Something New: Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner

Slight spoiler altert on the story of Tristan und Isolde

Once a year I make a point of going to an opera. If you have never been to one I would urge you to do so, as it will be nothing like you have experienced before. The music, songs, sets, costumes and atmosphere all come together to create a type of show which I have really grown to love.  I decided that this year my annual show would be Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner which is playing in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. I went to the opening evening on the 30th September 2012 and I just couldn’t wait to see it.

Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde

So we all know the story of Tristan und Isolde as it is a story about the daughter of an Irish King Isolde (sometimes also Iseult). The other half of the story is Tristan, a knight from lands beyond the water. Tristan, in a nutshell, goes to Ireland, lops off the head of Isolde’s fiancé and steals her back to Cornwall to marry the King Marke. Tristan is in service to that King and is in total awe of him. But on the way Isolde decides that she is having none of this and tries to poison herself and Tristan. That is except her servant Brangäne swaps it for a love potion. They drink it fall in love and have an adulterous affair after Isolde marries King Marke. Then it all falls apart and they end up dead. There are a few different versions of the tale in some then survive and in others they die differently, it just depends on the story teller.

The opera made it’s debut in Munich in 1865 with the support of one of the blog’s regulars King Ludwig II. It didn’t get great reviews, in fact one of the blog’s other regulars Clara Wieck Schumann said it was “the most repugnant thing I have ever seen or heard in all my life”. But as time has gone on people’s minds changed and it gained a real cult following and a high brow respect, from people like George Bernard Shaw, Nietzsche and Richrad Strauss. I was really curious to hear it for myself as the opera definitely seems to evoke strong opinions in people!

The show itself is said to be quite difficult to stage economically, in terms of both time and money.It is a long show with over three hours of music and two intervals (25 and 45 minutes). It’s impact on the performers is huge hence the fact that there are only three well-spaced out shows. This may be why it took a company such as Wide Open Opera, to be brave and give it a go. Also big applause to the Arts Council for backing the show and taking a risk on a new team and production.

The first performance with Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr van Carolsfeld

The first performance with Ludwig and Malvina Schnorr van Carolsfeld

At the show itself we were confronted with a handrail after we took our seats. Where it was placed neatly split my sister’s line of sight of the stage in two. But the fantastic staff at the theatre found us empty seats that we could move to and for the whole show we had a great view of the stage and the orchestra. So a big thanks goes to the ushers.

On of my favourite things about the show were the sets. They were very well designed, atmospheric and had a crisp modern feel to them without being too minimalist. Act 1 took place on a ship and we were treated to a silhouette of the deck, mast, sail and twinkling shoreline. The chorus moved behind this screen as sailors and it really gave the impression of an upper and lower deck all on the one stage. Act 2 took place in the Cornish castle, so we had a sweeping stairway and dark outlines of trees. This gave the perfect hiding places for the hunting party and for the lovers to meet in secret.

Act 2

Act 2

In my opinion the only negatives set wise came in Act 3. Set up like a seashore, two of the rocks looked like a turtle and a hammerhead shark  respectively and were quite distracting. Also the set in Act 3 did not seem to match the lyrics of the opera as Tristan was supposed to be lying in his bed in his castle but was actually rolling about under a rock on the beach with a gaping wound! Finally the grey floor did look like the sea and I was quite impressed, that is until the cast began to walk around on it so I was a little confused.

The costumes struck a nice balance between old style dresses and soldiers outfits and  modern simplicity. They were absolutely appropriate for the period of the story without being old fashioned or stuffy.  I liked the way some of the items played a role in the story, such as Tristan’s cape for example, covering Isolde and being torn away by King Marke, reflecting how he was tearing the lovers apart. However Isolde’s costumes were quite bulky and it did look like they were hampering her ability to get around the stage with ease, which was a shame as they were beautiful dresses. But in this case you do need function over form.


RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

Music wise it was very much a mixed bag for me. The orchestral score was played by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra and they were fantastic. The sound was clear, well held together and it was great to see the orchestra in the pit from where I was sitting. Wagner’s music was beautifully written and provided an apt and creative accompaniment to the singers. I particularly enjoyed the way the music changed based on the character performing and how the music took on their mood and personality. In particular I thought that the sounds of the hunt were portrayed perfectly. Curiously the opening music to Act 2 had a “welcome to suburbia feel” which was quite ahead of its time. The music ranged from soothing calm melodies to dashing, exiting motifs which ended in pain and heartbreak. It was really very good.

The display of singing talent on show that evening was magnificent. Miriam Murphy and Lars Cleveman (Tristan and Isolde) were excellent singers and I am totally in awe of the sheer amount of music that they learned and performed. Imelda Drumm who played Brangäne should be highlighted as I though she had a beautiful voice.

The music must have been difficult to learn as there were no identifiable stand-out songs. It was a range of different tunes and motifs strung together like lines in a play. This sadly for me made the music a bit stale, repetitive and forgettable. We were teased a couple of times with the beginnings of a cohesive tune  (such as when Tristan and Isolde meet in Act 2) but then the music lapsed back to the regular style of the opera.  This is not a comment on the talent of the cast (of which there were tonnes) it was just dull writing. It is said that Wagner himself did not like to refer to Tristan und Isolde as an opera rather as a “Eine Handlung” which is more of story or play based performance. This makes more sense to me and explains why he crafted the music as he did. I still didn’t enjoy it that much but it is nice to know.

The real let down for me that evening was the acting. For me this has always been an important part of any opera and it felt really under-developed in this show. Yes I know they were concentrating on singing thousands of lines of music, in German, many of which did not seem connected, but it is still important that when telling a story the effort is put in.  Especially when it is as long winded as this opera. An example was in the first scene Isolde tried to die by suicide and for most of the scene she was static and motionless. Act 2 was meant to be the meeting of two lovers who were divided and pining for each other, but when they met they just had a nice cuddle and chilled on some steps. There was no passion, no lust, no desperation and it really did let the performance down. Tristan in Act 3 redeemed it a small bit when he tore off his bandages in a crazed, passionate moment but that was it. I didn’t believe for a second that they were in love or that they wanted to die, which was a real shame as the singing was flawless. The fight scenes were also terrible, in one Tristan literally threw down his weapon, grabbed that of his opponent and faux-stabbed himself. They didn’t even try to have a fight scene which was disappointing.

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner

Speaking to people who attended the show there was also a real mix of opinions. A couple actually nodded off in Act 1 (I had to battle this myself, luckily I won unlike two people sitting in the row in front of me). Another criticised the massive plot holes in the story which you could have driven a truck through. One example of this was why didn’t Tristan and Isolde just tell the King about the potion in Act 2 because when he found out in Act 3 he was fine about it. My response was then there wouldn’t be a show! Those who enjoyed it, loved the singers and were enthralled by the strength and scope of their voices.

To finish I would recommend that you go see the show once in your lifetime, just to experience it. Be aware that not much really happens, Act 1 is all on a boat, Act 2 in a courtyard and Act 3 on a beach/castle?  They take the 3 acts to die which was quite tiresome. However the talent of the musicians was something else and to pull off the show they need to be applauded. I will not however be going to this particular opera again, sorry Wagner it is just not for me.

The last show is on tomorrow, 6th October 2012.

Fun fact: Chapelizod in Dublin is said to be named after Isolde.


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