Experiencing the music of Richard Wagner can be excruciating, something even the composer himself admitted. While finishing Tristan and Isolde, Wagner predicted that the final act is "bound to drive people mad." Based on Gottfried von Strassburg's medieval retelling of a Celtic legend, Wagner's opera aspires to extremes: severe and intense love, extravagant emotion, and massive scale (the opera runs to nearly four hours). Tristan and Isolde revolutionized opera and music. The composer's musical language, and the wayward unmooring of traditional harmony employed in its composition, is a vehicle of constant desire--in the words of the London Review of Books' publisher Nicholas Spice, "the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied."
Houston Grand Opera's staging of Tristan and Isolde (April 18-May 5, 2013), a co-production with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, boasts a formidable cast led by the incomparable Nina Stemme as Isolde. Seeing her perform this role in the flesh is a wholly unique experience; she is a once-a-generation talent. Joining her are Ben Heppner as Tristan, Claudia Mahnke as Brangäne, Ryan McKinny as Kurwenal, and Christof Fischesser as King Marke. The standout cast and orchestra is led with grace and aplomb by Houston Grand Opera's Artistic and Music Director, Maestro Patrick Summers.
Christof Loy, the director, and his set designer, Johannes Leiacker, have envisaged an unusual and abstract rendering of the opera. It is not representational; there are no ships, swords, horned helmets, or animal furs. Instead, they designed two rooms: a simple unadorned room in the front and a sumptuous white dining hall in the back. A dark velvet curtain divides the rooms, creating a secondary proscenium and the visual effect of a play-within-a-play. The aesthetic is strikingly minimalist, relying heavily on shades of black and white and allowing for a deeply expressionistic portrait of the psychologies inhabiting the drama's characters. The entire production can be understood as a memory of Isolde's: the room in the back is furnished as if for a celebratory wedding dinner for King Marke and Isolde; the space in front is reserved for the emotional confrontation between Tristan and Isolde. The result is visually mesmerizing and intellectually revelatory.
Loy's staging is successful because it dramatizes all the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the opera. In Act II, Wagner's great homage to Schopenhauer, the symbolism of his staging comes to the fore. The opera is thematically (both musically and textually) split into two concepts: that of day (the outer material world) and night (the sphere of inner consciousness). Night is inhabited by the lovers, Tristan and Isolde; theirs is a secret and intimate world. Nighttime is their only opportunity to make love, and love, in this opera, is very near to death, eternity, and oblivion.
In Loy's rendition of Tristan and Isolde's secret night world, the lovers are portrayed downstage, plunged into darkness and dressed in black--Isolde is seen wearing white in the beginning of Act I before she confronts Tristan; when she is with Tristan, she is in a simple black dress. Even Brangäne, Isolde's maid who discourages the nighttime tryst in the opening of Act II, is forced into shedding her white-silver dress; she performs the majority of the act in a black slip, partaking in the forbidden world of love. We see her with Kurwenal upstage as the thick dark curtain is opened just enough for us to see that they, too, have joined in this illicit night of love.
The dining hall behind the curtain represents day; it is constantly inhabited by the other characters in the opera (men dressed in black tie) and can be seen as a locus of plot movement. When Melot, King Marke, and the courtiers abruptly violate Tristan and Isolde's intimate night, the curtain is dramatically opened. Bright white lights drown the stage to show the materialism and revelry that Wagner's day-world exudes, set against the noble and pathetic questions of a broken King Marke, who struggles to understand Tristan's betrayal. Through the use of a curtain and the sensation of creating two stages of action, Loy and Leiacker have complete and total control over the night/day theme of the opera. Sometimes the curtain is opened just enough to let some light creep in and impinge on the privacy of Tristan and Isolde's sacred night; other times the opened curtain reveals a violent transition between night and day.
Loy's staging also displays a profound sensitivity to the musical timing of the opera (a sensitivity I have never seen in any other production of Tristan and Isolde). Wagner often speeds up dialogue and tempi to increase emotional intensity, which is counteracted by a painfully extreme slowing down of dialogue and tempi into a hazy, sort of drug-induced state of love. Most classical music is characterized by movement towards a specific climax; Wagner writes music as slow-moving waves crashing down upon a shore. Forms, motives, and fragments heard first from a distance beginning with the opening of the Prelude come closer to the listener across a vast ocean of time and sound. When there is violent dramatic action, the staging is, correspondingly, slowed down tremendously. The end of Act II, when Melot attacks Tristan, is particularly chilling. In most traditional productions of Tristan and Isolde, Tristan drops his sword and lets Melot run him through; in Loy's rendition, a haggard and tired Tristan grabs Melot's knife-wielding hand and slowly and repeatedly stabs himself to cause the grave wound which leads to his death in Act III. The action is not one of treachery, but one of desperate self-infliction. The dramatic denouement of Act III--the deaths of Tristan, Melot, and Kurwenal--is set beside a raging battle in the day world. King Marke's courtiers fight Tristan's loyal servants in a slow-motion display of copious blood and death, destroying the punctiliously adorned dining hall. As with many Wagner operas, the result can only be death and destruction, but in Tristan and Isolde, death leads to the hopeful and eternal love of Tristan and Isolde. The last words of the opera, sung by Isolde in her Liebestod (love-death) as she drifts into unconsciousness, are a description of that love: "ertrinken, versinken / unbewusst höchste Lust!" (drowning, sinking / unconsciously into supreme bliss!).
Ultimately, Christof Loy turns a legend into a human drama; in and of itself, this is an astonishing feat for any Wagner opera. By dispensing with our preconceived notions of what Tristan and Isolde should look and feel like, Loy creates something far more relative to our modern time, and taps into a deeper portrait of the emotions and decisions that motivate these characters to do what they do. In his words:
These are not heroic characters as such. Their furious emotional outburst stem from their extreme sensitivity and vulnerability. Isolde is no avenging goddess, after all, and Tristan is no steely hero. It is very much this that we are working to bring out.
Follow Mena Mark Hanna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@menamarkhanna