Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tristan und Isolde: an appreciation

Twitter informed me this morning that it was the 150th anniversary of Tristan und Isolde's postponed and scandalous premiere. I felt impelled to pour out some of my own feelings about Tristan (and collect some relevant resources on it) here. Even without a Twitter account, one can enjoy the videos, images, and anecdotes of #Tristan150Tristan has inspired me with stereotypically ecstatic fervor since I first encountered it. Almost a decade ago, it was my first live Wagner; seven years ago, it was the first opera I saw at the Met; and the brilliant performance I got to see last year in Frankfurt still resonates freshly. In between those landmarks in my own opera-going experience, I acquired several recordings and a libretto from secondhand shops, and, one memorable semester, was thoroughly distracted from a week of lecturing on the fourteenth century by those timeless chords of unappeased yearning echoing from a music history class down the hall. Since Tristan is an opera so resolutely profound, so rich in possible theatrical representations, herewith a few links. The entire Konwitschny production, with Waltraud Meier radiant at its heart, is available to view here. Definitely the Opera's thoughtful commentary on the Sellars/Viola production is here. A review of Chérau's 2007 production for La Scala--with the justified observation that "a perfect Tristan is probably beyond mere mortals"--is here.

Even in inevitably imperfect performances, it is inevitably haunting. I cherish the memory of having heard Christine Goerke sing the Liebestod in a school auditorium. I'm inclined to agree with Nietzsche's assessment: there is nothing else quite like it in its mysterious perfection. I will close, though, with a famous assessment by a very different author: Mark Twain. His biting wit is on full display in his account of Bayreuth's 1891 season, but the satirical mood of his assessments of Parsifal and Tannhäuser is not in evidence in his account of Tristan. And in his account of Met audiences, I recognize a kindred spirit. Also instantly recognizable is his testimony that a good Wagner performance can leave one "in no fit condition to do anything."

Yesterday the opera was "Tristan and Isolde." I have seen all sorts of audiences--at theaters, operas, concerts, lectures, sermons, funerals--but none which was twin to the Wagner audience of Bayreuth for fixed and reverential attention, absolute attention and petrified retention to the end of an act of the attitude assumed at the beginning of it. You detect no movement in the solid mass of heads and shoulders. You seem to sit with the dead in the gloom of a tomb. You know that they are being stirred to their profoundest depths; that there are times when they want to rise and wave handkerchiefs and shout their approbation, and times when tears are running down their faces, and it would be a relief to free their pent emotions in sobs or screams; yet you hear not one utterance till the curtain swings together and the closing strains have slowly faded out and died; then the dead rise with one impulse and shake the building with their applause. Every seat is full in the first act; there is not a vacant one in the last. If a man would be conspicuous, let him come here and retire from the house in the midst of an act. It would make him celebrated. 
This audience reminds me of nothing I have ever seen and of nothing I have read about except the city in the Arabian tale where all the inhabitants have been turned to brass and the traveler finds them after centuries mute, motionless, and still retaining the attitudes which they last knew in life. Here the Wagner audience dress as they please, and sit in the dark and worship in silence. At the Metropolitan in New York they sit in a glare, and wear their showiest harness; they hum airs, they squeak fans, they titter, and they gabble all the time. In some of the boxes the conversation and laughter are so loud as to divide the attention of the house with the stage. In large measure the Metropolitan is a show-case for rich fashionables who are not trained in Wagnerian music and have no reverence for it, but who like to promote art and show their clothes. 
Can that be an agreeable atmosphere to persons in whom this music produces a sort of divine ecstasy and to whom its creator is a very deity, his stage a temple, the works of his brain and hands consecrated things, and the partaking of them with eye and ear a sacred solemnity? Manifestly, no. Then, perhaps the temporary expatriation, the tedious traversing of seas and continents, the pilgrimage to Bayreuth stands explained. These devotees would worship in an atmosphere of devotion. It is only here that they can find it without fleck or blemish or any worldly pollution. In this remote village there are no sights to see, there is no newspaper to intrude the worries of the distant world, there is nothing going on, it is always Sunday. The pilgrim wends to his temple out of town, sits out his moving service, returns to his bed with his heart and soul and his body exhausted by long hours of tremendous emotion, and he is in no fit condition to do anything but to lie torpid and slowly gather back life and strength for the next service. This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.

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