Opera: Tristan und Isolde – sex, death and the birth of modern music

It was deemed revolting by some audiences when it was first performed.  The opera about death and sex was so far outside known tonal arrangements it was blamed for killing two performers and sending another one hoarse. Wagner’s five-hour epic, Tristan und Isolde, is now considered to be responsible for the birth of modern music.

In lockstep with—and in homage to—Wagner’s groundbreaking vision, the Metropolitan Opera (Met) have given the opera a technological fillip, with their production including multimedia art installations.  The live recording from New York  is being hosted in cinemas around the world, including the Nova in Melbourne from 5-16 November.

Wagner was fed up with the direction in which opera was heading. Operas were being pumped out at such a rate that productions tended to have predictable, if not formulaic, qualities. Wagner spent six years laboring to figure out how to subvert the genre.

Wagner was intent on creating a Gesamtkunstwerk (‘total/ideal work of art’) by fusing traditionally distinct modes of artistic expression. His work synthesized literary, dramatic, musical and visual arts.  It is fortunate that the Met have the same ambitious intentions. They have brought a renowned cast of performers, including Australian tenor Stuart Skelton, together with multimedia designer Bartek Macias to tell the tragic story of thwarted love.

The opera begins with a projection of a ship’s sonar.  The slow sweep of the sonar going round and round is almost trance inducing. It immediately deepens the surreal aspects of the chord arrangements. Conductor, Sir Simon Rattle, explained in an interview that it was his intention to allow the notes to linger.  This interpretation of Wagner’s score gives the music a sense of vastness as notes seem to drift off into the ether.  It also intensifies the beguiling aspects of the incomplete chord arrangement.  This chord, commonly dubbed the Tristan chord, is not resolved until the final act almost five hours after it is first sounded.


The first act is set onboard a warship transporting Irish princess Isolde to her arranged match King Marke. It is his foster son, Tristan, who is manning the helm. Set designer Boris Kudlicka was obviously given a generous budget as the warship takes over the entire stage.  Three stories high there are staircases leading to several rooms.  The interior is made of steel with a dull brown couch the only soft furnishing and even that has a sharp cornered, chrome frame.

It’s inside the dreary hull of the ship that Isolde, sung by soprano Nina Stemme, rages against her captivity.  Stemme is exquisite.  She transverses the steep soprano highs to make the swift transition into soft, sinister moments as Isolde plots to kill her captor Tristan.  Isolde is as emotionally complex as she is intelligent and this depth of character is a pleasure to watch as females typically do not enjoy such rounded personas in other operas.

This is Stemme’s one hundredth time performing the role and it shows—she has mastered the rapid gear changes of emotion required in the production.  During the intermission Stemme explains in an off-stage interview that this vocal control comes down to muscle memory and learning how to pace herself.

These interviews with the performers during the opera’s two intermissions provide relief to the otherwise intense experience.  The singers and musicians offer insights into what an incredibly taxing physical feat it is to perform the work.  But the performers’ commentary provides revitalizing ballast and essential levity for the audience if they are to endure the performance as well.  To sit through five hours of opera and retain concentration requires more than buttocks of steel.

In the second act the stage is transformed into a warehouse.  The stark set has a utilitarian aesthetic. The main lighting is beamed through three ports which house industrial fans.  The slow spin of the blades casts shadows throughout the stage.

tristanfeatureIt is at the edge of light and dark that the lovers secretly meet.  Wagner’s dual protagonists don’t simply fall in love they become utterly consumed with the idea of their partnership.  They take to referring to themselves in the third person.  If it wasn’t for the awesome power of the performer’s voices and their chemistry, this scene could become one dimensional and irritating.  Yet the score, with ominous overtones, transcends sentiment and forecasts tragedy.

Seeing the live recording minimizes the distance between the performers from the cinema audience.  The cameras capture the intimacy of the characters, which may be literally overshadowed by dim lighting if you were sitting in the theatre in New York.

In the third act the lovers are separated.  Wagner wrote the opera whilst in thrall to Mathilde Wesendonck—a wife of one of his patrons Otto Wesendonck—and the score is drenched in longing and despair.  The stage is now almost bare, only a hospital bed sits in the centre.  Tristan lies dying after King Marke finds out that the Tristan has been disloyal to him.

The pared back set allows the projections to become even more prominent.  An animated fog seems to shift with sinister intent. The images bleed into one another creating a turbulent, unsettling atmosphere.  This includes animations of the moon which is mystical and has almost occult qualities, deepening the metaphor of death and love.

Coming in at just over five hours with intervals, Tristan und Isolde can be demanding on your concentration and ability to endure the emotional bleakness of the tragic story.  But if comfortable and well fed you may find this presentation of Wagner whisks you away on a polyphonic and optic odyssey.  You may even discover that Wagner wets your whistle.  If so, you’re in luck with Wagner’s ring cycle coming to Melbourne from late November, which audiences will be delighted to learn sits at a tidy sixteen hours and which will undoubtedly evoke some Sturm und Drang in your backside.

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