Friday, May 17, 2019

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde (1865)

So at the beginning of Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, the heroine Adina is reading from a book about Tristan and Iseult and the basic gist of it is "wow! Look at this delightful story! At first Iseult didn't like Tristan, but then she drank the potion, and she fell in love with him! How fantastic! If only we could have a potion like that!" If she had read on, she might find that the story became somewhat less cheerful. Though actually, at least here, that set-up isn't even right: it's not that he's in love with her first; neither of them is until the potion comes up.  Donizetti just presents it that way to set the plot in motion.  Anyway. Here's this.

At first I wasn't too sure about this, and I was all ready to write a fairly indifferent entry to the effect that "yeah, Wagner's music, but man, it's kinda boring." I had a pretty dramatic conversion at some point, however, because now I think this fucking rules, to the extent that I'm easily willing to forgive the occasional somewhat wobbly plotting.

I think I got thrown off initially because the opening is a little weird: the idea is that Tristan's bring Isolde over from Ireland to be King Marke's wife (don't try to think about the morality of this forced betrothal stuff; the opera doesn't address it, and it'll just make you crazy). She's angry at him because, as you would be, because he killed her previous fiancé, and there's no love lost between them until they both drink this potion she's made, that was supposed to be poison but actually turned out to be this love potion. This part is intentionally unclear: is it in fact a potion, or is that just an excuse for them to act on their feelings? Or is it the poison after all, and this is what leads them to their ultimate tragic end? Whatever the case, though, it's pretty awkward: as soon as they drink it they're instantly in love and the very good reasons that she had hated him are just instantly forgotten, seemingly. You'd think at some point someone would at least comment on the strangeness of the whole situation.

Well, REGARDLESS, things pick up after that. The second act--some time later--is mostly them declaring their love for each other in that rapturous, typically Wagnerian way; in the third, they're separated, he's been mortally wounded, and can she make it in time to save him? NO. This is the most dubious plotting of all: Marke discovers their affair, and Tristan is mortally wounded in the scuffle. So okay...but then in the third act, he's been taken far away, for some reason, and Isolde's coming for him, and if she's totally free to do that, why didn't she treat his wound while they were still together? It really makes no sense.

But never mind that, because the music and the high emotion here just kick all kinds of ass. More than ever before, I understand what people mean when they call Wagner over-the-top, but it's to damned good effect, and I was one hundred percent swept away. This production features Nina Stemme as Isolde; she's good at projecting this kind of deranged intensity that suited her well in Elektra and suits her well here. As Tristan, we have Stuart Skelton, an Australian tenor I'd never heard before. He definitely has the necessary intensity for the role, though he does look somewhat simian (Stuart, if you're reading this, that's not meant as in insult! You're great!). Also, there's René Pape as King Marke; the role doesn't amount to much more than an extended cameo, but the character's nobility is really important to the plot, I think, and Pape is good as always.

This production would drive a purist up the wall, being a present-day military-themed thing. I thought it was...fine? Certainly better than the updated Holländer I saw. I had no problem with it, though I don't know that it exactly contributed to enhancing the story either. I have no strong feelings! I will however probably check it out in another production, just because...well, because it's great.


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