Tristan und Isolde

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Conclusion)

Posted on Updated on

Love-Death and Transfiguration

A soldierly Tristan (Stuart Skelton) woes the bewitching Isolde (Nina Stemme) at the Met Opera (Photo: New York Times)

The Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast of Tristan und Isolde on April 8, 2017 (the original program was shown as part of its Live in HD series on October 8, 2016) paired Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Isolde with Australian dramatic tenor Stuart Skelton as Tristan. Others in the cast included Moscow-born mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova as Isolde’s companion Brangäne, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Tristan’s aide Kurwenal, and German bass-baritone René Pape as Tristan’s foster father King Marke. Tony Stevenson sang the part of the Sailor in Act I, with Neal Cooper as Melot in Act II, and Alex Richardson as the Shepherd in Act III. The work was conducted by renowned British maestro Sir Simon Rattle.

This was a new production, credited to the controversial Polish-born director Mariusz Treliński, whose previous assignment at the Met included the double bill of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The sets were designed by Boris Kudlička, with costumes by Marek Adamski, lighting design by Marc Heinz, and choreography by Tomasz Wygoda. The Met’s chorus master, Donald Palumbo, did an outstanding job with the forces at his command.

Unlike past performances (over a quarter of a century, in fact) where former Met music director James Levine presided over an uncut reading, this version featured a nine-minute trim of the long second act duet for the title characters. Whether you’re a confirmed “completist” as I tend to be, or whether you take your Wagner in shorter doses, the result was pretty much the same. Maybe Wagner’s music is overdue for a judicious paring — who am I to argue over his long-windedness, principally if this was going to be a late-night affair?

Having studied Wagner for years — and having owned numerous complete recordings and/or DVDs of all his major works — I uncovered boat-loads of reasons why he had his protagonists expound at length. Often, the characters felt the need to justify their past or present actions in some explanatory form or other. These expansive “speeches” were also used to recap prior happenings, or, just as often, they were employed to foretell future events (most notably in the Ring).

With Tristan und Isolde, Wagner divided the couple’s story into three distinct sections: Act I is taken up with Isolde’s dilemma and subsequent impasse over the effects of the love potion; Act II brings the two lovers together via their nocturnal yearnings; while Act III is devoted to Tristan’s delirium and Isolde’s love-death.

Tristan (Stuart Skelton) in Trelinski’s steam-punk production of Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Met Opera)

Simply stated, the plot involves the noble Tristan having killed the intended spouse (i.e., Morold) of the fiery Celtic princess Isolde. Seriously wounded in the battle, Tristan lies exposed as Isolde plans to seek vengeance for the slaying of her betrothed. However, once their eyes have met Isolde is unable to carry out her task. Later, Tristan is entrusted by King Marke (Tristan’s uncle, but in this production, his foster father) to bring Isolde back as Marke’s bride. All of this takes place prior to the curtain’s rise.

Moving on to the first act, Isolde relates the background (Isolde’s Narration and Curse) of what has transpired to this point. It becomes obvious that Isolde is passionately in love with Tristan, and vice versa. Because of stubborn pride and mutual bitterness over their recent state of affairs — for example, the humiliation that Isolde senses at being held captive by her “abductor,” Tristan — they adamantly refuse to acknowledge their feelings for one another. It also pains Tristan to have fallen hard for his uncle’s bride, with pangs of guilt preventing him from acting as Isolde thinks he should. Faced with a loveless marriage to a much older man, Isolde calls for a death potion to bring an end to their suffering. Brangäne, her companion (or maid in some versions), prepares the deadly concoction, only to substitute a love potion at the last minute.

In Act II, the lovers have been meeting in secret at night, the only time of the day allotted to them. Both are convinced of the inevitability of their love. Unable to consummate their relationship to the fullest, they resolve to end it in death — thus realizing Isolde’s original intention of having Tristan pay for killing Morold (which, by now, is the farthest thing from her mind). The problem, though, is that Marke, and his hunting party, discover the affair after the lovers’ ecstatic night of bliss. The King expresses his innermost torment for Tristan’s “betrayal” in a long, emotionally draining monologue. Ashamed of his conduct but resolved to take charge of the situation, Tristan invites Isolde to flee into the night (metaphorically speaking). In this production, he stabs himself, while in others the tattle-tale Melot (an interesting variant on Morold) seriously wounds Tristan as he deliberately lets down his guard.

Tristan (Skelton) and Isolde Stemme), together at last (Photo: Met Opera)

Act III takes place in Cornwall, Tristan’s ancestral home. Here we find him wailing and gnashing his teeth in agony and misery. Kurwenal, his aide and retainer, is nursing his master’s wound. He is unable to keep the knight quiet and calm, while Tristan’s only desire is to expire in Isolde’s arms. Hearing that she is about to return and that Isolde has explained the situation to Marke (who is ready to forgive the despairing knight his sins) Tristan is beside himself with a mixture of joy and grief. In his final moments, Tristan tears away his bandages and bleeds to death, just as Isolde rushes in. Isolde then launches into her ecstatic Liebestod, which concludes the opera.

With such a tragedy unfolding before the viewer’s eyes, it’s no wonder the most compelling aspect of this opera is its music: lush, propulsive, and chromatic to an unbearable degree. The world-famous Prelude sets the tone from the get-go, what with its enigmatic, unresolved opening notes. Know, too, that Wagner did not invent harmonics or chromaticism as it was employed here, nor did he discover “modern music” by chance. As musicologist and music historian Richard Taruskin has pointed out, in the Oxford History of Western Music, Wagner’s father-in-law, the concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt, was one of the earliest Western artists to utilize the diatonic scale, specifically what came to be known as the “Tristan chord.”

Taruskin goes on to say (in Defining Russia Musically: Historical and Hermeneutical Essays), that Wagner, referring to the Prelude, “leaves it for our inner ear to supply [the ultimate repose], so that the actual sounding music retains a restless harmonic tension at all times, virtually until the end of the opera, when all the accumulated pressure is at last discharged in Isolde’s Verklärung (“Transfiguration”), popularly known as the Liebestod, the death-by-love or, in plainer language, the orgasm.” Gasp!

