Tristán and Isolde, an eternal challenge

No.It is neither the most performed nor the most famous of operas, but this four-hour musical drama is perhaps the greatest challenge to the classical repertoire for its intellectual ambition and musical significance. In a semi-staged concert version, the challenge increases. This is the fourth time that Real has shown it in two decades and it will never be the charm.

He has returned under the baton of the Russian director established in the US Semyon Bychkov, who we are told is one of the most sought-after Wagnerian musical directors of our days, who already asserted himself in this same arena with Parsifal in 2016 (see our review). and who rises in his outstanding musical direction above the podium like a devilish genie with impossible vitality at seventy years of age, a curly mass of white gray hair, a red scarf around his neck, the air of a magician, the appearance of accompanying Snow White through the eternal forest. Interviewed by Rafael Ortega in the magazine, Scherzo told him that ‘Tristán’s music exists in a state of conflict, with no real solution, since one conflict is followed by the next, and by another, and thus it can last forever. The play could last another two hours and it would be the same…’. Quite a challenge.

In the cast, the Austrian tenor Andreas Schager -according to what we are told today’s greatest Tristan- led the cast with courage, with some fainting spells but with total command of the character and his vocal and acting expressiveness. Opposite him, British soprano Catherine Foster (replacing the intended Ingela Brimberg) was a notable Isolde, and the pair were magnificently seconded by an extraordinary Ekaterina Gubanova – the Russian mezzo who was already in the 2014 production – as Brangäne, Isolda’s lady-in-waiting and close friend, a confident and sober Briam Mulligan, as Kurwenal, Tristán’s faithful squire, and the powerful Low German Franz-Josef Selig -also in that 2014 cast- in an attempt to make us convincing to the betrayed King Marke.

With Neal Cooper as Melot, the traitorous friend, the three brief complementary roles -the sailor, the shepherd and the helmsman- were in charge of the Spaniards Jorge Rodríguez-Norton, Alejandro del Cerro and David Lagares who climbed another safe step in their careers .

As we say, Tristán and Isolde had been represented at the Real three times since it reopened: in 2000, with Daniel Barenboim -with the Staatskapelle- and Harry Kupfer; in 2008, with Jesús López Cobos and Lluis Pasqual; and in 2014 with Marc Piollet and Peter Sellars, a groundbreaking production that was brought to Madrid by Gérard Mortier after premiering it in Paris in 2055 based on a virtual set design by video artist Bill Viola (see our review).

Based on a medieval legend of Celtic origin, Wagner wrote the script under what they describe as ‘a rich constellation of cultural references’ including Buddhism, Calderonian theater and the philosophy of Feuerbach and Schopenhauer. Arranged around the pairs eros/thanatos, duty/instinct and conscience/subconsciousness, these references propose a groundbreaking dramatic framework that anticipates the birth of modern psychology by almost half a century. With his score, Wagner not only raised a point of no return in the evolution of tonality and – with it – of Western music, but also translated it into musical terms – through his wide ‘crescendi’, his irresistible climaxes and his deep anticlimaxes – the different moments of our most elemental vital drive: sexuality. Undoubtedly one of the most sublime scores in the history of opera, a milestone for its harmony, orchestration, depth and transcendence, which took place in just over two years (1857-1859) as a kind of great catharsis, in a turbulent period in the life of Richard Wagner: exile, marital crisis, financial ruin and fatigue in the composition of his enormous Tetralogy, paralyzed at a creative crossroads in the midst of writing Siegfried.

Wagner, who intended to compose a simple opera that would solve his financial problems, without scenic and dramaturgical complications, found, in the mystery of love, its complexity and ecstasy, the impulse to push his harmonic writing to the limit; and he soon realized that Tristan and Isolde would be much more than he had intended, noting at the end of the draft of the first act: ‘Nothing like this has ever been composed’.

The medieval legend raises the extreme tension that leads the pair of leading lovers to break all moral, ethical and religious norms, possessed by the spell of a fatal filter, a symbolic transcript of the passion, love and eroticism that consumes them. It is this path of longing, perdition, purification and transcendence that drives the evolution of the dramatic action, the source of a vocal and orchestral writing that is expressed in the limits of tonality, dissolving in an intoxicating chromaticism, with a text full of alliteration. and melismas, in which, many times, the sound of the words is more important than their semantic content.

The Wagnerian conception of total art as a confluence and symbiosis of words and music, the use of myth in its universal and primal dimension, infinite melody and religious spirituality rise through music, articulating the ontological contradictions of love in its multiple forms. dimensions. Those who say it say it well.

Going down to more temperate regions, those of unconventional personal experience, Wagner’s libretto may seem like a simple scaffolding that is not very safe for the score he had in his head. The plot leaps above any spatiotemporal convention and crosses the English Channel over and over again as if it were a stream. The text is based on a simplification of Schopenhauer’s thought (existence is suffering, happiness is unattainable, pain is the true engine of life, love is what gives meaning to everything, a necessary and redemptive sacrifice, a trap into which we must fall) to exalt love with the most unbridled romanticism in which day is nothing, night is everything, and death wanders between the two as a final solution that does not arrive, that takes time, that takes a long time, that it takes too long to arrive.

This Wednesday, the last evening of this proposal that we are discussing unfolded faithfully to the impressive magnitude of the score, hardly missing a staging, as Wagner made this very static opera, without any action, where the characters count what has happened until reaching the immeasurable denouement, the ‘Liebestod’, Isolde’s death of love, this passage perhaps the most beautiful of the entire operatic genre, and also one of the most difficult, because the soprano must arrive with enough energy afterwards four hours of performance.

And it was here, precisely, after the enormous effort of the transcendent voyage, where the magic failed, the spiritual orgasm did not arrive, the orchestra blurred the appeased waves, the soprano floated with difficulty to reach the shore, and the little genie on the podium surrendered exhausted.

Approach to the show (rating from 1 to 10)
Interest: 10
Music: 9
Libretto: 6
Musical direction: 8
Voices: 8
Orchestra: 8
Chorus: 8
Production: 8

Tristan and Isolde
Music and libretto by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Premiered in Munich on June 10, 1865
Premiered at the Teatro Real on February 5, 1911
Opera in semi-staged concert version
April 25 and 29, May 3 and 6, 2023
Total duration, 4h50′ with two intermissions

artistic team
music director | Semyon Bychkov
Choir director | andres maspero

Tristan | Andreas Schäger
King Marke | Franz Josef Selig
Isolde | Catherine Foster
Kurwenal | Thomas Johannes Mayer – 25, 29 Apr
Brian Mulligan – 3.6 May
melot | Neal Cooper
Brangäne | Ekaterina Gubanova
A shepherd | Jorge Rodriguez-Norton
A sailor | Alejandro del Cerro
A helmsman | David Lagares
Main Choir and Orchestra of the Teatro Real

Act I: 1 hour and 20 minutes
Rest: 30 minutes
Act II: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Rest: 30 minutes
Act III: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Tristán and Isolde, an eternal challenge – Digital Journalist