Tristan and the beautiful people

tRISTAN PIC

On Saturday night to the SSO’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by David Robertson.

I have always found this a difficult opera to approach.

First is to do with the story: there are a few such works, such as King Lear and Otello (the play more than the opera), which you know from the start are not going to end up well, which I have to drag myself to with an anticipatory heavy heart. Tristan is one of those.

Second is to do with the context and the concept. I think I am a bit over romantic love, and I am especially over romantic love evangelized by a man who dumped his own wife and made a bit of a profession of going for other men’s. I know that is very old-fashioned of me. Further, though romantic love may be a good means of getting people to latch on to one another, I’m not sure what sort of a predictor it is of long-term happiness. That’s more who is kind and considerate; who does the washing up; who takes the garbage out. Oh, I forgot. I’m sure Cosima and Richard had people to do those sorts of things for them. (Maybe Minna was a bit of a nagger on that front.)

Look, it was good. Almost necessarily so because it is a great work. (To explain: usefully deployed when speaking to friends who have been involved in performances one has just heard and ask you afterwards “How was it?”, I mean by that a piece that is worth hearing/seeing for itself, regardless of the standard of performance – within bounds.) Contrary to my original plans, I shall go again, and I will listen again when it is on the ABC “Classic” FM tonight or when it is subsequently streamed on the internet. (There is an oboe entry in Act III that I want to check in the score.)

[checked – link in anticipation of streaming, still to come Monday am]

Tristan Act III

But I do have a beef with the concept.

The problem is: what to do about an opera in concert, especially (but not so especially, because large orchestral forces apparently now mandate a concert performance or none at all for Wagner) by a composer who proclaimed the Gesamtkunstwerk?

David Robertson has had three goes in Sydney now. First was The Flying Dutchman, with the digital images projected on a sail behind the stage. Second was Elektra, with some dancers on the stage and a certain degree of dramatization by the singers. This is the third, which has reverted to the projected images on a sail-like screen masking the organ which looks rather as though it has been recycled from the Dutchman.

Such images can contribute a lot, and together with lighting and other atmospherics can lift things way above the rather academic sterility of a concert performance with everybody dutifully following the text in their programs.

In the first act I was distracted somewhat by the whirring of the fans of the computer operating them, mere centimetres from my ears in the seat behind. This cast a bit of a shadow over my experience of the first act. I just couldn’t hear soft pizzicato bass sounds and the opening of the prelude was masked by the local white noise. Fortunately, I was able to move away. That’s a beef with management for selling me the ticket without warning and pretty personal to me and them.  Now I’ve got it off my chest we can move on.

My real beef was the use of models to depict Tristan and Isolde. You can get an idea from the picture at the head of this post, pinched from Peter McCallum’s review in the SMH.  The picture captures the moment when, dejectedly, the dead Tristan/Lance Ryan left the stage (which is why the image of Tristan is obscured). I found them almost jejune – like the use of similar models rather than singers in Opera Australia’s posters in recent years – and also quite distracting. I had to look away.

Perhaps some of my discomfort was because I’m not really accepting the dramatic premiss as I mentioned at the start. Arguably there should be a focus on Tristan and Isolde since the whole point of the drama is that they are focused so very much on each other. Part of the problem for me was that their beauty seemed (inevitably; it always is) too much of the here and now. From time to time when there was a reference to greetings from Isolde, she would say something that looked very much like “Hi.” OK, it could have been “Heil dir, Sonne” (OK, wrong Wagner) but it didn’t look like it. The style, for me, didn’t fit.

These images also detracted from the work of the singers, once again placed by Robertson at the rear of the orchestra. A conductor is necessarily an egotist and it may be argued that the orchestra is the true hero of Tristan [and Isolde], but to reduce the singers to tiny figures beneath superhuman projections really rubbed that in. If the problem of a concert performance is that the singers can no longer act, a solution which seems to deny almost any possibility of singerly acting is to me the wrong way to go.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: