Why is a performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde like a nonstop flight to the East Coast? The most obvious answer is that the running time (five hours barring gate holds and air traffic delays) is approximately the same. The less obvious response would be that, despite all the marketing of Tristan und Isolde as "the greatest love story in history" or a nonstop's offering "the best in transcontinental service," each of these so-called epic experiences is decidedly overrated.
While devout Wagner junkies will swear that Tristan und Isolde is the end-all and be-all of the master's approach to total music theater, I heartily disagree. Once you take away the effects of a magic love potion (which, unfortunately, the audience never gets to drink) this opera becomes frighteningly tedious.
Most of Act I is centered around listening to a probably premenstrual Isolde moaning and bitching about life until Tristan the conqueror enters her cabin. After that, Act I quickly deteriorates into the spectacle of a highly-vindictive woman playing with her prey (or praying for a play?) before she decides to destroy him.
For those who savor Act II staircase scenes in which bitch-goddesses like Turandot and Dolly Levi put the male species in its place, Tristan und Isolde offers stage directors a particularly keen challenge: How long can you keep blocking singers up and down three stairs while they debate the meaning of love? Five minutes worth of an Italian aria like Puccini's "In Questa Regia..." is about the limit. Trying to keep the action going all night long while two lovers trade philosophical term papers under the shadow of a lunar eclipse (or was that supposed to be a nighttime solar eclipse? ) is not a battle worth fighting.
Act III offers the sorry spectacle of a bloated tenor writhing around on a foam mattress while looking as if he is in desperate need of a bedpan.
You guessed it, folks: That's entertainment!
Those who remember a deliciously naughty little movie called Something For Everyone (which starred Angela Lansbury and Michael York) may recall the scene in which director Harold Prince spoofed a performance of Tristan und Isolde. In this richly perverse film, two massively obese opera singers ran toward each other -- jowls a-flapping -- in a porcine frenzy of Wagnerian passion. Though the cut lasts little more than a minute, it is a priceless piece of satire. And why not!!
"Opera is about feeling emotion. It's about this strange 'over the top' obsession that consumes you. Unfortunately, prettiness is something that has become catastrophically overstated in today's music world," warns director Peter Sellars. "Without even thinking about it, the opera world has gotten so much into falsified reactions that people are often reacting to the Victor Book of the Opera's description of an opera instead of reacting to the opera itself."
I'm reacting to the opera itself. The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Tristan und Isolde clung very fearfully to the middle of the road, embracing the most tried, true -- and tired -- reactions to both text and music. Using Mauro Pagano's sets and costumes, Lotfi Mansouri directed with a much greater sense of mechanical efficiency than vividly theatrical passion. And, in this supposedly intense musical drama, the singers paced themselves with the kind of restrained clinical precision which proscribes any insight into the truth of Wagner's music.
When he wasn't singing off pitch, tenor William Johns looked and sounded like a furiously constipated Tristan. Hanna Schwarz bleated out Brangane's music while burdened with a wig that looked like a cross between a long-tailed holiday bread and a home for large rodents. Soprano Gabrielle Schnaut's Isolde displayed an interestingly rich and powerful voice but, for most of the evening, was dressed to resemble Miss Piggy in a nightgown from Frederick's of Hollywood.
The best singing of the evening came from Alfred Muff's King Marke, Michael Schade's offstage sailor's voice, and Hong-Shen Li's shepherd (decidedly secondary roles).
In an odd way, I found Hartmut Welker's Oliver North-style Kurwenal perversely appealing. The saving grace of the evening was the conducting by Peter Schneider, who whipped the orchestra into a romantic frenzy that had precious little to do with anything happening onstage.
Despite my willingness to embrace Supertitles, Tristan und Isolde also offered a glaring example of why 19th century poetry falls flat on its face with modern audiences. There isn't too much one can do to fill five hours of intellectual debate between two people who want to talk in extremes of poetic imagery. And, even though Wagner's score is spruced up with heavenly orchestrations, much of Tristan und Isolde involves the kind of mental masturbation that scholars substitute for the old game of "He loves me, he loves me not."
Does this kind of over-intellectualized love hold water today? No. In fact, to a modern audience, much of the poetic imagery in Tristan und Isolde sounds like the sort of pretentious drivel one might hear from a stoned adolescent suffering from a severe case of puppy love.
With such intensely passionate and viscerally rich music coming from the orchestra pit (one could almost palpate the blood coursing through the two lovers' sexual organs) many in the audience might have found wondering why two aging, bloated and over-intellectualized creeps couldn't just shut up and fuck.
A penetrating thought? At least it would have been more in tune with the spirit of the music than the tired stage blocking which framed the psychobabble coming out of Tristan's and Isolde's mouths. What's more, we could all have gone home a lot sooner.
Several years ago, when I was interviewing Peter Sellars, he sighed and complained that "The saddest thing about opera today is that nobody goes on strike. Nobody just says 'Excuse me, but this is not acceptable. It's not fun. Even more than that, it's not very interesting!"
Unless one was in an advanced state of denial, it would have been pretty hard to avoid the fact that that's exactly what was wrong with the San Francisco Opera's new production of Tristan und Isolde.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on October 31, 1991.