The Sting and Seduction of Tristan

ItalyItaly Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (opening of 2016/17 season): Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro dell’Opera Rome / Daniele Gatti (conductor). Teatro dell’Opera Rome, 27.11.2016. (JB)

Rachel Nicholls (Isolde) & Andreas Schager (Tristan) (c) Y Kageyama

Tristan – Andreas Schager
King Marke – John Relyea
Isolde – Rachel Nicholls
Kurwenal – Brett Polegato
Melot – Andrew Rees
Brangäne – Michelle Breedt
A young mariner – Rainer Trost
A shepherd – Gregory Bonfatti

New staging by Pierre Audi
Dramaturgy – Willem Bruls
Sets and costumes – Christof Hetzer
Lighting – Jean Kalman
Video – Anna Bertsch

When the history of tonality (key centre and its alternatives) comes to be written it will probably begin with the Tristan chord.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the entire opera comes out of the Tristan chord. Wagner composed at the piano.  Like Liszt (his father in law) he was a skilled improviser.  Imagine the happy day when he came upon this chord.  Happy is perhaps not the right word, for it stings as well as it seduces.  This is a chord that possibly was destroyed in order to be created.

There is a strong kinesthesia involved in all Wagner’s music.  No other composer makes us feel so keenly the rubbing, blowing or hitting on which all instrumental music depends.  This is at the core of his unique orchestration.  If you play the Tristan chord on a piano (where the maestro “found” it) you will find that you hear it in a different way.  In its first appearance in the Prelude (in the piano reduction) it is F and B naturals in the left hand (just below middle C) and D# and G# in the right (just above middle C) but first you must curtsy with your fingers above the key, then take the key down slowly to carefully feel the contact  of the hammers with the strings.  The chord appears in the second bar of the Prelude, not counting the anacrusis. But chords, like words, only make sense in context.  And the preceding notes are A below middle C and F above, with E sliding into the (accented) Tristan chord itself.  Now try it with the lead-in, always playing pianissimo and without peddle.  Was anything ever so sensual?  The sting and seduction of the chord is pure kinesthesia.  If sting and seduction are somehow feeling uncommonly familiar, that is because they are in our daily existence, though many people prefer not to know about this.  We are in what some call forbidden territory.  And Wagner, for one, knew it.

No other opera has had such powerful and lasting influence as Tristan, in the world of music and beyond.  No wonder Nietzsche came out of the opening, gasping for breath.  He would later write that ‘the world is poor for those who have never been sick enough for this voluptuousness of hell’(Warning to piano owners: I’ve just suggested that you inoculate yourself with some of this.)

Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr, at the original (1865) Munich opening, were husband and wife in real life.  Schnorr caught a chill during the opening, said to have been caused by draughts on the stage; he developed pneumonia and died.  Malvina took up spiritualism and then haunted Wagner for the rest of his life with her communications from the life beyond.

She wasn’t the only one.  On 21 July 1911, the Austrian conductor, Felix Mottl, leading Munich’s one-hundredth performance, dropped dead of a heart attack on the podium.  Then still at the same theatre, where I was present as music critic for the Paris Herald Tribune, on July 20 1968, the conductor, Joseph Keilberth, faltered and collapsed among the first violins with a heart attack at the same point in the score (first scene of Act 2).  He was rushed to hospital but was dead on arrival.  I didn’t have a review to telex (our means of communication in those days) but I did have a stop press story.

Rome knows that Daniele Gatti is a supreme Wagnerian.  Early in 2008, after he had left Santa Cecilia as its chief conductor and Pappano had taken his place, the Accademia invited him back to conduct a concert version of Parsifal, which in the summer was then performed with the same cast at Bayreuth.  I will remember the ethereal magic of that Parsifal  for the rest of my life; a worthy successor to Boulez’s equally unforgettable performance at a much earlier Bayreuth Festival.

Gatti is gloriously aware of all the kinesthetic requirements of Tristan and he must have spent much rehearsal time to ensure that his players were not just involved with their instruments but had virtually become their instruments.  The Rome Opera Orchestra is not at the world-class level of Santa Cecilia but with this kind of challenge it pretty well becomes so.  At the curtain call, his was the loudest and longest applause (from me too).  Might it be hoping for too much that the Rome Opera Orchestra would invite him to be their Chief Conductor?  Please don’t be shy asking, Rome.  Yes, I know that he has just accepted such a posting at the National Opera of Amsterdam (in which this Tristan is in co-production together with the Paris Champ-Elysées Theatre).  But please remember Rome Opera that Tony Pappano has a similar opera posting, somewhere in London, I believe.

