Saturday, June 2, 2018



By John Engstrom

Every so often there’s a musical event of so exquisite a caliber that when it’s over you are both dazed and breathlessly aware that the chances of ever hearing its like again are slim.  Bostonian music lovers--especially ones who are starved for live performances of music by the ever-provocative German Romantic opera composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883)—had such a revelation on April 5 and 7.  On those dates, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and conductor Andris Nelsons, both clearly on a roll ever since the sensational Shostakovich Fourth Symphony in March, and joined by an international ensemble of very classy singers, out-did themselves with a luminous concert presentation of Act Two of “Tristan und Isolde.”   

Everything about this BSO event was optimal: the orchestra, singers and conductor created jointly an unforgettable landscape of sound and emotion, all of it enhanced to the point of transcendence by the magnificent acoustics of Symphony Hall, where you can be seated in a distant hole in the wall and yet hear everything perfectly.  

It was evident that Nelsons—by now an experienced Wagner conductor who will lead “Lohengrin” in England later this year and has performed that piece in the Wagner Festival of Bayreuth, Germany--had fully metabolized Wagner’s rich, beautiful and dramatic score.  His confident grasp of the vast architecture of the act (which ran for about 75 minutes) while attending to a wealth of instrumental and vocal detail was a wonder and privilege to witness.   He led into an excitingly propulsive opening and drew heart-stopping sounds from the hunting horns (over a muffled drumroll) that tell Isolde, the Irish princess now married unhappily to King Marke of Cornwall, that her lover is nearby.  Nelsons and the singers imbued the text with such intense urgency that the quarrel between Isolde and her hopelessly cautious serving-maid Brangane over whether to extinguish a torch as a signal to Tristan became what it really is: a life-and-death struggle. 

Musical highlights followed one another in stunning succession.  When whispering strings segued into the famous lovers’ duet—“O sinkt hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” (“Descend, O Night of Love”), said to be opera’s longest single-take love duet—you could hear a pin drop in Symphony Hall.  Throughout the act, with its dense interweavings of voices and orchestra, Nelsons navigated the music seamlessly between soft passages that were phrased with exquisite tenderness, and high drama given its full force and value.  The BSO has done this Wagner act twice before, in 1972 under William Steinberg and in 1981 under Seiji Ozawa, both times with superior vocal forces; but the expressive output of the Nelsons team on this occasion was one for the history books.

Written from 1857 to 1859 but not world-premiered until six years later, and composed from Wagner’s own libretto based on medieval sources, “Tristan” is the ninth opera by the artistic innovator and theatrical jack-of-all-trades who brought us the epic “The Ring of the Nibelung” and the religious “Parsifal.”  This work was ahead of its time at more than one level and still strikes many listeners as sounding  uniquely modern.  It is, in fact, widely considered by musical scholars and practitioners to represent the birth pang of contemporary music because of Wagner’s revolutionary approach to tonality.  (“Tristan” has been called by Wagner biographer Ernest Newman as “of all his works the most symphonic.”)  Chromaticism and dissonance take over the score to such an extent that individual keys get submerged in an oceanic flood of sound, achieved by means of resplendent orchestration, ambiguous harmonies, and herculean vocal writing.

The piece can also be read as a subversive drama because of the implication of its plot that cheating on your spouse is OK as long as it leads to transcendental love.   Cheating on your spouse was something this composer knew about from extensive hands-on experience: he was doing it at the time he wrote “Tristan.”  Part of the work’s emotional subtext is the married Wagner’s probably unconsummated infatuation with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of the composer’s wealthy patrons.  Additionally, it was under the glow of her inspiration that the composer wrote his famous and often performed “Wesendonck Lieder,” which contain motifs and melodies that turned up later in “Tristan.”  

