We went to see Tristan and Isolde performed by the Welsh National Opera on Saturday. I have never seen a Wagner opera and have reservations about him as a person because of the anti-Semitism and him being a not very nice person in lots of other ways too. However I thought I should give it a try so off we went.
It was a little bit irritating that we were spending Saturday afternoon and evening indoors in such glorious weather. We got into Cardiff a bit before 3pm and we weren't due to be in the theatre till 3.30 so we sat by the Bay and had a drink in the sunshine which was lovely.
The WNO have a man called Simon Rees who is the Dramaturge (I'm not quite sure what that is) who gives a pre show talk before each opera. He is erudite and knowledgeable and tells you the story of the opera, how it came to be written, something about the composer and the production, and he makes it interesting and always really funny. We had booked for the talk and half an hour later knew a lot more about Wagner, Tristan and the production.
We then had an hour to kill so had a cup of tea and then went in for the start of the opera.
Brian says that Wagner was a genius. He pushed the boundaries of music and set the scene for the 20th century composers to go further. He disliked the opera conventions of opera with recitative and aria. The story was told in the recitatives - which are sung speech really - and the arias are the songs. In the hands of Mozart the arias also tell the story, and you can have 6 characters all telling you their version of the story at the same time while they sing their own lines and it all sounds glorious. What Wagner did was develop something called arioso which is a sort of combination between the two. The story is told in a continuous sung line and there are no arias at all.
I have come out of Tristan with a better appreciation of Wagner, and a genuine appreciation of the orchestral writing. However what I don't like and have decided that this is why Wagner has never appealed to me is the whole arioso thing. The characters never get any tunes to sing. All the tunes are in the orchestra. After the performance when we compared notes, both B and I had been spending a lot of time listening with our eyes closed. The surtitles are telling you what the German means and because you are reading the text you are concentrating on the singer and not really listening to the orchestra to the same degree of attention. By shutting our eyes we could still hear the vocal line but we could also concentrate on the orchestra and it is in the orchestra that you find the beauty of the music. And it really is beautiful. (though in a 5 hour opera there is a danger of falling asleep by the end of the night). However I want the singers to have beautiful lines to sing as well. I found the unending sung lines with no particular shape got tedious and it just doesn't appeal to me.
The other thing that I didn't like at all was the story. It was so dark and dismal. Wagner wrote all the libretti for his operas and also did all the production etc as well - he wanted total control. The story is a bit different from the British one - Tristan and Isolde are given a love potion so hopelessly fall in love, and then spend all their time , or at any rate most of Act 2, saying that the only way to really love is to die. Tristan and Isolde spend a LOT of time saying "I love you - let's die". To the point where I wished they would get on with it and put us out of our misery. It is really dismal and there is nothing to lighten it. No humour, nothing.
There were lighter moments, but unintentional ones. Tristan sang well most of the time but he was older and stout. As the design in Act 3 had him lying on a concrete ramp (which the text said was his bed!) he did have a bit of a problem getting up again. The fight scene was really feeble and could have been improved by any primary school.
Isolde was stunning and had immense emotion connection but the production had the lovers standing apart from each other, singing to the audience, while the music is is frankly orgasmic. You couldn't have sex on the stage, but you did have it in the music.
When the dinner interval (between Acts 2 and 3) came we went out and had our picnic on the Bay, and it was fabulous. It was still really warm at 8pm and there were boats sailing, people walking, and we had a really nice picnic too. It was really lovely. We had a brilliant time and were so lucky with the day, however I won't be going to another Wagner opera. I think if I wanted to listen to another opera I would listen to a cd because the staging actually distracted me from the music. There is little actual movement on the stage - in this opera at least - and you wouldn't lose a lot in a concert performance.
We have looked at the programme for next year and they are doing Lohengrin, but we won't be going. However they are doing Janack's 'Cunning little vixen', Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte' and Lulu by Berg, all of which appeal a great deal more.