Wagner's titanic love story

Two doomed lovers set sail on a ship in opera's most perfect tragedy.

Beyond a fairly vulgar level of judgment, there is little value in discussing the "greatness" of a work of art relative to another. Greatness in art, if it means anything, can better be measured by considering how thoroughly a work achieves what its maker set out to do than by comparing it to other works conceived and executed by different minds to serve the needs of different ages.

Tristan und Isolde

Seattle Opera

with soprano Jane Eaglen, tenor Ben Heppner, conductor Armin Jordan

opens August 1, ends August 28

Still, some works persist in standing out from those around them, not so much through their inherent scale as their relative position in artistic time and space. They stand like mountain peaks rising on a plateau already lofty. Sophocles was not a greater playwright than Aeschylus, but he had the inestimable advantage of Aeschylus' example before him. Dante may not have been the greatest poet of the Middle Ages, but he had the luck to be born at the very moment the Middle Ages became themselves amenable to literary treatment.

If there is a single artwork of the modern era that falls in this category, it is Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which opens a rare series of performances in a new production at Seattle Opera this month. Created during a period of incredible disorder in the composer's personal, intellectual, and professional life, it is a work of astonishing purity, simplicity, and conviction.

Only a few years before it was conceived, in his vaporous theoretical treatise Opera and Drama, the exiled, penniless composer of Germano-Romantic operas like Tannh䵳er and Lohengrin dreamed of a musico-dramatic synthesis that might revive the imagined synaesthetic glories of ancient Greek tragedy. Today (in large measure thanks to Wagner adorer Friedrich Nietzsche's astonishing early essay The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music), if we try to conceive what the effect of Greek tragedy might have been like in performance, Tristan und Isolde is probably the best living comparison.

"Purity" is not a word that would have occurred to many who encountered Tristan at its first performance in Munich back in 1865. Based on a Celtic legend of a faithful knight driven by doomed passion to betray his aged master by sleeping with his much younger wife, the tale of Tristan was just the kind of thing Wagner's respectable enemies would have expected of the politically radical (and notoriously adulterous) fugitive from Saxon justice. And if the plot was bad, the music was worse: endless, queasy, coiling skeins of languorous, intertangled melody, tensing, relaxing, tightening again, never resting, pushing the very limits of harmonic coherence, music that operated on the senses like a drug.

But as proper Europeans professed themselves shocked while the trendy minority swooned in rapture, other artists of the time immediately recognized that Tristan was more than a flash in the pan, more than just another opera. In an age when stage drama Europe-wide aspired to little more than scenic effect and titillation, here was a theater piece in which every word counted and every emotion arose inevitably from the dramatic situation, in which the plot unfolded as plausibly as life yet, once launched, with the fatal inevitability of an avalanche. Here indeed was a re-birth of tragedy, redeemed from triviality through the power of music.

Before Tristan, Wagner was just another ambitious composer, obviously gifted but of uncertain importance. As soon as the prelude to Tristan began to be heard (in piano transcription as early as 1859, six years before the opera first reached the stage), musicians everywhere realized that like it or not, it signaled a new era. For more than a hundred years, whether in humble dance halls or the opera houses of the mighty, musical structure had been ruled by what we call today the tonal system, in which the composer anchors the work to a particular pitch and then expands and develops it through excursions to other pitch-bases more or less distant before relaxing the subliminal tension produced in the listener by returning to the anchor note.

From the first bars of the Tristan prelude, we are in another country. A gentle, rising phrase in the cellos is interrupted again and again by an acrid dissonance of woodwinds dissolving into a floating chord offering no clue to the next harmonic step forward. It's 43 slow bars before the first "key-signature" appears in Wagner's score, and then less for the ear's comfort than for optical convenience's sake, to ease reading through the blizzard of flats and sharps and double-sharps that encrusts the score. It is not until three acts and three hours have passed that Wagner's music begins to release us into the clear B-major radiance of Isolde's "love-death" music, sung over the body of her dead beloved as the curtain falls.

All Wagner's operas place enormous demands on the singers who perform them, Tristan perhaps more than any other. Its protagonists are spared the occasional athleticism (and absurdity) required of characters like the equestrian Brnnhilde and the sword-forging Siegfried in The Ring of the Nibelung. There's no "action" in the opera at all, apart from a 15-second sword fight that brings down the curtain in the second act; all the title characters really are called upon to do is stand there and sing.

But they need to sing like angels, and tortured angels at that. There have never been more than half a dozen singers in any generation capable of filling these roles to capacity—one reason that Wagner's most perfect work, one of the most finished works of art in the Western tradition, appears so rarely on the stage. Every decade or so, someone musters up the resources—and the courage—to take on Tristan. This decade it's Seattle Opera's turn.

 
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