‘Tristan und Isolde’, a Five-hours Long Trial by Fire

Tristan and Isolde.

“I know of some, and have heard of many, who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away.”

Mark Twain, after watching the performance. 

He couldn’t be accused of being an overly sentimental person.

French composer Emmanuel Chabrier heard it in Munich in 1880 and broke down during the prelude, sobbing uncontrollably. Another composer, Guillaume Lekeu passed out during the performance at Bayreuth. Tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfelt, who was the first performer of Tristan, died six weeks after the premiere. His wife, who sang the role of Isolde in the first performances, fell into a deep depression and never sang again.Two conductors, Fedlix Motl and Joseph Keilbert, died while conducting. Both during the climactic part of act 2.

There was even talk about the Tristan curse!

I jumped on the opportunity to see the multicast Met Opera work in our cushy movie theater in Chapel Hill.

I wasn’t prepared for what I saw.  Wagner’s drama had its effect amplified by hurricane Matthew just coming over Chapel Hill, and wine and snacks served during the intermission only added up to the decorum of this event.

From the opening with the Tristan chord, I knew the music was different. The conventional classical music, like in fiction writing, presents a conflict and later on comes up with a dissolution. There is a simple sequence of creating drama and later on releasing and solving it. In music, tension is expressed with a dominant chord and release of it with a tonic chord. It works on both ends of the scale. Wagner’s music is different. There is a build up of tension and instead of resolving it, there is another build up, then another, and then yet another. No resolution. And this goes forever. From the opening with the Tristan chord until the resolution in the final bars of the opera, there are five hours of mounting tension. No wonder some people, and not only the sensitive ones, can’t take it. Wagner’s music was new, torturous and strained. His singers had to have a robust voice and stamina to withstand a monstrous performance. The extraordinary demands put on a performer created a distinct type of ‘Wagnerian’ singer.

Wagner was apparently influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy of will and desire, with suffering as a result of not reaching our object of yearning.

But the length of the performance is a limiting factor for many people. The opera reporter from the Wall Street Journal, asked to come up with an article about the performance at The Met, wrote that he didn’t even see it. It is too long. And he took a half a page to express his side of the story.

Here is the famous Tristan chord:

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gpWg_cZkDho[/embedyt]

And here is, probably even more famous one.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rghJEWAUqoE[/embedyt]

They are short and they stay with you forever.

Then I thought what was more traumatic: to sing for five hours or so, or sit and watch the entire performance. For a while, I felt as if I were on a plane from LAX to RDU during hurricane Matthew. During the imaginary flight I didn’t have any choice about leaving the cabin as the singers didn’t have a choice about leaving the stage. In the movie theater, despite the luxurious seats, my bottom hurt, just like on the plane. But, as I had promised myself during reading Anna Karenina, I resolved myself to complete the journey. Musical composition has a lot in common with writing the novel. I learned about creating tension and resolving it. Or not. During my studying how to write, I was taught to put the hero in a conflict position, then worsen it, and then, when you think nothing else can happen, make it even worse. Like in Tristan and Isolde. Like in a real life. When you think you are at the bottom, suddenly you see something lurking at you from an even deeper abyss. Then you can come up with the unexpected denouement and everybody is finally satisfied.

I don’t know whether or if I will see the opera again. But the impression it left is monumental

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