Sir Simon Rattle, conductor

It’s a well-known truism that Tristan und Isolde has been labeled a conductor’s opera. And one might be tempted to quibble over minor details here and there. Still, Sir Simon’s approach to Tristan was leaner in shape and conception than many of his predecessor’s. It made its points clearly and succinctly, without sacrificing lushness or the orchestral sheen surrounding the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Daniel Barenboim, who made his Met debut conducting Tristan in November 2008, set the standard, as far as I’m concerned, for how this work should be played in a large auditorium. Not to take away any of James Levine’s accomplishments, Barenboim made the case for a more leisurely elucidation, bringing out added resonance in the string section, as well as the ethereal essence in the final chords as Isolde expires over the dead body of her lover.

Rattle, for his part, succeeded in forging a viable (and valuable) interpretation of his own, with carefully controlled dynamics and an overwhelmingly positive energy flow (especially in Act I), in addition to a strong, emotional undercurrent in Act III, where Stuart Skelton, a supremely gifted Tristan in both physical size and specificity, scaled the heights in his powerful monologue.

Stuart Skelton in Tristan’s delirium, Act III (Photo: New York Times)

Skelton stretched his imposing instrument almost to the breaking point, in what became one of the most moving deliriums this listener has heard in many years of broadcast listening. The last time I was privy to such a marvelous take on the grueling part was Robert Dean Smith’s last minute substitution back in 2008. You can also pencil in Ben Heppner’s assumption of the part, another masterly effort.

It’s Always Darkest before the Dawn

Like most Tristans, Skelton made his mark in Act I, dueling with the skittish yet histrionically infuriated Isolde of Nina Stemme. Stemme, whose chief competitor in this repertoire today may be the memory of her Swedish compatriot, the late Birgit Nilsson (dubbed by yours truly as “Queen of the High Cs”), brought the Celtic princess to vibrant life. Certainly the Met’s Nordic contingent, which also included Kirsten Flagstad and Astrid Varnay, was well represented in Ms. Stemme.

In her recent Met assignments, Stemme conveyed hitherto untold nuances as Puccini’s Turandot; she was also an elemental force of nature in Strauss’ Elektra. As Isolde, her innate femininity and command of the many declamatory passages Wagner provided throughout gave Stemme ample opportunity for expressive singing of the highest order. This was as solidly delivered a performance of the part as any in the last decade, upstaging previous Met Opera exponents such as Deborah Voigt, Katarina Dalayman, and Jane Eaglen.

Both Gubanova and Nikitin held up their end, with Gubanova especially effective in her Act II warning. The lone standout, however, was basso René Pape’s exceptionally fine-grained Marke. I recall the myriad times this key role was entrusted to the likes of Giorgio Tozzi, John Macurdy (a workmanlike bass in his day), Karl Ridderbusch, and the cavernous Martti Talvela and Kurt Moll. All were effective in their individual methodologies. Along with an adroit vocal production, Pape contributed a high degree of involvement and dignity to the part — not an easy task when faced with such past competition.

Regarding the production itself, what can one say about a staging that both begins and ends shrouded in total darkness? “It was passionless,” went one reviewer. Another critic hated, hated, HATED the presentation. “It’s a steam-punk Tristan!” one exploded online. And still another was getting sick of this Euro trash, while some were enthralled by Stemme’s womanly allure. There was very little brightness to offset the sheer gloom. It reminded me of Herbert von Karajan’s Ring cycle at Salzburg in the late 1960s, which was later given at the Met. As we learned from that effort, you can’t have darkness without the light.

Nina Stemme as Isolde intones her Liebestod in Act III (Photo: Met Opera)

The Seven-Year Itch

Wagner’s earliest triumph, Der fliegende Holländer, more commonly known as The Flying Dutchman (named after the doomed hero Vanderdecken’s ship), has not had a frequently recurring history at the opera house of late. In fact, and true to the title character’s own predicament, the work was last staged at the Metropolitan about seven seasons ago. My, how time flies!

Nevertheless, this latest revival of August Everding’s 1989 production (the fellow who supervised the Karajan Ring mentioned above), with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Lore Haas, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and conducted by the young musical prodigy Yannick Nézet-Séguin, drew mostly mild to favorable reviews, except in the case of powerhouse American soprano Amber Wagner as Senta.

Amber, if I may call her by her first name, provided vocal amplitude and startlingly expressive thrust to the role of the “good woman” that Wagner always envisioned for Senta. She is the one person who will redeem the Dutchman from his curse after centuries of wandering the earth’s oceans. The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s magazine, Opera News, in its July 2017 review of the production, noted that “[t]here was a considerable shift in scale in Act II with the arrival of Amber Wagner.” They weren’t joking!

The Dutchman (Michael Volle) with Senta (Amber Wagner) in The Flying Dutchman (Photo: Richard Termine)

After a briskly paced run-through that maestro Yannick gave the thrice-familiar Overture, the wonderful men’s chorus burst out in mellow song with some hearty “Ho-heys!” and “Hoyohos!” Here was top-notch, full-throated singing for once. Things moved along at a swift enough speed, with Daland, Senta’s father (German bass Franz-Josef Selig), shouting orders to the obedient if sleepy-eyed Steersman (sung by tenor Ben Bliss), until the mysterious Phantom made his entrance (descending a rickety ladder?).

The Dutchman’s lengthy exposition (here we go again!), whereby, in the manner of Isolde’s Narration, he describes his situation to the audience, needed more thrust and a heftier ring to its pronouncements. Past interpreters such as the Belgian bass-baritone José van Dam, the indelible George London, Hermann Udhe (who brought a haunted quality to the part) or Hans Hotter in his heyday, not to mention Thomas Stewart, Theo Adam, and (at New York City Opera) Guillermo Sarabia, all boasted an individuality and/or personalization to the ominous discourses of this Wagnerian antihero.