When the opera—designated by the composer not as an opera but as a “Handlung,” meaning an action, plot, or drama—world-premiered in Munich, Germany in 1865, the married Wagner was carrying on with the married Cosima Liszt von Bulow, wife of the conductor Hans von Bulow who helmed the premiere “Tristan” performances.  Cosima later became Wagner’s devoted wife and the mother of his three children.  The scandalous affair was widely publicized, to the great embarrassment of the parties involved; and many in the first audiences saw in the medieval love story enacted on the Munich stage an especially juicy roman a clef. 

Wagner wrote “Tristan” in different places all over Europe; the second act came to him while he was living in Venice, Italy.  Before he started work on the piece, he wrote to Franz Liszt, his musical colleague and future father-in-law: “Never in my life having enjoyed the happiness of love, I shall erect a memorial to this loveliest of dreams in which from the first to the last, love shall, for once, find utter repletion.” 

But the kind of love that “Tristan” depicts and celebrates isn’t only romantic and sexual.  It’s metaphysical, with much of the text concerned with symbolic polarities of day and night, light and dark, life and death--and its true consummation can only be the amorous couple entwined in a deathly embrace.  As they merge spiritually in Act Two,  they sing, “Let us die and never part—united—nameless—endless—no more Tristan—no more Isolde…”  “Their situation,” the composer’s great-granddaughter Nike Wagner has observed insightfully, “shares something with that of both the mystic and the existentialist.  Tristan and Isolde are in fact secularized mystics.  Their own experience of love is as ineffable as the mystics’ experience of God, but their souls are modern.”

“Tristan” has earned a niche in intellectual history because of its embodiment of ideas by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), whose work and ideas Wagner studied and incorporated into his later works for the musical stage.   The composer and philosopher never met in person, but it didn’t hurt Schopenhauer’s cause with Wagner that the philosopher considered music to be the most superior art form of all.  The co-author with Goethe of a book on color theory, Schopenhauer was the first to introduce Buddhist ideas into German philosophy.  In his study were busts of Buddha and philosopher Immanuel Kant.  Schopenhauer’s pessimistic, atheistic writings—in particular “The World as Will and Representation” (first published in 1819)—cast a powerful spell over not just Wagner but such luminaries of the life of the mind as Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Carl Jung, Jorge Luis Borges and Samuel Beckett. 

There’s been an abundance of terrific recordings of “Tristan” over the years, but the chances of hearing and seeing it live remain few and far between, as they are for Wagner operas in general.  It seems that the world surface is not crawling with Wagner singers at the top of their game.  Efforts of the valiant Boston Wagner Society notwithstanding, Wagner-loving Bostonians have been starved for local performances of works by their favorite composer-dramatist--who remains anathema to many because of his notorious views on race--ever since the Metropolitan Opera discontinued its regional tours in 1986. The Wagner operas that I saw for the first time, with the Met in Boston, were “Tannhauser” and “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg.”  The last Wagnerian undertakings in the city were the Boston Lyric Opera’s “Flying Dutchman” and Odyssey Opera’s “Rienzi,” both in 2013, the bicentenary year of Wagner’s birth.

Contributing to strong public anticipation of the BSO’s “Tristan” program last month was superstar German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the strenuous part of Tristan.   Possessed of a warm, dark and burnished sound, seemingly indestructible technique and compelling dramatic presence, Kaufmann continues to be one of the most polished, versatile and charismatic opera and lieder singers in classical music.   This was his second appearance with the BSO and Nelsons: he sang a passage from Wagner’s “Lohengrin” here in 2014 in the gala debut concert for the conductor.  In a recent WCRB interview the richly gifted singer stated that he wants to sing the complete part of Tristan onstage, “probably in 3 years.” A “singer’s singer” who is renowned for his assured portrayals of “spinto” roles in opera--parts that lie between the lyric and dramatic ends of the vocal spectrum--Kaufmann has made 24 DVDs, one of them of Wagner’s “Parsifal” at the Metropolitan Opera, and 21 CD albums, including an award-winning anthology of Wagner arias. 

