Why not? This doesn’t mean that he was not at Karaol Castle. We simply do not need a literal falling down castle with Tristan laying on the ground outside. This along with all the settings I felt worked brilliantly.
In conclusion I loved this production. I thought it was brilliant and moving and profound. I will see it in the house in New York in another week and I may add to this review after seeing it then. I suspect the experience in the house will be different from the experience of watching it on screen. But the cast, crew, orchestra and production team of this opera have outdone themselves. I believe this production will take its place among the great Met productions.
"The Tristan Chord" by Bryan Magee
"The Wagner Operas" by Earnest Newman
"Wagner Without Fear" by William Berger