In the opening bars of the Prelude I was somewhat dismayed to hear that Gatti was almost studiedly letting too much oxygen in between the phrases.  Dear me!  Nietzsche would not have been gasping for air here!  But it was part of the Gatti allover design to tighten phrases as they reappeared.  You have to wait for the painful pleasures of asphyxiation under the Gatti baton.  Brilliant!  Nietzsche take your seat if you dare.

The Rome Opera’s programme book of close on three hundred pages costs a hefty fifteen euros, but it is beautifully printed with a rich photographic gallery of previous Tristan productions in this theatre, one with Callas, in February 1950, conductor, Serafin, and sung in Italian, though Tristan, August Seider, sang his part in German!!  In May 1959 a production of Friedrich Schramm, had Windgassen and Nilsson as the lovers. (I heard both in Bayreuth.) In 1965, Wieland Wagner directed with his own sets (sounds like a Bayreuth transfer) with Hans Beirer and Anja Silja as the lovers.  I’d have given my right arm to see that.  Wieland was very much in love with Silja at that time.  André Cluytens conducted.  In 1981 Lovro Von Matačić. conducted and directed with Hans Hopf and Ludmila Dvorakova as protagonists.

Tonight’s staging of this co-production is by the French, Lebanese intellectual and man of theatre, Pierre Audi.  Londoners will remember Audi as the man who in the eighties brought the Almeida Theatre from zero to one of the capital’s most vital and inventive performing spaces.  He brings those qualities to this production.  One applauds Audi because his very considerable intellect informs his work beautifully, but never dominates it.  He has thoroughly embraced all Wagner’s complex and sometimes contradictory philosophies and ever so quietly incorporated these into his staging.

Mythology is always Audi’s point of reference.  Sets and Costumes (Christopher Hertzer) are ageless and timeless.  They could be of any age or any time.  But over to you.  Audi is careful not to make decisions for you.  The open endedness chimes well with Wagner’s searching spirit  -the more attractive part of the composer’s thoughts.  A few in the gallery clearly didn’t like not being told what to think and booed Audi at his curtain call.  Clearly he hadn’t paid the claque.  How are they going to pay their light bills?  But they were vastly outnumbered by the wild applause from the bejeweled, expensive seats.

Like the theatre’s richer clients Mr Audi is a great stylist: an understated one.  Simple, dignified and well thought through are his defining qualities.  Like the opera directors who came in the wake of Visconti (Zeffirelli, PierLuigi Pizzi et al) he makes impressive use of people as scenery, moving them always at precisely the right moment.  Every second of every scene is a pleasure for the discerning eye. Sparse to be sure, but then, sparse is one of the opera’s themes. How much can be made of little.  How great is that “little”: Audi and Hertzer take us into its essence.  Take Tristan’s garden of Act Two.  Hertzer’s  trees are but a suggestion of trees.  Of which age?  Of any age.  Artificial?  To be sure.  But this is an artifice that also carries its inviting, questioning opposite.  It breaks all tree boundaries in the questions it subtly begs.  Wagner would have hugged them.  So would his grandson, Wieland.  I once heard Wieland at a Bayreuth press conference, somewhat wearied by barmy questions from German journalists who were trying to trap him into revealing his supposed Nazi sympathies, when he finally threw his hands in the air and said, ‘Oh I don’t think auntie Adolf would have liked that!’ I now can’t remember what the that was. But that was precisely the point of his answer.

I want to sing praises for the surtitles that were in English and Italian.  The English was written by someone who is both a native speaker and lover of that language.  I noticed details of the text I had never noticed before.  In Act One, for instance, you may remember that it falls to Isolde to explain to the audience what has happened before we arrived at the theatre.  She does this in both of her dialogues with Brangäne and with Tristan.  She speaks of the wisdom of her mother.  Good girl.  All girls’ mothers are wise.  Or so the saying goes.  But mythological girls can have it all ways too.  And here’s the bit I’d never noticed.  Isolde says her mother was a maker of magic potions. (OK, whose mother wasn’t?) But Isolde’s mother was so wise that for every magic potion, she made its antidote.  So for the Life potion there is a Death potion and for the Love potion, a Hate potion, and so forth.  And what is more Mrs Isolde was such a wise mother that she never let her daughter travel without a complete set of these potions.  Yupee!  Wagner makes Freud redundant in one short scene.  He then further simplifies things in Isolde’s medicine cabinet.  But this being Wagner, the simplification then turns out to be another ever-so-subtle complication.  You might now like to take a break before you go on.  Wagner actually gives you one in the theatre.