Four of the six guest artists in the “Tristan” concert were making their BSO-Symphony Hall debuts.  All of them sang with dramatic command and vocal luster.  Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund portrayed Isolde, an impetuous, passionate lover whose fate at the end of the opera is to die on Tristan’s expired body after singing the famous (and often performed) “Liebestod” (or “Love-Death”).  Nylund’s voice has a light, pure tonal quality that blended well with Kaufmann’s elegant tenor in passages in which the two sang together.   German bass Georg Zeppenfeld brought monumental voice and emotional pathos to the part of Isolde’s cuckolded husband, King Marke, who is devastated when he finds himself betrayed by the knight whom he had loved as a son.  Welsh tenor Andrew Rees sang the part of the jealous knight Melot, whose tip to the Cornish king about an impending rendezvous leads to the surprise discovery of the adulterous lovers in flagrante delicto.  Rees brought such intensity to his short appearance that even if you were in the “nose-bleed sections” of the house you could feel Melot’s searing anger and venom. 

Another artist new to the BSO was Japanese mezzo Mihoko Fujimara as Brangane, Isolde’s caring but disconcerted serving-maid, who (in Act One) inadvertently supplies the love potion that triggers the adulterous passion of her mistress and Tristan.  It was Fujimara who, unexpectedly, contributed one of the evening’s musico-dramatic highlights in a sequence that, oddly enough, required her to be off-stage.   As Act Two opens—at night in Cornwall--Isolde commands Brangane to keep watch over the trysting lovers from a nearby tower.  At the height of the couple’s rapturously death-seeking duet, Brangane issues an extended warning that danger is lurking and the couple had better be on their guard.  “Beware! Beware!” she sings; “Soon the night will pass.”   

The haunting, lonely passage unfolds over ravishing instrumentation.  Many leading mezzos have done well by it, and Fujimara (who has recorded Brangane in a “Tristan” for EMI Records) sang with warmth and feeling--but she was more than a disembodied voice.   If you were seated in the second balcony off to the side, you could see her statuesque form, unlighted, framed in an open door at the rear of the stage.  The visual effect was striking and eloquent and did justice to the ineffable beauty of Wagner’s score.  Such an image wouldn’t have been out of place in a high-level production in an opera house.

Rounding out the supporting vocal forces was Boston baritone David Kravitz as Kurwenal, Tristan’s faithful retainer.  Kurwenal’s part in Acts One and Three is considerable, but in Act Two all he has to do is rush in ahead of the royal hunting party and blurt out, “Save yourself, Tristan!”  It was just one brief moment, but you better believe that Kravitz—a singer well known in these parts for his outstanding work with Odyssey Opera and Emmanuel Music—made the most of it.

The theatrical savvy of Fujimara and the other soloists at Symphony Hall served as a reminder that this concert was not staffed with an all-star assembly (Kaufmann’s world fame notwithstanding).  It was a gathering of serious, skilled, accomplished theater artists who brought to the table years of experience performing these parts in diverse productions and venues.  And the caliber of the voices on this occasion signaled the possibility that the quality of Wagner singing has improved since I began listening to these works more than forty years ago.  The generation of Wagner singers who defined Bayreuth’s “golden age” of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties—Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Wolfgang Windgassen and Hans Hotter—was phasing itself out, and its succeeding generation lacked transcendent vocal chops in spite of dramatic gifts that were undeniable.

Preceding the “Tristan” act on the Symphony Hall program was Wagner’s instruments-only “Siegfried Idyll,” written in 1870 as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima.  Nelson’s reading was lovely and long-breathed, played with instrumental bravura and capturing successfully the short piece’s emotional warmth and glow of intimacy.  There was a repeat of the all-Wagner evening on April 12 at New York’s Carnegie Hall.  If you’re a radio listener, you could have heard the Symphony Hall concert on WCRB on April 7, followed by a repeat broadcast on April 16.

Viv Vassar with drawing
photo texted back and forth over brunch where drawing was made with text Eye Eye.