|Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert version of Tristan und Isolde (Act II) at Carnegie Hall
We went to hear tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Tristan but we left with so much more. Without the distractions of a meretricious concept production at the Metropolitan Opera last season (one which we fled during the first intermission), we were able to focus on Richard Wagner's transporting music. Under the precise and expressive baton of Maestro Andris Nelson, the enormous forces of the Boston Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to Wagner's music with its intense emotional impact.
We were perfectly content with Mr. Kaufmann's vocal artistry and dark coloration. As Isolde, Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was right up there with him. The voice of Japanese mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura as Brangäne sailed right through the dense orchestration as she begged Isolde to pay attention to the risk of discovery. As King Marke, German bass Georg Zeppenfeld broke our heart with his deeply felt aria, expressing the pain of betrayal he experienced.
Since this was a concert version of only Act II, we were deprived of the introduction to the story and also of any physical contact between the two ill fated lovers. There wasn't even any eye contact to rely upon so that the feelings had to come almost entirely through the music. And this led to our appreciation of the work in a new way.
Even the off-stage horns at the beginning of the act fostered our imagination, creating the nighttime hunt arranged by Melot to get King Marke out of the castle. We hear what the realist Brangäne hears and understand that Isolde is in the grip of delusion, based upon denial. Not only does Isolde not hear the horns but she denies Melot's jealousy and danger to her.
The two lovers are so infatuated that there is a reversal of the normal pattern of perceiving daylight as real and positive, with nighttime as dangerous. These lovers reject the reality of day and worship darkness where their illicit love becomes real.
There is also a reversal of what people normally experience; great happiness makes us cherish life and fight against death; these lovers are so ill-starred that they can only see happiness in death. All this Wagner created in his adventuresome unresolved harmonics and astute orchestration. We get caught up in their rapture.
When the lovers speak of death the orchestra becomes peaceful and we hear the apposite sound of the harp, beautifully played by Jessica Zhou. The bass clarinet is used effectively with its mournful tones.
The music has been called " emotionally manipulative" but isn't that what music is supposed to do? It was something happening in the orchestra and in Mr. Zeppenfeld's performance that shifted our sympathies from the deluded couple to that of the betrayed husband who is led to the scene of the assignation by the snitch Melot (Welsh tenor Andrew Rees).
Wagner was by all accounts a rascal. He seemed to enjoy seducing other men's wives. He abandoned his wife Minna and focused his romantic intentions upon Mathilde, the wife of his benefactor Otto Wesendonck. This would seem to parallel the triangle in Tristan und Isolde, in which Tristan pursues Isolde, the wife of his adoptive father King Marke. Is it only chance that he chose this medieval story to set to such erotic music? Shortly thereafter he impregnated Cosima, the wife of Maestro Hans von Bülow. Perhaps rascal is too kind a term.
The love potion (liebestrank) is just an excuse. "The devil made me do it!" Film, music, and literature are filled with similar stories. Just think of "Love Potion Number 9", and L'Elisir d'Amore. We are flawed human beings and often out of control of our desires and eager to place the blame elsewhere. But that ill wind has blown us some good in a work of incomparable beauty, cherished by music lovers worldwide. Last night's performance was definitely one to cherish.
(c) meche kroop