I've always considered Tristan und Isolde to be Wagner's greatest opera, and on Thursday evening I had an opportunity to hear Act II performed in concert at Carnegie Hall by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its Music Director Andris Nelsons.
Despite all his talk of "new music," Wagner had always been a Romantic at heart and I firmly believe his affair with Mathilde Wesendonck had far more to do with the creation of the opera's passionate love story than any reading of Schopenhauer. Even if neither the composer nor the poet acknowledged the liaison openly - both were after all married to someone else at the time - there can't be any doubt that Wagner was infatuated with Mathilde while writing the opera. Even the most obtuse listener can at once discern that the passages Wagner gives to Tristan are deeply personal and reflect his own emotions. It is a commonplace that in attempting to give voice to his or her feelings and to impress his muse with the work he has devised in her honor an artist will somehow transcend the limitations of his talent and attain new heights of creativity. While Schopenhauer's writings may have provided a philosophical grounding for the action of the opera, the intense passions the two lovers feel for one another go far beyond any theoretical expression of human will.
Act II describes the night that Tristan and Isolde spend together while King Marke is away hunting with Melot and his men. The two lovers' duet becomes a musical expression of their sexual union and is one of the opera's climactic moments. The treachery of Melot, who leads the king to the guilty pair, is designed to contrast the purity of Tristan's and Isolde's love with the baseness of an individual who allows his desire to corrupt the idealistic regard in which he once held Tristan. In his treachery he shows none of the remorse Tristan suffers for his betrayal of the king's trust. But it is really King Marke who is the tragic figure here as he grapples with the pain Tristan has caused him and tries to understand what led his loyal retainer to commit such a crime.
It was inevitable that the opera should be misunderstood by contemporary critics. Wagner's experiments with dissonance, most famously in the "Tristan chord," opened the way for the music of Mahler and later the Second Viennese School and as such broke with traditional notions of harmony in Western music. In so doing, the opera only emphasized the differences between Wagner's music and that of Brahms, the Classical Romanticist. Not suprisingly then the most vociferous critics of the opera turned out to be the staunchest supporters of Brahms, including the critic Eduard Hanslick and the pianist Clara Schumann who described the opera as "the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life." As with most critics, however, it was not only the music but the subject matter of illicit love that the strait-laced Clara found so objectionable. She continued:
"To be forced to see and hear such crazy lovemaking the whole evening, in which every feeling of decency is violated and by which not only the public but even musicians seem to be enchanted – that is the saddest thing I have ever experienced in my artistic life..."
Clara's moral indignation was echoed in an 1865 review in the influential Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung that read in part:
"We cannot refrain from making a protest against the worship of animal passion which is so striking a feature in the late works of Wagner... The passion [in Tristan] is unholy in itself and its representation is impure, and for those reasons we rejoice in believing that such works will not become popular... Wagner's music, in spite of all its wondrous skill and power, repels a greater number than it fascinates."
It would be easy to dismiss such comments as no more than mid-nineteenth century prudery, but even as recently as 2012 an article in The Telegraph contended:
"Perhaps that’s a clue [Hans Sach's unwillingness to become another Tristan] to why Tristan and Isolde is both so magnetic and repulsive. We all long for love that defies convention and common sense. Wagner's musical genuis [sic] allows us to indulge in this fantasy – but the lovers are too solipsistic to be sympathetic."
I had no trouble obtaining a ticket to Thursday evening's performance since it was actually part of my Great American Orchestras subscription series, and so I was unprepared for the crowd milling about 57th Street before the performance began while scalpers were everywhere doing a brisk business. It was only when I saw the program that I realized tenor Jonas Kaufmann would be singing the role of Tristan with soprano Camilla Nylund as Isolde. Kaufmann, whom I had previously seen several seasons ago in the title role in Massenet's Werther, gave a brilliant performance that revealed the depths of his character's dilemma in struggling to reconcile his love for Isolde with his betrayal of King Marke. The tenor was in excellent voice even though he paused often between numbers to take long drinks of water. The two leads were supported by an excellent cast that included Mihoko Fujimura as Brangäne, a woman torn by guilt for having provided Isolde the fateful potion, and Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke. The latter was especially impressive in revealing his heartbreak and bewilderment at Tristan's betrayal. Here was a man who suddenly realized that despite his royal power he was all alone in the world with no friend or wife in whom to place his trust.
The BSO has always been a fine orchestra, but under the leadership of Andris Nelsons it has risen in recent years to even greater heights. On Thursday evening the musicians did an excellent job not only in supporting the singers but in fully realizing the beauty and passion of Wagner's music.