Tristan und Isolde, 02-22-04
Catching up: On Sunday, February 22, we went to the Florentine Opera for the opening performance of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," a formidable piece of music both for the demands it puts on the singers and for the demands on the audience in its four-hour length. Isolde is on stage for the entirety of the first and second acts, and much of the third. Tristan has lesser parts in the first two acts, but sings for what seems like forty-five minutes straight in the third. When you further consider that this is an opera with a total cast of eight, no relieving choruses, and much of it is sung at a passionate level accompanied by an orchestra of classically "Wagnerian" proportion, it becomes clear that this is no opera for wimpy singers.
Fortunately, the Florentine did not provide any wimpy singers. Gary Bachlund as Tristan and Frances Ginzer as Isolde were well up to the tasks laid on them, and the supporting cast, including John Cheek as King Marke, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco as Brangane, and Kristopher Irmiter as Kurwenal also sang ably and well.
The production was very spare; the only set piece was a raked white platform, which served to designate Isolde's cabin in the first act, her boudoir in the second, and a rampart of Tristan's castle in the third. It was augmented with furniture or pieces of drapery on occasion. All entrances were made from a trap at the back center, and the orchestra was on stage behind a scrim that some times hid them and sometimes partly revealed them.
The opera begins aboard ship bound for Cornwall. We learn that Tristan had been sent to Ireland to collect tribute for King Marke of Cornwall. He had met and killed the knight Morold, Isolde's betrothed. Isolde nursed the wounded Tristan back to health, not knowing he had been the death of Morold. Nor has Tristan know that his nurse, with whom he fell in love, had been the intended of the man he killed. When the truth comes out, relations between them are bitterly sundered. Tristan is given Isolde to carry back to Cornwall to be Marke's wife as the tribute. On shipboard, Isolde rages at her treatment, and determines to commit suicide, enticing the despondent Tristan to join her in a cup of poison. However, her dedicated servant, Brangane, substitutes the love potion sent by Isolde's mother.
In the second act, Isolde, now Marke's wife, arranges secret trysts with Tristan, but they are betrayed by the jealous knight Melot. Marke rages at Tristan, both for Tristan's deception of him, and for making him a party to Melot's treachery. Melot and Tristan fight and Tristan is gravely wounded.
In the third act, the loyal Kurwenal has carried Tristan to his family castle in Brittany. Delirious, Tristan imagines Isolde coming to heal his wounds. She does, but comes too late, and he dies in his arms. King Marke's ship arrives as well, and Kurwenal, enraged, fights and kills Melot, then is killed himself by Marke's men. Marke tells Isolde that Brangane has told him the secret of the love potion, and that he had followed her in order to release her so that she could have Tristan. Isolde has a vision of Tristan beckoning to her from the other world and falls dead across his body.
For all its length, there is very little waste in the first two acts. The third act, however is another matter, as Wagner indulgently gives Tristan not one, but two lengthy dream-visions, plus a needless paean to Kurwenal's loyalty. The deaths of Melot and Kurwenal are senseless in the context of the story as well as outside it, and do nothing to enhance the tragedy. So, in sum, the third act would have been twice as good if half as long, especially important at the end of an already long opera.
This implies no criticism of the singers, who gave it their all, musically and dramatically, and the orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno, who played with marvelous control, never overpowering the out numbered singers. The music was good enough that one did not get bored with the spare setting, and indeed found some of the lighting effects, such as the rushing water effect at the beginning, more distracting than otherwise.
The only glaring flaw with the production was an outbreak of the same sort of rummage-in-the-closet for-any-old-costume disease that affected the Skylight's recent production of "Romeo and Juliet" (previously reviewed herein). Brangane and Isolde wore modern dress, Isolde being afflicted in the first act with a suit of particularly unflattering cut and color. Tristan wears a high-collared long black coat stolen from "The Matrix". Kurwenal and other knights look like North Sea fishermen in boots, peacoats, and roll-neck sweaters, except for Melot, whose long coat and sash made him look like the doorman for a Turkish restaurant. And then there was King Marke, given a long red cape and flowing hair that seemed to be taken from "Bram Stoker's Dracula." None of it fit together in the least. But this was a comparatively minor irritation given the other strong points of the production.