Why Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is the ultimate opera

The Mets new season begins with a uniquely potent four-hour hymn to love, sexuality and death at the end of which the audience may feel as if they have witnessed something revelatory, even life-changing

In my experience, Wagner gets a different sort of audience from most opu. More humen; more people who come along on their own. Verdians, Mozartians come to be enriched and entertained. Perfect Wagnerites come to find the meaning of life.

I was once sitting behind the late Bernard Levin, a noted British journalist and essayist, during a performance of Wagners Gtterdmmerung, the final the members of the Ring cycle, at Covent Garden. At the end of the marathon performance all of the later Wagner operas are marathons an excited American woman came up to Levin. Mr Levin, she told, was it significant that Siegfried and Hagen[ the rogue of the opu] were both wearing green dress? She supposed she had found the key to the Ring.

Levin meditated for a moment, then gave what I thought was a wonderfully deadpan respond. No, I dont think so, he told. Probably just some material left over from Don Giovanni. He was gently trying to tell his interlocutor that the Ring was a work of art , not a puzzle which, if it could be unravelled, would explain everything.

He had a point, of course, but to the acolytes Wagner does feel as if he offers something different a treatise on life rather than a musical experience. At the end of Tristan und Isolde, which opens at New Yorks Metropolitan Opera on Monday, you really do feel as if you have witnessed something revelatory, perhaps even life-changing.

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The remarkable Swedish soprano Nina Stemme is singing Isolde, which has become her signature role. I assured Stemme in the part three years ago in Houston and believe me, this will be worth skipping Clinton v Trump for. When Stemme sings the concluding Liebestod( literally love-death ), you are able to carried along on the waves of voice and feeling believe what she is telling you. How gently and softly he smiles, she sings over the body of the dead Tristan. How lovingly he opens his eyes. Do you find, friends? Do you not find? You will see.

This is the climax of a four-hour journey in which Tristan and Isolde find their love for one another thwarted Isolde is promised in wedding to boring old King Marke. Merely in death can they be truly unified. The Liebestod and this is a horribly blokeish and archetypally Wagnerian idea is a hymn to love and sexuality, and to the notion that you will never find them perfectly realised in the here and now. Love, sexuality, death: a holy or unholy trinity.

Tristan und Isolde marked a new beginning for Wagner and indeed for opu. Written in the 1850 s, at the same time as he was beginning the Ring, he was moving away from plot-driven romantic operas to meditations on the nature of existence itself. Under the influence of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer( who taught him that mans life on Earth was dominated by unfulfilled longing) and sexual yearning for the married Mathilde Wesendonck( which taught him much the same thing ), he had gone all metaphysical, and his run would never be the same again.

Life and death, the whole import and existence of the outer world, here hang on nothing but the inner movements of the soul, wrote Wagner. Barry Millington, in The Sorcerer of Bayreuth, wonders at the way he takes a simple love affair the standard fare of opu for centuries and turns it into a philosophical disquisition. Wagners opera transcends its scenario of a conventional love story to offer a profound meditation on the nature of the material world, on the metaphysics of subjectivity and on the mysteries of human existence itself, writes Millington.

Following Schopenhauer, Wagner watches the exterior world as of no consequence. All that are important is the bond spiritual and( meta) physical between the two lovers. You could see this as hopelessly, destructively self-indulgent Tristan and Isolde are the most solipsistic characters in opu or as profound and moving.

Stuart Skelton as Tristan: some call the opu a run of anti-civilisation. Photograph: Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

Early reaction was divided: Clara Schumann supposed the opu the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or hear in all my life, while Friedrich Nietzsche, who at that stage was a committed Wagnerian, called it the real opus metaphysicum of all art insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death it is overpowering in its simple grandeur.

Michael Tanner, a modern-day philosopher and opu critic, detects it wonderful but baffling. It is a run of anti-civilisation, he writes in his book on Wagner, and its appeal, the violent and profound effect it has on us, is closely bound up with that. Even if we dont subscribe to the gospel of passion which it promulgates, we may still be stirred to the depths by a perfect manifestation of subversiveness. Tristan has all the classical virtues, put to the most drastically non-classical objectives. Its formal impeccableness is solely devoted to propagating the values of something that lies below the level at which kind can get a grasp.

As well as enlarging or perhaps subverting the subject matter of opu, Tristan und Isolde also marked a turning point in the history of music. The opening chord in the prelude, the so-called Tristan chord, is insured by some as the beginning of modern music, introducing chromaticism, dissonance and, according to the composer Arnold Schoenberg, even atonality.

Tristan is the gateway to the rest of Wagners music the drama of Gtterdmmerung, the spiritual advance of Parsifal but its also the solar plexus of the whole of 19 th-century musical history, says music critic Tom Service. Tristan changed every composer who heard it, whether they loved it or loathed it, and the piece opened a Pandoras box of technical and expressive potential, of chromatic harmony and vividness of musical thoughts and impression, that could never be closed again. The future genuinely did start here.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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