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Tristan und Isolde

Photo by Ken Butti

Sydney Symphony Orchestra (SSO) with Credit Suisse Australia, present a Special Event: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE by Richard Wagner, in Concert, in the Concert Hall, at the Sydney Opera House. Saturday 20 June and Monday 22 June, 2015.

So, on Friday I attended TRIASSIC PARQ and on Saturday I attended TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. It was an experiential journey from the ridiculous to the sublime, in a mere 24 hours. Variety is the spice of life, they tell me!

A blissful, transformative night: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE by Richard Wagner in concert form, presented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor, David Robertson, with a stellar international cast: Lance Ryan (Tristan), Christine Brewer (Isolde), Katerina Karneus (Brangane), Boaz Daniel (Kurwenal), John Reylea (King Marke), Angus Wood (Melot), John Tessier (Young Sailor and Shepherd), Harrison Collins (Steersman) with the Men of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs (Chris Cartner, Chorusmaster).

I heard my first Wagner Opera in the opening season at the Sydney Opera House in 1973-74: TANNHAUSER (1845), and was smitten. I once flew from San Francisco, one weekend, to New York, without a ticket for the performance, just on the chance of attending, PARSIFAL (1882), with Jessye Norman and Placido Domingo – miraculously, I got in. Standing patiently in front of the Metropolitan Opera House for an hour or so, I bought a return from a young man who was not able to keep his opportunity – H row of the stalls, centre. True! Can you believe it? I made such an effort, taking such a risk – leaving San Francisco at 5am, arriving at the theatre at 3pm for a 4.30pm curtain – it was a near midnight close, I had to warn the hotel that I would be a late arrival – as I thought it might be the only chance l had in my lifetime, to see and hear this opera live. The likelihood of it being presented in Australia seemed not to be possible, likely – alas, only too true, still!

Is it really true, Peter McCallum, the Sydney Morning Herald critic’s remembrance, that it is12 years since Sydney last heard live, a Wagner Opera? It is. What, is that true of Sydney, the Cultural Capitol of Australia – “a live and vibrant city”? On that bare fact, we’d, you’d have to be joking, wouldn’t you? Yes? Mr Terracini our leader of Opera Australia does know other composers and works other than the Italian masters, doesn’t he? Yes? BOHEME. BUTTERFLY, TURANDOT and TOSCA, again? – our repetitive programming as illustrated, given to us from the Artistic Management of Mr Terracini. As if that programming isn’t Opera Light enough let’s add ANYTHING GOES, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE KING AND I. However not one Wagner Opera in 12, count them, 12 years. Oh, dear! Sydney the leader of the Australian Cultural Pack(er). Well, I could’ve got to Melbourne for the ‘Ring’- if only I had being able to get a ticket, eh? Once they were on on public sale it was a little difficult, I remember, unless you were a subscriber or a member of some Corporate Clubs, or some International Cult of Around the World Wagner Fanatics.

Back to the Sydney Symphony and its breaking of the Wagner drought: I read somewhere, or someone once said to me, to appreciate Wagner you must understand it may be painful by the minute but is glorious by the hour. For the newcomer a handy clue to the time endurance of his epic works, but once smitten, it is advice, now I believe, to be true only for philistines. No greater Opera Composer, ever, I reckon! I have seen live, now, most of Wagner’s work, some of it many times. I first saw and heard TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, co-incidently, in the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House, in February 1990, in a staged production (presented by the Australian Opera) Directed by Neil Armfield, with William Johns and Marilyn Richardson, conducted by Stuart Challender,(sadly, almost the last performance work he gave before his untimely death, aged 44), Designed by Brian Thomson. Not easily forgotten.

Sitting in the Concert Hall on Saturday, some of the visceral highlights: 1) The opening famous ‘Tristan’ chord. A shiver of expectation. 2) The climax of Act 1 with the thrilling trumpet arrival of King Marke cascading through the full orchestral sounds. 3) The shock and grief of King Marke, sung with staggering beauty by Mr Reylea. 4) All of the unravelling music of Act 3 – is there a construction of sound and drama more brilliant, more wonderfully complexly time built for maximum effect? No, not in my experience (except, if I remember, some of the PARSIFAL, Holy Grail stuff, which may give it a push for precedence). However, after nearly four hours of waiting, how rewarding, how transfiguring is the resolution of that final chord?

I enjoyed the work of Mr Reylea, as King Marke, his rich dark sound resonant with deep feeling and powerful expression. Too, Ms Karneus, as Brangane was effortlessly radiant with her tasks, none more so than in her warning signals to the fated couple, from the side box block in the Hall, full of dread and pity, in Act Two – a moving portrayal. Mr Daniel was, as well, potent in sound and demeanour, an honourable sounding Kurwenal.

