Tag Archives: Wagner

Tristan und Isolde at the WNO

After all the drama surrounding Deborah Voigt’s withdrawal as Isolde in the Washington National Opera’s opening production, “Tristan und Isolde,” the company came back with a solidly cast production that was enormously affecting. In rehearsals, it seems Voigt found the role too much for the current state of her voice and dropped out over Labor Day weekend. She spoke candidly about the decision with my colleague, Anne Midgette, in an article many of us found a model for how to handle a tough, potentially humiliating situation: straight on, with grace and humor. She left her fans with happy memories of a tough, honest and no-nonsense artist.

The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin replaced Voigt, and while it might have been disappointing to anyone who compared Theorin with memories of Voigt in her prime, it was nonetheless an entirely creditable, well-acted and emotionally engaged performance. Theorin has two voices: There is a lovely, intimate instrument, small and flexible, with golden hues; and a larger, more powerful sound that gets turned on from time to time when she needs the power. This second voice, used judiciously, allows the singer to negotiate all the Wagnerian essentials, but it doesn’t have a lot of color or character, and sometimes it seems a bit disconnected from the smaller instrument, as if the two voices aren’t quite on the same continuum. But it’s not shrill, or forced either, and it certainly cuts through the orchestra at all the requisite moments. Theorin is clearly comfortable with this role, especially its psychological progression from manic, wounded girl to besotted lover to mature, determined, self-controlled woman. The Liebestod, the extended final aria in which Isolde follows Tristan into death through sheer force of will, wasn’t a sumptuous, overflowing sonic spectacle, but it was attentive to the drama and the text, and when she finished, Theorin simply lay down with dignity and shut down her life force. Philosophically, the “love-death” is Wagnerian pseudo-psychology at its most odious, but Theorin made it believable, without succumbing to melodrama.

Ian Storey sang Tristan, not with a ringing, heroic tenor, but with a voice more than equal to the part and, like Theorin, more powerful in the intimate moments than the grand ones. And yet, again like Theorin, the sound is never unpleasant or strained. He managed to make the Act III monologue, a rumination on desire, will and death, gripping in its philosophical intensity, and his ghastly decision to allow his wounds to flow and bleed out his own life was a horrifying moment of pure Wagnerian insanity.

Conductor Philippe Auguin and the orchestra deserve special comment. They were the real stars of the afternoon. I’m not sure I’ve heard the opera orchestra play this well: With a full-blooded, blended sound and many spectacular individual solos, especially from the cor anglais and bass clarinet. The tempos were fast but not manic, and the pacing–the push and pull of Wagnerian time–was natural and the string sound deliciously muscular.

The Chilean baritone, Javier Arrey, whom I admired at this summer’s Castleton Festival (as Iago), sang the small role of Melot, but sang it so clearly, cleanly and with such a robust sound it made a strong favorable impression. And Yuri Gorodetski as both the Act I sailor and the Act III shepherd was a delight.

The production is simple, with a single basic set (credited, mysteriously, not to a designer but simply “Opera Australia”) serving for all three acts. Diaphanous curtains frame the action, which takes place on a transparent deck suspended from cables that suggest a ship’s rigging. The lighting is blunt and colorful, following the cues of Wagner’s text, so obsessed with the portentous references to night and day. Neil Armfield’s direction was smart and efficient, though a couple of key moments, especially the discovery of the lovers by King Mark and his minions in Act II, were anti-climactic.

Quibbles aside, the opera worked both musically and dramatically. “Tristan,” is a long show, and it can be a dreadfully static one. But Auguin, and an intelligent cast, made it feel radical, intense and desperate. 

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Wagner’s Genius for Self-perpetuation

In  last month’s issue of Opera News, I took up the issue of interpreting Wagner, in particular, the mania for ever more far-fetched ideological reinterpretations. I argue that Wagner locked future audiences into a rigidly “avant garde”-centric relationship to his art, and it’s now become a matter of diminishing returns:

[Wagner] created the intellectual construct for the ongoing reinterpretation of his work. Die Meistersinger isn’t just a comedy; it creates a template for how audiences should relate to Wagner’s music. In a conflict between philistinism and innovation, the opera invites us to identify with Walther’s brand of artistic progressivism. The conflicts in the Ring between Siegmund and Hunding, and Siegfried and Wotan, echo this basic appeal, enlisting audience sympathies on the side of rebellion and iconoclasm. Wagner, in effect, drafts us into the ongoing drama of his art — the notion that to love Wagner appropriately is to hate artistic complacency, traditionalism and bourgeois ideas about entertainment.

What to do about it? I borrow ideas from Susan Sontag and raise the possibility (far-fetched, I’m sure) of staging the Ring cycle without a director:

It would also be a more profoundly democratic Ring, a Ring developed by consensus. Chamber musicians regularly work this way, and even some orchestras have developed means for “interpreting” through consensus. Singers, of course, don’t have time for this kind of work, and the results could easily be a crazy quilt of discordant ideas. But it would be a fascinating exercise — a Ring developed not through the old, autocratic means of the director’s oversight (an antiquated model of leadership in almost all walks of life that don’t involve art or actual political tyranny) but through new, horizontal and socially networked avenues of decision-making.

Don’t hold your breath of course. It costs too much to stage the Ring to take any real risks.

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Wagner in Seattle

I’ve just arrived in sunny (yes sunny!) Seattle, where I’ll be speaking at the Seattle Opera’s Wagner Symposium. The title of the talk is “Mark Twain: A Perfectly Average Wagnerite,” taking Twain’s report on his visit to Bayreuth in 1891 and his comments on Wagner in A Tramp Abroad as my main texts. Here’s a sample of what I’ll be saying:

There is no justification for calling Twain a secret Wagnerite, or a perfect Wagnerite, but he might be called a perfectly average Wagnerite, an intelligent, musically adept man who made a serious effort, over a substantial part of his life, to understand and enjoy Wagner’s music. His doubts reflect a classic paradox in the American character: He knew there are things we must learn to like, yet he found it ridiculous that pleasure should require work of any sort. Affectation and pretension horrified him, especially when it came to opera, which was loaded with class issues. The old Puritan in him respected the work of connoisseurship, but the Mississippi River pragmatist suspected any sin against commonsense, and worshipped simple pleasures like a religious dogma.

“What a poor lot we human beings are, anyway,” he wrote in 1878. “If base music gives me wings, why should I want any other? But I do. I want to like the higher music because the higher & better like it. But you see I want to like it without taking the necessary trouble & giving the whole thing the necessary amount of time & attention.”[1] Twain respected work, above almost all other things, and like many people who love work, he considered himself lazy. He liked to hear his daughter Clara “banging away on the piano,” she remembered in her biography of him. “Work is the darlingest recreation this world and whomsoever Nature has fitted to love it, is armed against care and sorrow.”[2] For a man who probably didn’t believe in any thing supernatural, who found little spiritual consolation during a life filled with personal loss, art was work and work was redemption.

If you’re in Seattle, come down to the symposium. Meanwhile, I’m going out to enjoy the brilliant day.

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