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A Longed-For Tristan

Larry Wolff
The wonder of Tristan in Wagner’s opera is that treacherous though he is, indifferent to friendship and dangerous to everyone, especially the woman he loves, we identify with him and respond to him.

Chris Lee

Camilla Nylund and Jonas Kaufmann performing Tristan und Isolde, with conductor Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York City, April 12, 2018

Hörst du sie noch?” (Do you still hear them?) asks Isolde, listening for hunting horns receding in the distance by night. It is the first libretto line of Act Two of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which was performed in concert by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on April 12. The Boston horns were heard playing from offstage, very softly, as if from far away. Isolde waits for her husband’s hunting party to be gone so that Tristan, her lover, can return to join her for the night. But Isolde’s maid Brangäne still hears the horns and warns her mistress, “You are deceived by the violence of your desire.” The ear itself is deceived by the longing of the listener. Isolde can’t hear the horns that Wagner has written into the score.  

Tristan und Isolde is an opera about longing, with a prelude whose unresolved musical line expresses the intensity of unsatisfiable desire and a famous signature chord (F, B, D sharp, G sharp) whose chromatic tension suggests the impossibility of finding satisfaction. The longing in Carnegie Hall was focused on tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who has repeatedly failed to give satisfaction in New York over recent years, with several cancellations, notably at the Metropolitan Opera. He is easily the most celebrated tenor in the world today, sings to great acclaim in a variety of styles, from Wagner to Puccini, and presents as glamorously handsome in almost any operatic costume. At the end of this performance, he was collecting so many bouquets that it began to seem a little insulting to the marvelous Finnish soprano singing Isolde, Camilla Nylund.

Kaufmann-singing-Tristan meant Carnegie Hall was predictably sold out for this exploratory attempt at a proverbially challenging tenor role. In 1959, the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson required three tenors to match her in one performance of Tristan at the Met, one tenor for each of the three acts. Kaufmann sang only the second act at Carnegie Hall, but has announced that he eventually plans to sing the complete role in all its complexity: valorous knight and driven adulterer, irresistibly romantic and deeply treacherous. Act Two shows him in both modes, first immersed in the night of love with Isolde and then indicted for betrayal when King Marke, her husband and his friend, returns unexpectedly from the hunting party. Without Act One, which features a love potion as the pretext for passion, Act Two becomes a more frankly recognizable drama of adultery.

In 1939, with Europe on the brink of war, the Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont published a pathbreaking book, Love in the Western World, in which he observed that the fundamental model of passionate romance in Western culture, dating from the Middle Ages and encompassing the tale of Tristan and Isolde (as well as that of Lancelot and Guinevere), was adultery, not marriage. The composing and writing of Tristan (Wagner always wrote his own librettos) in the late 1850s anticipated Wagner’s great passion for Cosima von Bülow, the wife of his good friend and devoted admirer the conductor Hans von Bülow. It was he who conducted the première of Tristan und Isolde in Munich in 1865—two months after Cosima gave birth to Wagner’s daughter, who was given the name Isolde.

While the opera’s forbidden love concludes in rapturous death (the love-death of Isolde’s Liebestod), Wagner’s relationship with Cosima ended in proper marriage and a comfortable family establishment at Bayreuth after his wife died and Cosima divorced her husband. She presided as family matriarch for almost fifty years after Wagner’s death in a spirit of musical devotion and venomous antisemitism, and was still alive when Hitler was first welcomed at Bayreuth in the 1920s.

Act Two of Tristan offers the longest and most demanding love duet in opera—forty minutes of on-stage intimacy with the music simulating sex and darkly anticipating death. The Met production by Mariusz Treliński in 2016 set the love duet in a ship’s engine room, while the 2015 Bayreuth production by Katharina Wagner (the great-granddaughter of the composer and Cosima) placed the second act in a prison torture chamber. There was no such grim staging at Carnegie Hall, where the performers wore formal dress, and Andris Nelsons conducted with a brilliantly light touch and delicate dynamics.

