Love and Death, or The Five Hour Orgasm
Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – live recording from Bayreuth 1966 conducted by Karl Bohm with Wolfgang Windgassen and Birgit Nilsson.
One of the greatest Isolde’s, the legendary dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad, gave this advice to young singers – “keep well away from Wagner.” I would want to extend that prohibition to anyone under the age of, say 50. Felix Mottl and Joseph Keilberth both collapsed while conducting the second act of Tristan und Isolde; the first tenor to sing the role collapsed and died after four performances. After his break with Wagner, and before his descent madness, Friedrich Nietzsche regarded Tristan as a masterpiece “Even now I am still in search of a work which exercises such a dangerous fascination, such a spine-tingling and blissful infinity as Tristan — I have sought in vain, in every art.” GBS regarded the music of Wagner as a fatal addictive narcotic and regarded Tristan und Isolde as “an astonishingly intense and faithful translation into music of the emotions which accompany the union of a pair of lovers” and described it as “a poem of destruction and death”.
Wagner should come with a health warning.
I have heard, seen and been moved by many versions of Tristan in the intervening years but I first got to know this work at the age of 19 via this live recording from Wagner’s own theatre. It starred two great Wagner singers at the very peak of their careers under the white hot heat of conductor Karl Bohm.
The story of the opera is simple – boy meets girl; boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl forced apart and unite eventually in death. The music however is complex and pushes the boundaries of romantic tonality to breaking point – in fact at the point when Tristan collapses into madness in Act 3, the orchestra plays a chord that technically does not exist.
Music is about tension and resolution. Think about the musical phrase known as “shave and a haircut” – it has its musical resolution in the final cadence – “two bits”. Without that it hangs in the air.
What Wagner does is create a tension right from the start of the opera, in the prelude to Act one, it is not clear what key the music is in, nor what the rhythmic beat should be. It seems as if we are building up to a cadential conclusion after a few bars, but the chord is ambiguous – it is unsettled and unsettling. In fact, the infamous Tristan chord will not be settled until the end of the opera some five hours away. Wagner maintains this tension throughout the whole opera as it explores the illicit love between Tristan and Isolde, not just through the shifting harmonies but also by the tension between spiritual yearning and highly charged eroticism in the music.
Impressionable youngsters with a predisposition to romantic melancholy should not be exposed to such things.
The conductor Bruno Walter heard his first Tristan und Isolde in 1889 as a student:
“So there I sat in the topmost gallery of the Berlin Opera House, and from the first sound of the cellos my heart contracted spasmodically… Never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion, never had my heart been consumed by such yearning and sublime bliss…”
I saw my first Tristan in the topmost gallery of the home of English National Opera at The Coliseum in St Martin’s Lane. The conductor was Reginald Goodall, in many ways the opposite in style from Karl Bohm. The singers were Linda Esther Gray as Isolde, Alberto Remedios as Tristan, Norman Bailey as Kurwenal, John Tomlinson as King Mark and Felicity Palmer as Brangane. I don’t think any other International opera house could have bettered that cast at that time. I can only echo Bruno Walter’s words… “never before has my soul been deluged with such floods of sound and passion…” I spent the whole 45-minute interval between the second and third act on the steps of the gallery trying to recover. I barely made it.