The great roles of Tristan and Isolde must be paced as carefully as any olympian marathon runner does his race. The challenge for the singers, merely in physical and vocal stamina, is fearful I reckon for any singer, let alone the concentration necessity and musical intelligence to husband one’s voice for the journey of winding climatic musical demands made by the composer. Mr Ryan, a heldentenor of formidable reputation, gave a security of care and depth of knowledge in the crafting of this great role. His very presence confided confidence and delivered the expectation of Tristan’s power, passion and sometimes bewildered reactions to the mystery of fateful love attractions. The struggle between duty, honour and the ‘magic’ of the power of love properly agonising for our dramatic ear. While Ms Brewer, measured with steady craftsmanship and artistry the dramatic structure and build to the musical challenges of Isolde. The music spilled from her with fluidity and with often striking effect. The transfiguration ending, the Liebestod, was blissfully executed with a poignancy that transported the audience into the other world – the nether, where love may be timeless, eternal in its blooming.

The orchestra sat front on the concert platform and the singers were presented on a high raised platform behind, the voices having to stride over the massive music of the opera score. This melding, mashing of the human and instrument sounds served Wagner’s music drama well. Occasionally, performers were scattered around the auditorium for sound quality affect and dynamism: The trumpets of the King Marke entrance, the warnings from Brangane, the song of the shepherd, the cor anglais solo of the shepherd (Alexandre Oguey) of the third act. Above the stage a hung draping of what could-be sail cloths, had video and projection design (S Katy Tucker) displayed. The images, really, tended to the too literal and often were, to speak in the vulgar, naff, in affect, distracting – a set of visual decisions that had little of the artistry of the musical decisions – Mr Robertson is to blame, is he?

In the midst of the composition of the ‘Ring’ cycle, after finishing Act 2 of SIEGFRIED, Wagner gave it up, and for twelve years, never went back to it. But in the mean time he composed, both Lyrics and Music of TRISTAN UND ISOLE (1865) and DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NURNBERG (1868). According to Peter Watson in his great book: THE GERMAN GENIUS (2010), Wagner took a decided “metaphysical turn” after chancing upon Arthur Schopenhauer’s THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION (1818), and absorbed the significance of the difference between the phenomenal world and the noumenal world, that “total reality is comprised of a part which can be experienced by us and a part which can not“, and for him the noumenon is the ‘inner significance’ of what we apprehend in the phenomenal world. Schopenhauer revealed further,

 … human life was bound to be tragic. Life, he said, is made up of endless “hoping”, “striving”, “yearning” – we are, always, from our earliest days reaching out for something. This endless yearning is inherently unfulfillable, for as soon as we get what we want, we want something else. This is our predicament.”[1]

He goes on to say that we are, most of the time, selfish, cruel, aggressive and heartless in our dealings with each other – coming up with the phrase that this human feature was sired by our “will to live”, and further again, “that the most accessible way for us to see into the heart of things – if only momentarily – is through sex and art, particularly the art of music.” [1] The ecstasy in the act of copulation, and in art, whatever a work of art is, once we are absorbed in it, we forget ourselves. And that all of the arts except music are representational therefore ‘music is the expression of something that cannot be represented at all, namely the noumenon’. It is a metaphysical voice.

On this “metaphysical turn” in Wagner’s output Peter Watson notes that is produced mainly:

…in the relationship between the orchestra and the characters. In the earlier operas the music rises and falls – always accompanies – the words; in TRISTAN UND ISOLDE the spectator cannot always hear the words, the sheer weight of orchestral sound, the massive wall of music, compels attention. … Schopenhauer held the belief that acoustics were the ground for metaphysics and included a technical devise in harmonics known as ‘suspension’.This reference seems to have found an immediate resonance with Wagner, so much so that he decided to compose a whole opera based on the way suspension operates. The idea was that ‘ the music would move all the way through from discord to discord in such a manner that the ear was kept on tenterhooks throughout for a resolution that did not come.’ This was, in effect, pure musical Schopenhauer in that ‘the unassuaged longing, craving, yearning, that is our life, that is indeed us,’ would only be resolved in the final chord, which, in dramatic terms, would also be the end of the protagonist’s life. [1]

This then explains the poignant pain it is to listen to act two, which becomes essentially, effectively, a long love duet, that promises consummation, only to have it interrupted at a crucial moment, to be ended instead of in ecstasy, but in blood and wounding – both physical and spiritual. That explains the exquisite ‘torture’ of the promise of resolution throughout the brilliant composition of the third act as we observe the ‘yearning’ of Tristan for Isolde, through the call of the shepherd, only to have the ‘phenomenal’ experience of tragedy to thwart our hopes of ‘romantic’ resolution, with the death of Tristan and the grieving of Isolde – that in its power induces her death and transports us into the noumenal and with, then, at last, 4 hours from the start, the music discovering a radiant and serene B major, and the endowed possibility from us, the audience, of an endless love in the nether.

Says Mr Watson,

This is what makes TRISTAN a revolutionary composition. Consisting of almost nothing but discords, it sounds different from most of what has gone before and has, since its first night, been regarded as the starting point of ‘modern music’, breaking all the rules.

In my experience of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s performance of TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, this great work under the care of David Robertson, none of this academic weight was in my consciousness, instead I was in a blissful transformative state of concentration and appreciation of the power of music and the wonder of the imagination and mystic talent of man, represented in the genius of Richard Wagner. I had a great night.


  1. Watson, Peter (2010) THE GERMAN GENIUS: Europe’s Third Renaissance, The Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century, Simon and Schuster