Cher Public

“Something great in itself”

katharinaNow we have considered the three “winners” in the Tristan video competition, let’s turn to the also-rans, or, to be more optimistic, the runners up. 

Many admirers of Dame Gwyneth Jones prize a 1993 Tristan from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Being one of her admirers, I wish I could join. Götz Friedrich‘s then-13-year-old production has qualities in common with Wieland Wagner’s, but unlike that, it had drifted into vagueness and generalization by the time of the filming. Schwarz and Kollo return in their roles from the Ponnelle, but the years tell.

I find Jones difficult to enjoy here, not only because of vocal unsteadiness but because her performance has a predetermined, overemphatic, almost pedantic quality, like an Old Hollywood actress who has worked out every expression in the mirror beforehand and rigidly stayed the course. There is little spontaneity, life, or give-and-take with others, and I do not think it preserves her Isolde at its best.

The Met’s 1999 production by Dieter Dorn, not a great one, was a step in the right direction after all the calendar-art Wagner that had held sway at that theater in the James Levine era. The aesthetic is abstract, spare yet luminous. Costuming has a hint of Kurosawa. At the time, Levine and some critics were very excited about Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen in the title roles. Neither seems to me, as captured here, the kind of performer a static, minimalist production needs; one’s attention wanders from Eaglen in particular. The one performer who is exactly what it needs is René Pape, whose early Marke is a reminder that he can or could be a compelling storyteller when so motivated.

Levine wraps Wagner’s score and the listener in sweaty bear-hugs that go on for quite some time. If you are a parterre reader, you probably know by now whether you will want to savor the embrace or wriggle free. The Met’s orchestra was indisputably a wonder by the 1990s.

I must skip several other Tristans of greater and lesser interest (a Nilsson/Jon Vickers Orange performance that is valuable for existing at all but calls for great tolerance; another with Vickers in Montreal; productions by Alfred Kirchner, Olivier Py, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Christoph Marthaler). I will confront a recent release, the 2015 Bayreuth production.

Katharina Wagner is not yet 40, and fairness precludes me from making a final judgment on her as a director. Perhaps everything we have had will one day be seen as early work in which she found her way. However, watching her Tristan not long after I watched her uncle’s, my impression was that the theatrical gifts she inherited were Papa Wolfgang’s–a more modest bequest. She shows signs of being to Regietheater Wagner what he was to “traditional” Wagner.

Her idea of Tristan and Isolde as prisoners of a sadistic despot, evading searchlights in a prison compound to steal time together, might be playable and interesting if it had an ounce of human feeling in it, rather than a tiresome fetishization of the bleak. It is all so drearily secondhand, this inky ragbag: the characters cutting themselves and smearing blood, the coal-mine lighting (the top-flight Reinhard Traub, surely giving the lady what she wants), Tristan’s kitschy visions of a phantom Isolde… who removes her own head, but never mind.

A viewer may feel elevated in knuckling under, in being conned. It is so dark, so grim, so “unsparing.” To reject it, to want its four hours to end, must be a sign of personal timidity to be confronted and overcome, right? I do not think so. Tristan und Isolde itself opens up many avenues to get us to care, rather than to endure. Frau Wagner drives us down the first dead end. This is emptiness competently achieved.

If you watch it anyway, you will hear spectacular conducting from Christian Thielemann, who needs fear no comparison to the living or the dead in this score. There is an inspired and electric Isolde, in very rough voice, from Evelyn Herlitzius. Georg Zeppenfeld gets everything possible out of this Marke, ambling around in hat and fur with relaxed menace, a pimp crossed with the lead bounty hunter in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. But unlike Tristan and Isolde, we need not be detained.

There is always a chance that the next dream will be better. The Met’s cast, conductor, and director for its new Tristan hold great promise, and the production has stirred excitement overseas. I look forward to its Met Live in HD showing.

Of course, there are the dreams we have when we are asleep and the dreams (the aspirations) we have when we are awake. The latter keep opera alive. A young woman I know saw the film of Traviata and knew by the time it was over that she wanted to become an opera singer, not any other kind of singer. She is coming along well. You may see her one day as Isolde. Such roles–Salome, the Dyer’s Wife, Isolde–are where she is told she will end up.

Diana Damrau, interestingly, has talked of having the same experience, being 12 years old and seeing Teresa Stratas singing and acting in that film. “That is the way I actually wanted to find out if I could do this myself as well, with my voice, with my body. I prayed to God, please, hopefully I’ve got some talent to try to do this one day.”

Not among tenors in our survey was the South African Johan Botha, who died on 8 September. I have thought of him often in the days since the news broke. He too had a dream that began with Traviata; he obsessively played the Moffo/Tucker LPs when he was five.

Some time before his cancer was diagnosed, Botha gave an interview in a German-language publication, and he was excited about his first Tristan in 2017 with Barenboim in Berlin. It takes years to learn such a role, he said. He talked of studying the whole score, the whole text, not only his part. He was dyslexic, and made notes and little drawings in his scores to help him internalize. That Tristan is not an assumption we will hear now.

I think such things (“If only So-and-So had lived to sing/record/direct/write…”), and then I remind myself not to think of these people only as existing to do their work and give enjoyment, or fail to give enjoyment, to the likes of me. The greatest regret is that a 51-year-old man suffered and died, not that a 52-year-old man could not pretend onstage to suffer and die. Botha might have happily parted with his dream of singing Tristan to have another year with his wife, his two sons, and his model railroads.

There will be other Tristans to hear, of course. Some of them will be great. Maybe Stuart Skelton will be one of them.

The great performances discussed here are products of the things Wagner mentioned in his letter, dreams and love. So are some bad performances. Those of us who write about performances or just attend them wait for the next great one, and much of what we see and hear falls short.

You may find yourself sitting next to someone who goes into a state of bliss at everything put in front of her. Everything is the best production, with the best singers ever, the best conductor.

On your other side may be someone at the opposite extreme. In the grip of the cataractous nostalgia that passes for discernment in his circle, he has seen nothing worthwhile since 1970. He still shows up, just to make his disapproval known.

Both of those people deserve understanding. They are at points on their journeys. The goal is to learn, to examine, to question, to reconsider, to arrive at standards without prejudices…and still to believe. Maybe at first you were bowled over by everything you saw and heard, and then as the years went by it became one in four times, then one in 12 times, then only a few times a year. But whatever the next thing is, it could be one of those times.

That is the dream, anyway.

I close with Waltraud Meier, now yielding to time and setting aside her great roles. She was talking about the responsibilities of the interpreter, but I think these are useful words for an audience member too: “The only distance should be what allows you to see the essence. Anything else is cowardice in the face of a great art. Maybe sometimes you must endure discomfort. Or just the opposite, you can see something great in itself. And when you have recognized this, you do not want to deny yourself the same again.”