Try as he might, German baritone Michael Volle’s Dutchman’s displayed more modest means than the above artists. While they made their points — thanks largely to his splendid diction — they lacked that heavy layer of tragic inevitability. The basic theme of this work, i.e., redemption, is always within reach but never attained. The Dutchman’s curse follows him wherever he goes. It darkens his footsteps, it permeates his soul. And in his monologue, “Die Frist ist um!” (“The time is up!”), he expresses all his loathing and hate, as well as his persistent hope for release. Volle’s previous assignment as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger made one sit up and take notice. In this instance, I would have preferred that he had rocked the boat some more. That could have animated his going about his duties somewhat.

The Dutchman (Volle) descends the steps from his ship to the shore (Photo: Richard Termine)

Things picked up considerably in Act II (as noted above), with Amber Wagner’s intensely concentrated performance of Senta’s Ballad. When she joined in unison with Volle for their soul-searching duet; then, in the trio with Selig, Volle and herself, Wagner outshone (and out-sang) them both. Brava! Another robust voice — that of veteran mezzo Dolora Zajick as Mary — came through loud-and-clear over the airwaves. It’s a shame the part is a short one. I imagine that, at this stage in her career, Zajick would still make a supremely malevolent Ortrud in Wagner’s Lohengrin.

American tenor AJ Glueckert (taking over for the previously announced Jay Hunter Morris) made his Met broadcast debut as Senta’s betrothed Erik. He has a warm, mellow tone which brought youthful impetuosity to the part. Not surprisingly, Morris’ withdrawal from this assignment cleared the way for Glueckert’s success. We hope to hear more of this fine young singer in days to come.

In seasons long past, the Met used to perform The Flying Dutchman in three acts, with two intermissions. Wagner sanctioned this edition, and made some judicious compromises where smaller theaters were concerned (but not always, as we witnessed with Tannhäuser in Paris). For presenting the opera in one continuous act, I’m grateful to the Met. I am not so satisfied that the company has never given a thought to producing Wagner’s ORIGINAL version of this opera, with its reduced orchestration and the elimination of the redemption theme altogether.

THAT version exists only on DVD and CDs. The live presentation from the 1985 Bayreuth Festival, for instance, by legendary director Harry Kupfer of this early edition is a one-of-a-kind experience. It turns the story on its head by having Senta constantly on stage from beginning to end. There is no “redemption theme,” either in the Overture or at the conclusion. The opera simply ends, with the Norwegian villagers shutting their windows on Senta as she awakes from her reverie.

Senta is obsessed with the Dutchman’s portrait right from the start (an important plot point that appears only in Act II). Clutching the portrait for dear life, she takes it with her wherever she goes (clearly, she’s as determined to get her way as the Dutchman was). This version, known simply as “Senta’s Dream,” is well within the composer’s scope for director Kupfer to have focused on her as the central participant in the drama.

Scene from Harry Kupfer’s 1985 revival of The Flying Dutchman at Bayreuth

Danish soprano Lisbeth Balslev sang the neurotically enraptured Senta, along with the fabulous Dutchman of African American bass-baritone Simon Estes, who with his soulful core and rock-solid vocal output gave the performance of a lifetime. In this edition, the Dutchman is strapped to his ship’s mast in a Christ-like pose. The ship’s prow is shaped like two giant praying hands that open up to reveal its ghostly contents. Shudder….!

The production premiered at Bayreuth in 1978 and is considered one of the finest, most original stage treatments of the Dutchman’s tale, alongside the now-classic Patrice Chereau/Pierre Boulez 1976 centennial Ring cycle (also at Bayreuth). They had the requisite passion that the Met’s tired old 1989 production so sorely lacked.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes    

Advertisements

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Love of a ‘Good’ Woman (Part Three)

Posted on Updated on

Till “Love-Death” Do Us Part

Wagnerian Love Couple: Ludwig & Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Tristan and Isolde (1865)

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s singular and most personal achievement in the opera world, derived from the 12th-century myth of Tristram and Iseult: he, a brash Cornish knight; she, an irate Celtic (or Irish) princess. In most sources cited, the story was undeniably linked to the love affair between Sir Lancelot, a knight of the fabled Round Table, and Queen Guinevere from the old Arthurian legends.

In a comparable vein, one of Wagner’s earliest successes, the opera Der fliegende Holländer (known widely as The Flying Dutchman), had at its root a basis in fact as well as in legend. A Dutch ship’s captain by the name of Hendrick Van der Decken (an alias for Barend Fockesz, or Bernard Fokke in some sources), challenged the devil himself by swearing to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, come hell or high water. The devil took him at his word and condemned the captain and his crew to eternity on the high seas.

In later versions, the doomed Dutchman would be allowed ashore once every seven years to seek redemption for his sins through the love of a true and faithful woman. This basic theme, which Wagner had first introduced in his 1843 adaptation of the Dutchman’s tale, would continue to reverberate throughout his personal and professional life. Even in his final stage work, the “consecrated festival play” Parsifal (1882), Wagner had the main character (the guileless “fool”) tempted to sin by Kundry in her guise as a voluptuous whore — the farthest thing from a true and faithful woman imaginable, albeit a ploy to fulfill the necessities of the plot.

In the characters of Tristan and Isolde, however, Wagner was dealing with more philosophical matters, among them the psychological components of unquenchable passion; of an ardor that knows no earthly bounds, one that transcends the mortal confines of this life and into the nebulous realm of never-ending night, a synonym for death.

We could spend hundreds of untold hours and chapters (and many authors have done exactly that) in expounding further upon these insights. For the time being, though, let me deal with a few matters at hand.

One of these, the theme of the self-sacrificing woman giving herself wholly to save a lost soul, could only have sprung from the self-absorbed intellect of Richard Wagner. Whose soul was it that needed to be saved? Whose whims were needed to be catered to? Why, Wagner’s, of course! Let’s not be fooled by all the fluff: no matter how he hard he tried to cover his tracks (and he tried hardly at all, in many instances), the only person Wagner cared for above all others was himself.