But there is almost no breathing space for Tristan or Isolde.  Fortunately their love ebbs as well as it flows.  Therein the music drama of the opera.  It is so centered on the lovers that the other characters get obliterated by their creator’s obsession with the protagonists.  It feels like the other singers are only there to move the lovers on a little.

That is not the case however with King Marke, whose character is drawn particularly well by Wagner.  More especially when it is sung by John Relyea.  In his one sustained scene at the end of Act Two, his voice was warm and solid with a rich, almost velvety glow.  Marke is the character who thinks outside the box.  The Wagner box that is.  And one feels the pride of the composer in rising to this challenge.  But Marke is movingly sincere in his puzzlement. Mit tiefer Ergriffenheit (with great emotion) writes Wagner.  And Relyea delivers sublimely on that.

The role of Brangäne can easily come across as Isolde’s chambermaid.  And that is how Michelle Breedt plays it.  The confidante who becomes unwillingly involved in the complexities of the plot was never conveyed by this singer.  Her low notes are impressive but so were Isolde’s in this production, so they don’t make the effect they might otherwise have made.

The traitor Melot is presented in this edition of the opera as a poor, wizen, bent old crock, doubled over a walking stick, hobbling his way toward somewhere unsure.  Andrew Rees’s thin voice – almost purposefully reedy – delivers well on this reading.  I’m not so sure that I can buy into the interpretation.  Others probably will.

No one will doubt the unshaking sincerity of Brett Polegato’s ever-loyal Kurwenal.  Perfectly in character both vocally and dramatically.  Kurwenal only comes into his own in his final scene with Tristan. He would do anything to be able to enter this weird world of his beloved, dying friend.  But he cannot and to make matters worse, he knows he cannot.  Polegato is outstanding in conveying this double suffering.

Both the small roles of the mariner in Act One and the shepherd in Act Three, are sung from offstage and can make a remarkable effect with the right voices, but neither Rainer Trost (mariner) nor Gregory Bonfatti (shepherd) had the wistful innocence of voice which brings these roles to unexpected life.  In Act Three it was Andrea Tenegalia’s cor anglais unaccompanied solo (the shepherd’s pipe) which stole the show with unmatched beauty of simple, plaintive sound.

Andreas Schager is an unusual, but for me, convincing Tristan.  He is not the usual heldentenor  -baritone timbre effectively placed at tenor pitch -it is what I can only call a tenor’s tenor, thinner than the voice we usually hear as Tristan but nevertheless powerful.  He has understood that quiet passages require more voice than loud ones.  His death scene was remarkably moving.  Had he been saving up all night those well-judged nuances of vocal colour that seemed to find natural expression in his unusual voice?  Not that the heroic passages lacked nuance.  In the Act One sung dialogue exchanges I found his sting better than his seduction –even a little overdone.  But that, to some degree, is the way the part is written.  And you will go a long way before you find another tenor who can take his audience into his death with such alarming, reassuring voice.  This, be sure, is just the contradiction Wagner intended.

Rachel Nicholls is among the great Isoldes I have heard.  And I have heard some very fine ones, including Mödl, Varnay and Nilsson (‘Isolde made me famous and Turandot made me money’ Nilsson used to quip.) Ms Nicholls made me realize that there is mileage to be had from starting a career with Baroque repertory and building the voice up until it arrives at Wagner weight and height.  (Nilsson made her first appearance in England at Glyndebourne in Idomeneo.  That little theatre must have shook to its foundations with this enormous voice.  ‘It didn’t,’ she told me, ‘My voice wasn’t so big at that time’.)  Nicholls’s low notes are as lush and seductive as Kathleen Ferrier’s. Her high notes have more sting than seduction, even if, in the latter quality, she scored impressively in the Act Two love duet.  And there is no break across her enormous vocal range.  She sometimes makes the mistake of approaching a high note from below which is dangerous from an intonation point of view and sliding upwards is against nature and therefore ugly.  But in other places she prepared the approach from above.  I see that her mentor and guide is Anne Evans.  Dame Anne will no doubt put this technical fault right.

If it is your ambition to increase your understanding of Tristan, beg, borrow or steal a ticket for one of the repeat performances or book on line at

Jack Buckley

Repeats on Wed 30 Nov at 19.00; Sat 3 Dec at 18.00;  Tue 6 Dec at 19.00; Fri 9 Dec at 19.00 and Sun 11 Dec at 14.00. Running time: five hours, ten minutes, including two thirty minute intervals.

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