Monday, May 6, 2013

Thoughts on Verdi and Wagner

I had the opportunity this past weekend to attend two different performances at the Houston Grand Opera: Verdi's Il trovatore and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Below are a few thoughts on the two productions, which conclude the 2012-2013 HGO season.

Saturday night's performance of Il trovatore was, as expected, a stirring, high-energy feat carried by Italian tenor Marco Berti (Manrico) and soprano Tamara Wilson (Leonora). It's easy to understand why Il trovatore was Verdi's most popular opera during his lifetime, and why it is still widely considered the most melodic opera ever written. The tale itself is quite dark, culminating—spoiler alert—in a loving mother witnessing the execution of her adopted son, which simultaneously avenges the death of her own mother. In fact, something I have always found unusual about the work is the contrast between the sing-along-esque melodies and the gory details of burning at the stake, baby killing, torture, sexual anger, etc. That said, the action is so swift and propulsive, with characters entering the stage "as if shot out of a cannon," in the words of Eduard Hanslick, that one cannot help but be swept up in the work's unhesitating life-affirmingness (and then feel grateful for it).

A bowl of pork ramen (1), a few hours of sleep, brunch at Lakeside, and an iced Turkish coffee at Phoenicia (2) later, I was back at Wortham Theater (3) for the Sunday matinee performance of Tristan and Isolde.
  1. New favorite downtown late-night spot: Goro and Gun (306 Main). Craft cocktails and homemade ramen until 2 am—what's not to love? Also, they have a stuffed lion.
  2. Try the new iced Turkish coffee at Phoenicia.
  3. 3 + 4.5 = 7.5 hours is a long time to sit at any one spot in a 24-hour period. But the Wortham is definitely not a bad place to do it. Plus consulting is building up my Sitzfleisch (one of my favorite German words, literally "sitting flesh").
Back to Tristan and Isolde. It's difficult to overstate the importance of the work in terms of Wagner's career, as well as, in fact, within the context of the development of Western music (see Tristan chord). The narrative itself, Wagner's reinterpretation of a Celtic myth, is a "profound spiritual journey through the minds of the two title characters," writes HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers. "For some, Tristan and Isolde is the greatest love story ever told. For others, it is about oblivion itself."

The co-production with London's Convent Garden was extraordinary—as cited in the WSJ's review "A Liebestod to Die For," thanks to "a magnificent soprano, a laser-focused production and an energetic conductor." Indeed, the performance by Swedish soprano Nina Stemme (Isolde), one of those once-per-generation talents and, for good reason, the most internationally sought-after Wagnerian soprano today, was both stunning and provocative. (Canadian tenor Ben Heppner's rendition of Tristan, on the other hand, though critically acclaimed, seemed a bit strained, at least during Sunday's performance. To be fair, in addition to originally being considered impossibly demanding for orchestra, the opera's title roles were at first considered unsingable, and the original Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr, allegedly died from the strain of singing the first four performances in 1865.) Another highlight was German director Christof Loy's insightful staging, which divided the stage into two distinct areas: a rear area that alternately served as the ship and the royal court, and a stark front area that served as the setting for the main characters' tortuous psychological developments. The delicate interplay between the two areas and the moving curtains between them elevated the dialogue between light and darkness, life and death, the "world of day" and the "realm of night" to a new level.

What made attending the back-to-back performances particularly special, apart from them both being excellent productions, was being able to compare landmark works by two 19th-century contemporaries—both composers were born in 1813, Verdi a few months after Wagner. As the program notes explain:
The differences between these two artistic giants and their divergent approaches to music and theater reveal a story in which we are still characters. Obviously, the world has indescribably changed since their lives, but we are still wrapped in the same conversation about art's purpose and role, and even the very definition of culture.
Patrick Summers writes:
Il trovatore and Tristan and Isolde intriguingly illustrate the differences between the two composers; Verdi's music seems to well up from the earth itself: solid, stalwart, immediate, and comforting. Wagner's is from another realm entirely, from something just beyond ourselves, from the spheres perhaps, but certainly not of this world. It is unsteadying, provocative, and challenging. Il trovatore's score has a powerful and propulsive energy; Tristan and Isolde portrays time as simply another dimension of the turmoil between the two lovers. Il trovatore's action is constant and quicksilver…the "action" of Tristan and Isolde occurs only in the final pages of each act, while the remainder of the work takes place in the minds of the characters. These workings of the mind—a set of exposed inner narratives—are revealed principally by the orchestra.
New fact I learned from the program notes that I would never have guessed before: Tristan and Isolde was originally conceived as a "small scale work that would deliver him the lucrative success of the Italian and French operas" of his time. Pretty surprising, considering the monumental nature of a complex work that marches on for near five hours as well as Wagner's disdain for commercially driven—and what he considered to be artistically inferior—Italian and French works (incidentally, the topic of a history essay I wrote senior fall). What began as a commercial project, it turns out, had dueling inspirations: Arthur Schopenhauer's philosophical treatise The World as Will and Representation and an affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of Wagner's Zurich savior and patron—evidently when Wagner and his first wife Minna fled to Zurich from Germany in the aftermath of the revolutionary movement in which Wagner took part, the wealthy Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck provided the Wagners with a house adjacent to their villa, where Richard Wagner developed an intimate artistic and personal relationship with Mathilde.

(In case you wonder, as I have, why Wagner seems to gloss over the forgiving King Marke's less-than-expectedly unhappy demise at the end of Tristan, consider that after sh*t hit the fan when Minna grew jealous of Mathilde and threatened a public standal, Wagner grew jealous of an academic who was teaching Mathilde Italian, Minna was sent to a spa for health issues, the Wesendoncks left Zurich to travel, and Wagner was left heartbroken and bankrupt, Otto once again intervened to settle Wagner's debts in Zurich before providing him with funds to travel to Venice.)

At any rate, a final word on Wagner from the program notes to end this post:
Wagner was vilified in his lifetime, an embarrassment to most of his fellow artists, an enigma to philosophers like Nietzsche, and thought by many of his contemporaries more madman than visionary. In hindsight, we can see more of the brilliance of his creations, even as his views and character account for endless debate and always will. He is uniquely uncooperative to analyze and write about, which the approximately 30,000 books about him can attest. His repulsive anti-Semitism has been examined and argued, sometimes simply dismissed as typical of the time, but that argument can't and mustn't erode the fact that Wagner used a portion of his fame to promote a set of ideas that became murderous in the twentieth century. Perhaps the fact that such a controversial and morally fallible man could write works of such unutterable beauty and depth can give us some hope for mankind.
Tristan and Isolde cast