Tristan in the House!
Tristan and Isolde drinking the love potion, 1916 painting by Waterhouse

Wednesday July 28th was indeed Tristan day at the Festspielhaus.  Although the programme warned me that Siegfried Jerusalem and Waltraud Meier would be singing, I nonetheless was looking forward to the experience.

They are both in operatic circles "good actors" and Bayreuth is indeed weighted more towards dramatic portrayals than vocal excellence.  There are some good singers on the world's stages today that one cannot imagine fitting in in Bayreuth where one has to be seen as well as heard.  It is not a recital hall or a recording studio after all:  it is a theatre and it calls upon believable-looking characters who are histrionically and physically able to make you believe you are a witness to the drama that is unfolding.  However...the dramas are set to music of the highest order and so it would be a big bonus if the singers engaged could realise the composer's musical intentions.  It would also save the listener a lot of cringing and squirming in his/her seat.

The prelude of Tristan und Isolde is one of my favorite pieces of music.  When it began at 4pm on this balmy Wednesday my ears perked up.  From the programme I was led to believe that Daniel Barenboim was in the pit.  Him I knew from many lack-lustre performances with the CSO in my home town.  What came from the pit was a passionate, moving, detailed, prelude-- the music ebbing and flowing in crashing waves of longing.  I had to make sure it was he.

I gestured to my seatmate, P13, and with intricate mime, he understood.  As the hood covering the pit is only about three and a half feet high I began crawling over it as P13 held my ankles.  Eventually I reached the edge and was able to look over into the pit.  Even though his face appeared upside-down, I could recognise the was Daniel Barenboim!!  He looked up and saw me...I smiled sheepishly and motioned for P to pull me back to my seat.  I hail Daniel Barenboim as a great conductor of Tristan!!

I had only seen Tristan live in the 1998 Seattle production, which despite a horrendous Kurwenal and Melot, was a treat for the ears and often for the eyes.  The ears have to come can always close one's eyes, and often one comes to love an opera from listening at home to recordings while one shaves the cat or files away old credit card bills.

I will try to describe for your mind's eye, the settings of each Act.
When the curtain arose, or swished up and away as is the case with a Wagner curtain, we saw a room in which Act I would unfold.  Walls at the side and rear, reaching high up into the fly tower.  The floor was steeply raked, maybe 30 degrees, with a set of steps (lest the singers slide down into the pit) leading from the rear down to a 10ft square floor area cut out of the raked wedge, which served as the quarters of the ladies.  At the rear, silhouetted against an amber-lit square of light, sat the motionless figures of Kurwenal and the pony-tailed Tristan.  Rectangles of shimmering light (from above) on either side of the floor gave the impression of moving water.

The spotlights fell on Waltraud Meier, her red hair in a pony-tail. She is indeed a fine stage actress, rivetting to watch, even when she is tossing Brangaene to the floor in a pique, but that wild oscillating tongue she employs when the music requires her to screech above the staff needs some urgent attention.  It is exactly the same sound the Injuns used to use when they circled John Wayne's wagon train.  While it didn't scare him, it scared the beJesus out of me.

Brangaene was Lioba Braun and had a steel circle around her neck thanks to the costume designer Yohji Yamamoto and she was kinda shrill and wobbly.  I would soon forget her though when Tristan came down the steps and Siegfried Jerusalem made his mark with a dry hoarse sound that I have heard all too often from him.  It looked like it could be a long night.

Falk Struckman as Kurwenal was the best singer on the stage but even he was struggling, having given of himself as Amfortas just the night before.  I still had the band, though, and what a torrent of sound was coming from the pit as Barenboim whipped them up into a frenzy.  The band was exhilarating and fantastically loud at times.  The ingenious pit design didn't allow them to drown the singers of course.  The sound in this theatre has to be heard to be believed!

The story you know, of course.  It is a gripping drama and in the blink of an eye Act I was coming to an end.  Marke was shown as a projection in silhoutte on an amber square on the rear wall of the stage.

At the intermission table in the sunshine, over glasses of bubbly and plates of ham and melon, P13 decided he would not return for Act II nor for Act III.  The previous year he had in fact taken one look at the cast listing and booked a dinner downtown rather than attend the performance.  He had given this show the good old college try but, although he was astonished at the conducting and playing, he could suffer the poor vocalism no more.  I felt much the same way.  However, this was my first time to hear Tristan at Bayreuth and musically it was thrilling, unbelievably so.  I thought I would at least like to hear the introduction to Act II and would certainly stay to hear that chilling prelude to Act III which ranks in my top ten reasons to be alive.

I decided to stay for the entire performance.  P13, after the trumpets and trombones called us to our seats, went to the left side of the theatre to see if he could find someone who wanted a free ticket.  Carol and I waved him adieu and went inside.

To be continued......

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