Kaufmann is renowned for cultivating a carefully controlled vocalization that enables him to rein in the big, dark instrument of his voice to the most restrained piano volume. That worked to excellent effect in his Carnegie recital of Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin in January, and even more strikingly in this performance of Tristan. Nylund’s soprano is far softer in grain than most Wagnerian exponents. She triumphed as the elegant Richard Strauss heroine Arabella in Vienna last year, and sang Isolde here with a silvery voice (Birgit Nilsson was considered steely), surfing the sound of Nelsons’s big Wagnerian orchestra.


The very best of the duet, though, came when Nelsons allowed Nylund and Kaufmann to seem almost to be whispering their love. “O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” (Descend, night of love) emerged from near silence, the two voices slowly trading lines—two lovers finishing one another’s adulterous musical thoughts, interwoven with the exquisite voices of the woodwinds.

Nelsons was born in Riga, the beautiful Baltic city where Wagner himself, in his twenties, learned how to be a conductor in the 1830s. Kaufmann and Nylund sang mostly from opposite sides of the Carnegie podium, separated by the conductor, which added something seductively tentative to their adulterous endeavor. The conductor offered them guidance from the orchestra, the French horn giving Tristan the coloring of his fervor, while Isolde seemed to find a kindred spirit in the plaintive oboe.

If Nelsons was coaching newcomers in the leads, he had Bayreuth regulars in the important supporting roles of Brangäne, who stands watch over the lovers, and King Marke, who returns early from the hunt to surprise and reproach them in a long and beautiful monologue. Japanese mezzo soprano Mihoko Fujimura and German bass Georg Zeppenfeld performed their respective roles at Carnegie confidently, without scores. Fujimura sang her most impressive music from off-stage, and her rich tones filled Carnegie Hall, as she let the lovers know that she was keeping watch over them—for Brangäne knows that the lovers hear only the music of their own longing. Zeppenfeld sang feelingly of his betrayal by a friend and his beloved wife’s infidelity, and Nelsons brought out the deepest tones of the orchestra—cellos, basses, bassoons, and bass clarinet—to enhance the colorings of King Marke’s basso monologue.

When the suffering king asks his friend, “Warum mir diese Schmach?” (Why this shame for me?), Tristan responds slowly: “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen / Und was du frägst, das kannst du nie erfahren.” (O King, I cannot tell you that / and what you’re asking, you will never be able to discover.) Kaufmann invested the questioning verb to askfrägst—with particularly gorgeous sustained tone, but after that, Tristan had nothing more to say to Marke and turned to Isolde, as the music became slower even than before (langsamer als zuvor). An English horn, the saddest of all instruments, began very softly, piano, in the stillness of Carnegie Hall, the rising theme of Tristan’s longing, and then the other woodwinds joined forte in an irresolvably tense Tristan chord. Kaufmann, now in his vocal element, with flawless control and expressiveness, invited the woman he loved to follow him to another land, which they both knew to be the realm of death.

There is always something astonishing about this moment in the opera, when, in front of the king and all his courtiers, Tristan and Isolde speak only to each other. The Boston’s horns joined Tristan in issuing his dark invitation to join him in “das Wunderreich der Nacht” (the wondrous empire of night), Kaufmann ascending to a lovely sustained D-natural for “Nacht,” but saving his sweetest note for the pianissimo E-flat that concluded his invitation, with the second syllable of her abbreviated name, “Isold.” These lovers have been intent upon their own self-destruction from the beginning and now sensuously court suicidal self-annihilation in an exchange that everyone can hear and no one can fathom. The wonder of Tristan is that treacherous though he is, indifferent to friendship and dangerous to everyone, especially the woman he loves, we identify with him and respond to him. The wonder of Kaufmann in this role for the first time was that he could make Tristan’s invitation so seductive.

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Act II, with music director and conductor Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was performed at Carnegie Hall on April 12, 2018.

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