Was this necessarily a bad thing? Oh, absolutely it was! But did Wagner create meaningful works in the process? You’re damned right he did! What difference did it make if he consistently interjected himself into the plot lines of his own compositions, or borrowed from himself (as Rossini had so often done) to make a musical-dramatic point?

Richard Wagner, in May 18, 1865, a month before Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich

Reading between the lines, the listener can picture the composer as Tannhäuser, a man torn between the love of a “good woman” (Elisabeth) versus that of the goddess Venus. In Lohengrin, he’s the knight in shining armor, come to rescue the damsel in distress (Elsa) from a false accusation of murder. In the Ring cycle, he’s the head god Wotan, lording it over (and loving) whomever he chooses. In Die Walküre, he’s Siegmund, free to love the wife (Sieglinde) of another man, even if that wife happened to be his twin sister! He’s also Siegfried, the original nature boy, blessed with unbounded optimism, knowing no fear, invincible to his enemies — except when his back was turned. And lastly, he’s Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger, a minstrel in the making, seeking entry into the Master’s Guild, a high-born agitator with his own revolutionary mode of thinking.

Are you not convinced? Need we say more? Well, if you insist: Wagner is the Dutchman personified — mysterious, gloomy, accursed, and tormented. His seven-year intervals extended throughout and beyond his composing career. Reading about his exploits, I am constantly amazed that Wagner’s very existence was fueled by extraordinary purpose, of an absolute and unbridled faith in his abilities, no matter the consequences to himself or to those around him.

Naturally, one can take these sorts of comparisons a tad too far. But there is a fascinating side note to all of this: the artists who created the roles of Tristan and Isolde — the husband and wife team of Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld — epitomized the central romance inherent in Wagner’s opus, even to the point of death.

Tall, stout, and portly, Joseph Albert Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld was an immensely talented, 29-year-old Munich-born tenor; while soprano Malvina Garrigues, a decade older, was a Danish-born, Portuguese descendant. The two singers had separate operatic careers at the beginning, but eventually met in the city of Karlsruhe, in southwest Germany.

Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld strikes a mighty pose as Tristan (1865)

While at the Karlsruhe Opera, they appeared together in several works (according to Wikipedia, in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots among others). Ludwig’s official debut in Karlsruhe occurred in 1858, while Malvina had previously sung there in 1854. The couple hit it off from the start, and in 1860 they tied the knot.

A Cry from the Heart

The story goes that the Schnorr von Carolsfelds so impressed the young King Ludwig II of Bavaria that he recommended them to Herr Wagner. The composer eventually met the couple in Wiesbaden, around 1862, a good three years before the first performance of Tristan und Isolde took place at the Court and National Theater in Munich.

The evening of June 10, 1865 would go down in musical history as a major conquest if not exactly a triumph for all concerned. Not one year earlier, Wagner was at the lowest point in his troubled life, with creditors demanding to be paid in full. Fortune smiled at last on the financially-strapped composer, for Wagner was introduced to the newly crowned Ludwig II, who set him up at a villa near the king’s lakeside residence.

On the romantic front, in April 1865 Wagner’s own illicit affair with Cosima von Bülow culminated in the birth of their daughter Isolde, named after the heroine of his opera. You can imagine the scandal this particular episode elicited from those involved. As for the June 10 premiere of Tristan, it was prefaced by months of endless rehearsals and unforeseen reversals of fortune, to include the cancellation of the original May 15 date due to Malvina’s loss of her voice (she had “caught a chill in her bath,” as noted in William Berger’s Wagner Without Fear).

Finally, the curtain went up before a gala audience that witnessed the start of a legend of its own making. Ludwig and Malvina were the perfect pair and enormously convincing as Tristan and Isolde, billing and cooing like two pachyderms in heat (this is unfair to Malvina, who was much slimmer by many kilos than her robust mate). Added to this, the conductor at the premiere was none other than Cosima’s legal partner, Hans von Bülow who, we are informed, led a masterful reading of the complicated score. Although the press and public remained befuddled by the experience of Tristan, most critics agreed they had been privy to something out of the ordinary: they felt transported to another time, and to another place, via Wagner’s music — exactly the effect Wagner wanted and expected.

Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld as Isolde (1865)

Tristan was given three more performances (one by royal decree), where it started to pick up a head of steam. Soon afterwards, tenor Ludwig moved on to Dresden to sing Erik in The Flying Dutchman. A few days prior to July 21, 1865, Herr Schnorr von Carolsfeld complained of chills. This was followed by what was termed “rheumatic complications,” which may have been the result of a sudden fever whereby the tenor suffered either a debilitating stroke or a lethal heart attack. That, and the fact that he was grossly overweight, led to Ludwig’s premature death only 19 days after his 29th birthday, a tragedy of mythic proportions commensurate with the singer’s size.

It was rumored that his dying words were “Tristan!” Some sources insist that he cried out the composer’s name in vain. Still, given that he passed away after singing the strenuous role over several back-to-back performances, the rumor has long persisted that the part had ultimately done poor Ludwig in.

What of his bereaved spouse? Sadly, Malvina Garrigues Schnorr von Carolsfeld fell into despair and depression. She went on to quit the opera entirely, never again to perform on stage. She also never remarried, having died a widow in Karlsruhe, in 1904, at age 78.

In many people’s view, Ludwig and Malvina were the real-life Tristan and Isolde. Their love transcended the boundaries of the theaters which they both performed in. As far as we can ascertain, and like their titular counterparts, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds were true to each other in all things matrimonial. They were the embodiment of the vow, “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, till death do you part.”

In their case, however, and in light of the roles they played on the operatic stage, we can make an exception: Till Liebestod (or “love-death”) did they part.

