Wagner and Verdi were born in the same year, that as far as I am concerned is the only fact common to both. Let’s get this off my chest at the outset, I prefer Verdi. It’s a bit like saying I prefer men! There is a vague sense of guilt and that I need to explain and justify this statement.
This opera in true Wagnerian fashion, is in 3 Acts over 5 hours. It is on my opinion, a cross between “The Elixir of Love” and “Romeo and Juliet”, interwoven with a prolonged session of Freudian self psycho-analysis . The latter aspect is manifestly inadequate as one is left with a profound sense that both protagonists still require veterinary doses of antidepressants. Inevitably the mental health system lets them down as they both in the end, commit suicide or die heart broken.
Whilst it is de rigueur to poke fun at an operatic heroine in severe respiratory distress as the consequence of poison induced paralysis or disseminated tuberculosis, coughing and wheezing through her final aria, in this epic, Tristan is mortally wounded at the end of Act 2, yet survives the second intermission and almost all of Act 3. No mean feat if one calculates each Act is an hour and a half to which I have added the 25 minute second intermission.
This opera, at least as I saw in Acts 1 and 2 in Vienna (I left before Act 3, call me a philistine) is in all senses “heavy going”.
Why “heavy” ?
Let’s start with the term “leitmotif” ˌa “short, constantly recurring musical phrase” associated with a particular person, place, or idea. One could be forgiven for translating it as a “light melody”! Wrong. The technique is notably associated with the operas of Richard Wagner, although he was not its originator and did not employ the word in connection with his work. The problem with a leitmotif is that Wagner is the archetype of a “tune tease”.
Secondly both Tristan und Isolde were also “heavy”. In the strict medical sense, they were to be blunt, “obese”. Let me clarify immediately that their singing was sublime. Both had costumes which were very loose black “sack dresses”. From the upper dress circle, I suspect the audience would have been hard pressed to tell them apart! My fashion guru tells me that both “black” and “sack” will make the wearer appear smaller. On the night, perhaps.
So before I enlarge upon the niggling irritations of the evening, let me set the record straight. The orchestra was outstanding, the singing sublime. In short, an ideal ensemble for a concert performance. Hence I spent most of the evening with my eyes closed or admiring the auditorium.
I am not in anyway biased and as an Australian openly admit that when I was privileged to see and hear Dame Joan Sutherland more so in the twilight of her career, I could close my eyes and instantly see Gilda, Violetta or Lucia, effortlessly negotiating stairs like a 21 year old, infatuated and love stricken. I do accept that this was not quite the picture with Violetta – as the Madame of a Parisian brothel, she had obviously seen a thing or two.
Anyway, for most of the night my mind was distracted by these contradictions.
The first hour involves Tristan und Isolde circling each other like a couple of suspicious dogs, growling and bristling! Think Rotweilers! They both drink what turns out to be love potion 99! Suddenly they pounce on each other and embrace. Unfortunately given the size and costumes of both, previously described, from my box seat, this gave the awesome appearance of a tent – the circus big top – with two heads. To carry on with the analogy, they remain locked in this apparent canine copulation for the next 15 minutes. I shall write and recommend that the conductor be provided with a bucket of water.
The whole set and costumes were in one word “dark”. I thought to myself how could the director get the message across that in the latter half of Act 1 Tristan und Isolde are head over heels in love? It was all rather incongruous. They were all at sea, literally and figuratively, on their way to, of all places Ireland! Isolde is a princess, she must have some sort of wardrobe? A quick dash below deck to slip into something more seductive! Even a bright simple sash!
Perhaps throw down a table cloth and have a lovers’ picnic on deck? I quickly crossed this option off the list of options, as I foresaw the distinct possibility that once down on deck, they could not get up again with any sort of grace or agility. Being at sea would of course add a lot of tossing and turning.
As to acting the part, it requires much skill to project youthful true love when the lovers are in years not Romeo and Juliet. Similarly with anguish. This emotion, especially in female singers is often shown by walking stage left with hands clenched into fists and pressed into the forehead. Unfortunately, as a neurologist, the only image this evokes is that the poor woman is experiencing the mother of all migraine attacks.
Finally in Act 2, and by now I have had a snack and a glass of champagne, things improve. That is until King Mark appears. He looks like that infamous long gone Australian actor Frank Thring in an episode of Game of Thrones. This is reinforced by the situation that Tristan, the nephew of King Mark is getting it off with Isolde, who King Mark is supposed to marry. In true Game of Thrones fashion, Mark is well on the way to decapitating Tristan. Thankfully, Isolde is not forced at sword point to disrobe and stand naked whilst her left nipple is sliced off.
By now it’s the end of Act 2, and I need more alcohol.
The outside of the VSO
The front of VSO house night!
Part of the main vestibule and staircase
A panorama of the interior