Singing along with the leitmotifs from Tristan und Isolde isn’t required in advance of attending the Santa Fe Opera’s first production of Richard Wagner’s landmark work. But I found it helpful to do so at a pre-performance lecture with conductor Joe Illick, who led a room of masked Wagner enthusiasts last Saturday at SITE Santa Fe through those leitmotifs (you can find them online and sing in the privacy of your own home if this sounds appealing).
“When you write a piece of music, you have to make certain decisions about how to hold the thing together,” Illick explained. “And the longer it is, the more it helps to have compositional techniques that make this huge piece have patterns and themes that recur enough so that the audience has recognition and don’t occur so much that the audience has boredom.” Wagner, he noted, “certainly strikes this balance in a fantastic way. He uses themes, which may be as short as three notes or maybe as long as three or four bars, to represent not only characters, but ideas, philosophical ideas.”
As for those ideas, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, known for his pessimism and critique of Immanuel Kant’s various critiques (among other observations regarding the human condition) had particular resonance for Wagner and influenced his composition of Tristan und Isolde when he wrote it in the mid-to-late 1850s. In the second volume of his autobiography, Wagner writes of being fascinated by Schopenhauer’s clarity and “manly precision,” while at the same time being “alarmed” by his conclusions essentially denouncing any notions of individual free will (in a nutshell). Wagner’s score for Tristan und Isolde unmoors standard (at the time) use of tonality to create music that conveys the human experience of constantly longing and never achieving a sense of finality or resolution (until death).
And, no, reading German philosophy also isn’t required in advance of attending the performance, but a little primer helps set the stage: “Most other philosophers not only tried to make sense of life but tried to make it seem like there was a good reason for it,” Illick noted. “And Schopenhauer just said, ‘Look, this sucks, no matter how you cut it: You’re going to suffer; you’re going to be unhappy. And here are the reasons that all the things you tried to do to mitigate this don’t work. In fact, they only make it worse.”
Wagner’s resonance with Schopenhauer’s philosophy coincided during a time of upheaval in his own personal life: He’d been exiled from Germany for participating in a political uprising in Dresden and was living in Switzerland where he fell madly in love with his benefactor’s wife, adding to the drama and strife of his life (he also was married).
Drama and strife make for good watchwords for Wagner’s opera, which is based on “Tristan” by the poet Gottfried von Strassburg, itself based on a medieval love story.
In the opera, Tristan has captured Isolde, an Irish princess, after killing her husband and is ferrying her home to his uncle, King Marke of Cornwell, to become his bride. Isolde, in turn, attempts to poison Tristan before they reach his homeland by giving him her mother’s death potion, which she also drinks. But her maid Brangäne switches the death potion for a love potion and, from that moment on, Tristan and Isolde are madly in love—and doomed.
In a preview video for the production, soprano Tamara Wilson, who sings Isolde in a heart-stopping performance, describes the show as “the ultimate rom-com without the com.” The opera, she said, “gives you that feeling that true love exists and it’s something that you would do anything for.”
Obviously, a couple of other things unfold in the course of the opera—Tristan und Isolde is famously long (the SFO production is approximately four hours and 30 minutes long with two 25-minute intermissions). That length, Illick acknowledged, can be intimidating, but also offers audiences a chance to immerse themselves in “a transcendent otherworldly experience.”
Indeed. Mark Twain, in an 1891 “travel letter,” wrote of attending a performance of Tristan und Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival at which the opera “broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away” (Twain was not so moved, though he does describe the experience overall “as one of the most extraordinary” of his life.)
I realize this is a lot of back story and build-up to the SFO’s production, five years in the making and the first time Tristan und Isolde has been mounted here, an undertaking dramaturg Cori Ellison described during a discussion last weekend with co-directors Zach Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón as a “rite of passage” for any opera house.
SFO’s production meets that challenge. A friend texted in the wee hours of the morning following opening night that she remained “on another planet” following Wilson’s final aria, “Liebestod” (love/death). We both agreed it would be difficult to sleep that night.
The orchestra, led by conductor James Gaffigan, was phenomenal from the opening prelude to the final notes of Act 3, with all the singers: tenor Simon O’Neill (Tristan); mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton (Brangäne); and bass-baritone Eric Owens (King Marke) delivering impressive performances. Bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee, as King Marke’s friend and confidante Kurwenal, was particularly noteworthy.
Projection designer Greg Emetaz’s use of projections to convey daytime and night and their concomitant themes of light and dark/constraint and freedom stole the show at times, as did the opening night’s spectacle of lightning and wind, which interacted beautifully with Carlos J Soto’s gorgeous costuming. In her pre-performance talk, Heijboer Castañón described Soto as a “magician,” a characterization that rang true as Isolde’s dress fluttered and rose angrily in the wind as she sang, almost like a bird of prey. The minimalist sets from scenic designers/architects Charlap Hyman & Herrero Company provided a clean and effective backdrop.
At their pre-opera talk, Winokur said he and Heijboer Castañón typically work outside the canon and noted their production puts the emphasis “even more than is normal” on Isolde, her relationship to Brangäne and her own future. They approached Tristan und Isolde, Winokur said, “with incredible respect, and also a fair amount of skepticism” regarding its “bigness,” because “while its forces are gigantic, and the story in its depth is massive, the actual thing itself is incredibly intimate, and very relatable. And I think what we wanted to do was treat it with that kind of sensitivity, not as an iconic masterpiece that needs to be overplayed, but actually, as a delicate, very real play for very few people supported by extraordinary music.”
The story, he added, “is one that we can all enter,” but the directors wanted “to really allow space for the music to do so much of its powerful storytelling, simply by letting it vibrate through the air into your bodies over a long time.”
Tristan und Isolde
8 pm, Aug. 5, 11, 19, 23
$54-$376, subject to change; $15 standing room
First-time NM residents are eligible for a 40% discount; call the box office in advance: (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654. Day-of discounts available for students, seniors and military via the box office by phone or in person.