(End of Part Three)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Met Opera Round-Up: The Season’s Last Gasp — ‘Tristan,’ ‘The Flying Dutchman,’ and the Wagner-Rossini Connection (Part Two)

Posted on Updated on

Richard Wagner at the piano (1813-1883)

Operatic Odd Couples

They met in Paris in 1860: the renowned Italian master of opera buffa, Gioachino Rossini, and the fiery German composer Richard Wagner, creator of the “art work of the future.” How did it happen? What did they talk about?

Earlier in his career (in 1822), Rossini had held an audience with the great Ludwig van Beethoven, who counseled him to “make more ‘Barbers’ ” — referring, of course, to his ever-popular comic masterpiece The Barber of Seville. Four years later, while residing in Paris, Rossini quite literally ran into the tubercular Carl Maria von Weber (a cousin to Mozart’s wife, Constanze), nineteenth-century romanticism’s musical “guiding light.” And speaking of Herr Mozart, Rossini even shared musical memories with Wolfgang’s chief rival, Antonio Salieri — the same Antonio Salieri who served as the protagonist of Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus.

So what were Wagner and Rossini doing at the time of their historic tête-à-tête?

For one, Rossini had moved to the City of Light in 1824 in order to compose “grander, more serious works,” for which we can thank (or blame, depending upon one’s point of view) his future wife, the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. The end result was the four-act spectacular Guillaume Tell, reviewed in a prior post on the occasion of its Metropolitan Opera premiere (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-with-guillaume-tell-tristan-and-the-flying-dutchman-part-one/).

Another of his grandiose plans involved an Italian adaptation of Goethe’s Faust, which never came to fruition. We know, too, that after Tell, Rossini wrote no more operas, mostly because he was fed up with having to churn out work after work after work. He was now clearly in a position to live off the fat of the “lamb,” in a manner of speaking, that he himself had fattened through the years.

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), composer of The Barber of Seville and other comic works

For another, Wagner had recently put the finishing touches to a monumental opus of his own, the incredibly complex Tristan und Isolde. The paradox of how this work came about has always intrigued me. Let the buyer beware: for the average opera buff, getting into Wagner’s head is an occupation fraught with the greatest of intricacies. The fact is the man was a walking/talking contradiction in terms.

Realizing that, for the moment, his unfinished epic, The Ring of the Nibelung, might not soon see the light of day, Wagner stopped work at the close of Act II of Siegfried. He did not take up the subject again for another twelve years. Now, why on earth would he do that? An over-active imagination, pressing financial needs, and escalating emotional burdens would habitually lead the frantic composer off in pursuit of funds. He would also ease his troubled mind with quixotic dalliances with other men’s wives.

One of these infatuations involved Mathilde Wesendonck, wife of the wealthy silk merchant Otto Wesendonck who paid the tab for the bills that Wagner ran up while the three of them shared living quarters at Otto’s villa in Zurich (don’t ask). On occasion, they were joined by Wagner’s “better” half, his wife Minna. Despite the cozy arrangement, it didn’t take long for Minna to put two and two together and come up with the correct equation: that her husband had been cheating behind her back.

After completing Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Wagner stumbled upon the philosopher Schopenhauer’s book The World as Will and Idea, from which he extracted a bumper crop of justifications for his newfound worldview. Without going into details — of which there are an endless torrent of essays, pamphlets, writings, and treatises by Wagner himself on subjects as wide-ranging as dismissing Meyerbeer as a hack in “Judaism in Music,” a self-analytical memoir entitled A Communication to My Friends, and a far-flung statement of his ideals in Opera and Drama — suffice it to say the composer glowed red-hot with inspiration for Tristan und Isolde, a story of scorching passions amid an illicit affair (what else?).

Mathilde Wesendonck, the inspiration for Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder

Fueled by his liaison with Mathilde, Wagner composed the Wesendonck Lieder (“Art Songs”) based on five of Frau Wesendonck’s poems. Meanwhile, Frau Minna kept pestering him to write a more practical lyric work for the stage, something that would bring their indigent lifestyle some stability and a steady revenue stream. With Wagner, however, nothing was purely “practical” — or “steady,” for that matter. Inventing music that, at the time, seemed vastly unplayable and (even worse) impossible to sing was part-and-parcel to his very being.

There was much more going on than we have room for. Let it be said that departing for Gay Paree was Wagner’s way of seeking his fortune elsewhere. But Paris wasn’t his only stopover point, not by a long shot. During the years 1858 to 1859, Wagner paid manifold visits to such venues as Venice, Zurich, Geneva, and Lucerne.

It’s significant to note as well that Switzerland, while recognized for its persistent neutrality, was the one place where Wagner could plead his case for monetary assistance to the likes of Herr Wesendonck. That would partially explain how the composer was able to get around town. Traveling was never easy for Wagner, even in the best of times, due to his well-founded reputation as a spendthrift and a deadbeat, and his facility for rubbing people the wrong way. He could also be incredibly persuasive, convinced, as Wagner was, of his “superior” intellect and skill at winning people over to his way of thinking.

Back in Venice, the “perfect mood and setting to work on the fatally erotic Tristan” (according to author William Berger), Wagner completed the score for the opera between March and August of 1859. By this point, he and Minna had decided to part ways: she in Dresden, he wherever the need took him. They met again in Paris and, for a brief moment, were reconciled.

Cosima Liszt von Bulow, Wagner’s future lover and eventual spouse

In the interim, another love interest laid waiting in the wings. Behind the scenes, Wagner had awakened the youthful yearnings of Cosima Liszt, the homely (!) but overly-admiring daughter of concert pianist and composer Franz Liszt (a notorious ladies’ man in his day). Cosima was recently wed to a brilliant but anxiety-ridden conductor named Hans von Bülow. Both individuals would play significant parts in Wagner’s life and career in the years to come.

Once in the City of Light, Wagner’s decision to conquer Paris eventually brought him in league (and on a collision course) with the Paris Opéra, where plans were finalized for an 1861 revival (in French, naturally) of his earlier Tannhäuser (for the history and background to this stirring piece, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/les-pecheurs-de-perles-and-tannhauser-part-two-wagner-bizet-and-performance-practices-then-and-now/).

Clash of the Titans

The differences in approach to Rossini and Wagner, along with their individual working methodologies, were striking. After countless academic studies and tomes analyzing both composers’ oeuvres, we can state, categorically, that Rossini worked principally to fulfill his commissions and nothing more. Whether they were to individual singers or to a particular opera house’s requirements, his personal views toward any single assignment or subject were kept scrupulously out of the finished piece.

Simply put, there wasn’t enough time to devote to extra-musical ideas or theoretical speculations when the pressure was on to quickly bring an operatic piece to the stage. Rapidity of means and swiftness of delivery were the main prerequisites. These were but some of the reasons why Rossini borrowed, for convenience’s sake, from his existing work — by either rearranging and/or reassigning solos numbers and ensemble pieces to fit the needs of a specific situation.

An excellent example would be Il Viaggio a Reims (“The Journey to Rheims”), originally written to commemorate the coronation of King Charles X in France, and which was later reworked as the comic opera, Le Comte Ory.

This was definitely not the case with Wagner whose individual wants took precedent over everyone else’s, including those of his closest acquaintances and benefactors. His frequent crises and scandalous personal life became fodder for any number of operatic plot twists and story lines. You could say that Wagner was his own best dramaturg. Accordingly, it was far easier for researchers to link the worst of his traits to those of his male characters — for example, Wotan, Siegmund, Tristan, and the Dutchman — than it would have been to associate Figaro, Arnold, Mustafà or Tell with any of Rossini’s qualities.

Period caricatures of Wagner and Rossini by Andre Gill

To be honest, neither man was a saint — THAT’S putting it mildly. Signor Rossini was known to have suffered from the ill effects of gonorrhea (he would soon develop cancer of the colon). But there is no disagreement about Herr Wagner: he was as horrid an individual as they come. Still, once he got to Paris, Wagner made it a point to call on the retired bel canto composer, who had been living in France for over three decades. The visit was arranged by an intermediary, the Belgian music critic and journalist Edmond Michotte, who transcribed their lengthy dialogue for later publication.

Since no other methods of preservation existed at the time of the composers’ gathering, we must take what Monsieur Michotte has left us as a valuable document of their conversation, but with a healthy grain of salt. Purportedly, one of the pretexts for Wagner’s visit was to set the record straight as to whether or not Rossini had badmouthed him to the press — this from a man who, no matter where he went, had left a long list of insults and offenses in his wake.

“As for despising your music,” Rossini was alleged to have responded, “I ought in the first instance to know it, and to know it I ought to hear it at the theatre, for it is only in the theatre, and not simply by reading the score, that it is possible to render a just judgment of music intended for the stage.” Rossini went on to praise the Tannhäuser March, “which he had found very effective and beautiful. After thus clearing the ground,” Michotte remarked, “intercourse became easy and pleasant, and many interesting topics were broached and discussed during this short visit.”

The subject of Weber and his music had also come up. Beethoven was mentioned, too. “On [Rossini’s] expressing his regret that he had not enjoyed a more thorough training on German lines, Wagner showed his appreciation of what Rossini had accomplished by citing the ‘Scene of the darkness’ in ‘Moses in Egypt,’ that of the conspiracy in ‘Guillaume Tell,’ and, in another order, the ‘Quando Corpus,’ as examples which he could hardly have bettered, and these the veteran [composer] admitted were among the ‘happy moments’ of his career.”

This ad hoc mutual admiration society continued along this vein for some time, until “Wagner spoke of the trouble which the translation of ‘Tannhäuser’ was giving, whereupon Rossini suggested that he should compose an opera on a French libretto, a suggestion which, it is needless to add, did not meet with his acceptance. Then Wagner spoke of his ideals and his expressed desire to get rid of the formalism of opera [a noble thought, one that many composers have articulated throughout the centuries]…”

Wagner & Rossini, a meeting of unlike minds

Interestingly, the Italian master’s reaction was a tad surprising. “Though Rossini was the living embodiment of these conventions, he admitted the absurdity of the ensembles of grand opera, and said that when all the characters formed into line to take part in one, they always reminded him of a band of minstrels, singing to secure a few coppers.”

“It was the custom,” Rossini added, “a concession which we had to make to the public, who otherwise would have shied things at our heads!” You can imagine Wagner’s indignant shock at that admission, but he managed to maintain his composure. “To this Wagner made the obvious answer that, though convention is inevitable, it must be understood in such a fashion as to avoid the excess which leads to absurdities — all that one demands is that a convention, once admitted, should be artistic and consistent in itself.”

Where they disagreed (and most vehemently, or so we are told) was on the subject of the composer as both musician and librettist: “[Wagner] proceeded, sketching his ideas of music-drama, to lay down the axiom that the music and poem [i.e., the libretto] should be so closely knit as to be like the different aspects of a single idea, and this provoked from Rossini the comment that it made it a necessity for the composer to be his own librettist, a condition which he deemed practically insurmountable, but of course Wagner would have none of this, and with great animation urged that the composer should study literature as well as counterpoint.”

They moved on to talk about Guillaume Tell and related matters, until “this memorable interview ended by Rossini expressing his interest in his visitor’s aims, which he had so clearly expressed. For his own part he was too old — ‘being at the age when one is not so much inclined to compose as liable to decompose.’ — to turn his eyes to new horizons, but he was very willing to acknowledge that Wagner’s ideas were of a nature worthy of the serious consideration of young composers. ‘Of all the arts,’ [Rossini] concluded, ‘music is that which is, by reason of its ideal character, most subject to transformations, and to these there can be no bounds. Who, after Mozart, could have foreseen Beethoven? Or, after Gluck, Weber? And, after these, why should there be no end to progress?’”

As the meeting itself had come to an end, Wagner confessed his innermost thoughts to Michotte: “ ‘What would [Rossini] not have produced had he received a thorough musical training; above all, if, less Italian and less sceptic [sic.], he had felt in him the sacred nature of his art? … I must say this: of all the musicians I have met in Paris [which included Daniel Auber, Fromenthal Halévy, Ambroise Thomas, Charles Gounod, et al.] he is the only one who is truly great.’ ”

(End of Part Two)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes      

Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of Brazil’s Gerald Thomas

Posted on Updated on

“I Am That I Am…”

Moses und Aron (Gerald Thomas)
Moses und Aron (Gerald Thomas)

Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, unjustly portrayed in the classical-music media as a “jumble of dissonant cacophony” and a “tough intellectual exercise,” has forever stood on the fringes of the standard repertory.

Its Viennese-born Jewish creator, a great-uncle to conductor John Neschling, was also credited with having supplied his own libretto, much as another musical marvel, the revolutionary Richard Wagner, had done for his works.

By 1932 the score had all but been crafted for the first two acts, when ill health and the rising tide of the Third Reich forced Schoenberg to flee the following year to America, where he took up successive teaching posts in Boston, Los Angeles, and briefly Chicago.

While the composer later revised the text to Act III, the work was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1951, despite his directive to perform the final act as a spoken “pendant” to the two completed ones — a practice not normally complied with in actual performance.

What remains, then, is an unparalleled opera-going experience where philosophy and theology converge in a head-on clash over ideas: the conflict of biblical prophet Moses and his views of a benevolent, all-powerful Supreme Being (“omnipresent, omnipotent, unimaginable”); and that of his brother Aron’s slicker, more down-to-earth version, a simplistic solution for mass consumption that the children of Israel could more easily swallow and grab on to.

Their dialectical debate ends in the Second Act, with Moses’ heart-wrenching cry, “O Wort, du Wort das mir fehlt!” (“Oh Word, thou Word that I lack!”), let out as an audible affirmation of his inability to give form and definition to what is, in essence, formless and indefinable.

Most visionary artists have felt this same need for understanding, with some of them taking their frustrations out to absurdly preposterous lengths.

A good case in point is Brazilian director Gerald Thomas, who staged a well-received 1998 production of Schoenberg’s complex theater piece in Graz, Austria; and whose personal artistic credo — that “words are less important and more restrictive than images” — has often driven him to the outer limits as well of postmodern visual expression.

But his most recent interpolation of Tristan und Isolde, unveiled in August 2003 at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, almost rang down the curtain once and for all on his notoriously controversial stage career.

As a stunned assembly watched in amazement, the drama unfolded with a couple of novel “touches” unwisely added in, including a masturbating woman, a chorus of Hasidic Jews, a fashion show, and a riotous, cocaine-addicted appearance by none other than Sigmund Freud, the protagonists’ de facto analyst. The entire affair took place not in Wagner’s mythical Cornish kingdom but in the good doctor’s private consultation quarters.

This is exactly the sort of cultural “event” most Europeans have grown accustomed to over the years, what with their constant exposure to such personality-driven régisseurs as Patrice Chéreau, Walter Felsenstein, Goetz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and Giorgio Strehler, to name but a few.

The same cannot be said, however, for more tradition-bound Brazilians, who when it comes to their favorite operas like them served up with all the classical trimmings. Greeted at the end with a judicious salvo of boos and catcalls, Thomas turned his back to the audience, dropped his green-colored underpants, and flashed his bare buttocks at them.

“You could have heard a mosquito fly past,” he claimed afterwards.

For his maverick efforts the authorities slapped Thomas with a public indecency charge. “Surprising in a country that we love for its openness to all kinds of political and social dialogue,” American composer Philip Glass was quoted as saying in his defense. “The act itself was not obscene. What they are objecting to is an artist replying to his critics, and knowing Gerald’s work, he would of course choose a theatrical response.”

Gerald Thomas in London (Sonia Jobim)
Gerald Thomas in London (Sonia Jobim)

Thomas even refused a plea-bargain agreement, stating in effect: “If I pleaded guilty, what would that say to my fellow professionals and later generations of artists? Don’t do anything risky? I don’t accept the fact that I committed a crime because I decided to ‘moon’ the audience in my own theater.

“I joined the music of Wagner, an anti-Semite, with the ideas of Freud, a Jew that changed thought and the art of the twentieth century. But I thought that I had created a pretty formal opera with a thoughtful concept. Fashion really does kill passion, especially in a piece like Tristan und Isolde.”

It very nearly killed his chances at directing future theater projects, too — but if chutzpah were an accredited field of study, then Gerald Thomas would hold a doctoral degree in it.

Indeed, anyone familiar enough with the wacky world of the avant-garde, and the vast laundry list of Thomas’ bizarre stage works, can attest to the claims made against him, labeling the audacious director as “profoundly ridiculous,” “an incurable crackpot,” and “a precocious boy who went senile at the age of thirty.”

Others have hailed him as a “genius,” a “pop star,” and “the most lively and animated presence on the moribund stage of the Brazilian theater today.”

It’s fair to assume by these colorful, off-center epithets that one can never be certain of anything that has ever emerged from this nonconformist’s wildly vivid mind-set.

“I have become a presence in Brazil’s cultural life,” he told The New York Times as far back as 1988. “People are already talking about the pre-Thomas and the post-Thomas eras of Brazilian theater.”

His lack of modesty aside, Thomas epitomizes the commonly held notion that “to be an artist is to not recognize frontiers.” In that sense, he shares similar circumstances with another iconoclastic colleague, maestro John Neschling: both come from Jewish backgrounds, both grew up in Rio de Janeiro — although born in New York City in July 1954, Thomas immigrated to the South American port at around age seven — and both are equally at home in Europe, North America, and their native Brazil, despite not always feeling welcome there.

Negative criticism has nonetheless played a crucial part in Thomas’ daily regimen since the mid-1970s, when he first dedicated himself to a life on the stage at London’s famed National Theatre.

“I was the youngest director to enter and also the quickest to leave,” he commented to the Brazilian magazine Veja. “I debuted there with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which all the newspapers bad-mouthed. At the Theatre, no one dared look me in the face, so I took my piece off the marquee. Fortunately, an American producer [Broadway’s Joseph Papp] told me I was in the wrong city. I then moved to New York and staged the same piece again. This time, it came off without a hitch.”

Working in the Big Apple between 1979 and 1984, Thomas expanded his professional horizons at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and at La Mama Experimental Theater in Greenwich Village. Thanks to Papp and early mentor Ellen Stewart, he presented numerous off-off-Broadway works by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, a past master of the absurd and a close personal acquaintance, until his 1989 passing.

Anyone for Dry Opera?

Upon his return to Brazil in 1985, Thomas formed the Dry Opera Company in the Manhattan-theater-district equivalent of São Paulo. The group eventually relocated to Rio in November of 1999.

“Dry opera,” as it came to be called, is an original Thomas creation, an innovative style of theater that incorporates, in the words of New York Times reporter Alan Riding, “a cinematographic use of lights and blackouts, prerecorded music, almost choreographic acting, and a sort of anti-language he describes as ‘verbal hemorrhage.’ ”

How have all these elements combined to help further the audience’s appreciation for, and understanding of, his vanguard ideas about art?

“Text is only one aspect of theater,” Thomas explained. “The other aspects are the setting, the sound effects, the music, and the lights… As written language, they may not be understood, but visually they will be sensed. And anyway, when does ‘understanding’ come? When a piece ends? An hour later? A week later?”

This is true. Although Schoenberg’s serial Moses was made to suffer by the difficulty he faced putting words to his personalized vision, Thomas has had no such qualms about the integrity of his own speech, or the skill he employs in using it: “Puns are my real interest, visual, philosophical, musical puns that subvert meaning. It’s good for any artist to machine-gun conditioned values.”

A brilliant marketer and self-promoter, he is fluent in several languages: Portuguese, German, and British-accented English. He relishes, too, the wider latitude a strictly theatrical forum has allotted him as a means of artistic expression throughout the span of his thirty-plus-year career. But in art, as in life, there are limitations.

There are times when even Thomas has gone too far in the liberties he has taken with the sacrosanct work of others. For example, in 1987 he presented a trilogy of Franz Kafka pieces, one of which, a stage adaptation of the Czech writer’s The Trial (O Processo), made heavy use of music from Wagner’s final opera Parsifal — a first for Thomas — sandwiched between a score by Glass and Brazilian cellist-composer Jaques Morelenbaum.

It was also an occasion for the inventive director to replace the original text with his own imposition of ideas. “I don’t need Kafka’s lines,” said Thomas, “I just need his ambiance. I can make better use of him by putting other lines in the bucket he has created.”

Carmen com Filtro (geraldthomas.com)
Carmen com Filtro (geraldthomas.com)

The year before he staged Carmen Com Filtro, which, like the Kafka Trilogy, played first in repertory, then traveled successfully abroad to such places as New York, Vienna, Munich, and Hamburg. Literally “Carmen With Filter Tips,” and based on the same Prosper Mérimée story that inspired Bizet’s popular opéra-comique, Thomas’ more streamlined approach (which included a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymade” Bicycle Wheel, an ever-present symbol in many of his subsequent stagings) boasted minimalist music by his friend and working partner, Philip Glass.

The play became one of several joint collaborations, the most elaborate and controversial of which turned up later in Rio de Janeiro, where together, in July 1989, they unveiled their Mattogrosso, a sprawling, three-part spectacular created exclusively for the Beaux-Arts brilliance of the Teatro Municipal. It was billed as the first true “environmental opera.”

Expectations naturally ran high, but the writer-director was severely rebuked by critics, mostly for his “marvelous capacity to stage his deliriums, puns and piles of cultural references.” One journalist went so far as to describe the work as “a repugnant nightmare,” while another felt that, “Visually, it was beautiful, but it seemed to be at the service of emptiness.”

And as for Glass’ highly touted musical score, “It was irritating. It also had nothing to do with Thomas’ play.” The composer himself called Mattogrosso “a collage of images. My music gives it a musical window to look through.”

Still, how can one dismiss a piece outright that mixes three pillars of European cultural history — William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Richard Wagner — with American comic-book characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Batman?

As usual with the eloquent Mr. Thomas, his reaction to the chaos around him was maddeningly oblique: “I am trying to transform the sung aria, the didactic aria, into a scenic thing. [That’s why] I use enigma. You have to let the audience complete the puzzle.” And so it goes.

Yet the basic question for Gerald Thomas remains: what would he accomplish with a standard repertory assignment — the complete Ring cycle by Wagner, for instance, a project “made-to-order” for his peculiarly fertile imagination? Would he get away with subverting the master’s well-known text, or would mere visual subversion be sufficient?

Audiences have already experienced his radical reworking of the same composer’s The Flying Dutchman in Rio (1987), set at the Berlin Wall, as well as Ferruccio Busoni’s eclectic Doktor Faust for Graz (1995). How about trying something more stylistically challenging for a change, say, new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro at the annual Glyndebourne Festival?

Similarly, Beethoven’s lone opera Fidelio and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are also up for grabs and, theoretically, waiting in the wings. Would he consider instead a lavish Baroque piece by Handel, or a less stately form of eighteenth-century entertainment?

At this point, even a Johann Strauss operetta or two will do. And let us not forget the great Italian composers, Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini: how would they fit into the overall Thomas stage-picture?

Gerald Thomas ca. 2003
Gerald Thomas ca. 2003

It is high time the talented 58-year-old came in from the outer fringes of the avant-garde and joined the modern ranks of the classical mainstream — without compromising his outré principles, of course. Surely, that would be his greatest coup. He could conceivably spice up operatic life as we know it, given his far-fetched, Freudian account of Tristan for Rio.

What is still not known about him, as far as the theater world is concerned, is if and when he will run out of bold ideas before his own third act is complete. (In August 2009, he decided to take a leave of absence from the stage, which coincided with the closing down of his online blog. Nine months later he was back in action.)

Some say past performance is no indication of future events. Not so with the savvy Thomas: when all has been said and done and written about him, he is still “barely” getting started. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes