Richard Wagner

TUNDI’s remarkable Tristan und Isolde at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro, Vermont

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Jenna Rae (Isolde) and Alan Schneider (Tristan). Photo Jeff Lewis.
Jenna Rae (Isolde) and Alan Schneider (Tristan). Photo Jeff Lewis.

Tristan und Isolde
Richard Wagner, Music and Libretto
at the Latchis Theater, Brattleboro, Vermont
Friday, August 23rd, 2019

TUNDI Festival Orchestra
TUNDI Festival Chorus
Hugh Keelan, Conductor

Stage Direction and Design, TUNDI Design Team

Isolde – Jenna Rae, soprano
Brangäne – Roseanne Ackerley, soprano
Kurwenal – Cailin Marcel Manson, baritone
Tristan – Alan Schneider, tenor
Melot – James Anderson, tenor
King Marke – Charles Martin, bass
A Steersman – Kevin Courtemanche, tenor
A Shepherd – Stanley Wilson, tenor

With the extraordinarily high standards of conservatory graduates today, performances of Wagner’s music dramas have fled beyond the precinct of the very largest opera houses, and we may well forget how difficult it was only a couple of generations ago to cast and stage Tristan und Isolde at, say, the Metropolitan Opera, which once had to cast one Tristan per act, when the billed tenor was indisposed, and the two available replacements were also under the weather. Already by then the aging devotees of Flagstad and Melchior grumbled about just how far their standards would have to sink, before they stopped going to hear Wagner in New York. I still hear that today from long-time Wagnerians. The art of singing Wagner’s mature music dramas, from the point of physical endurance and vocal beauty, could be said to have reached a high point in the 1920s and 1930s, gradually building from 1865, the year of the premiere of Tristan und Isolde. The death of the first Tristan during his fourth performance and the extreme difficulty for orchestras in playing Wagner’s chromatic harmonies and radical orchestration gave the work a reputation for being unperformable. Wagner was dissatisfied with the staging of the Ring at Bayreuth more than the actual singing, raising a similar myth of unperformability, which has enriched fashionable stage directors in our own time. Parsifal, well-protected at Bayreuth in the beginning, has fared better since the Metropolitan Opera broke the monopoly: a decent Siegmund can sing Parsifal, and a strong Ortrud Kundry.

Just as an unresearched thought, one could divide the Nachleben of Tristan und Isolde and to some degree the other music dramas, as a period of material struggle with the scores, followed by a period of widespread cultural influence, down to fin de siècle erotic fantasies aroused by Die Walküre, Tristan, and Parsifal, then culminating in two to four decades of outstandingly sung and played performances, which are well-documented in the then-new medium of recordings. The peak was marked by a performance of the Ring des Nibelungen arranged for the coronation of King Edward VIII, with Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad, alternatively conducted by Thomas Beecham and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Beecham’s 1937 Tristan, stemming from the same impulse, was recorded in its entirety and can be heard today. Melchior and Flagstad were the leading Heldentenor and Isolde-Brünnhilde of the 1930s. The leading attraction at the Metropolitan Opera, they saved the newly-converted non-profit enterprise from financial disaster, mostly in heavily-cut performances, into the early 1940s. The Second World War put this on hiatus, and a new generation of singers, generally found wanting by older audiences who heard the great pair in the pre-war years. The tradition has continued in the major houses in largely the same spirit, with passing periods of critical and public excitement surrounding singers who have enjoyed notably brief careers in the major Wagnerian roles before vocal decline set in. I mention all this, because the tradition undubitably a great one—has only encouraged an aesthetic of “culinary opera,” defined and denigrated by Bertolt Brecht in his notes to the opera, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny, and equally contrary to Wagner’s own reforming principles as set out in his theoretical writings.

So where from here? Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde during a period of romantic fixation on the wife of his current patron in Zürich, Otto Wesendonck. He also discovered the philosophy of  Schopenhauer around that time. There still remains a good deal of discussion about all this, but the essence remains a tragic love story drawn from medieval courtly literature. The powers of an Irish queen who possesses healing magic, the good intentions of a servant, and the aura of a knightly hero result in death for the lovers. Where does this go today? I remember a performance of Tristan I saw was at the Metropolitan Opera, when the appointed Isolde, Deborah Voigt, acting an offensively misconceived interpretation of the role, failed early in the second act, bringing in a rather more pleasing replacement in Janice Baird. Ben Heppner had already called in sick, bringing Peter Gelb on stage to announce the news that the excellent Gary Lehman would be singing Tristan, declaring that there are only five men in the world who can sing the role. (At the time, I wondered if Voigt’s sudden stomach ache didn’t arise from an unwillingness to share the stage with a tenor less illustrious than Heppner.) That’s up from the three available in 1960. This presence at a juncture in the adventures of this extraordinarily difficult opera was indeed an experience, although not the sort of experience Wagner had in mind, nor Brecht, who, in his “Notes,” carried Wagner’s spirit of reform further into the realm of democracy and communism.

Flagstad and Melchior conditioned audiences—especially in New York—to enjoy Tristan und Isolde as culinary opera, as much by their absence after retirement as by their brilliant Wagnerian careers. This couldn’t have been further from the composer’s intentions, although, ironically, Tristan has historically appealed to audiences in a purely sensual way—a culinary way—along with the advanced harmonic language and philosophical foundations which continue to entice its more sophisticated admirers. Tristan und Isolde, because of the distance imposed by its highly developed reality on stage, cannot present the substance of sexual love directly to audiences, but only a philosophical embodiment (or dis-embodiment?) of sexual love. Yet for many it is in fact a love-experience, if only a surrogate. Like Shakespeare’s sonnets, it is a philosophical work with love as its pretext, although more of the creator’s love-experience worked its way in, thanks to Mathilde Wesendonck. Perhaps the duality of Schopenhauer-Mathilde is the key to the accessibility and the demands of Wagner’s most perfect achievement.

I mention all this background about how people experience the music drama, or action (Handlung), as Wagner, imitating the Greeks, called it, because this extraordinary production at the Latchis Theater, a cinema and arts center, in Brattleboro, Vermont, was my own most fulfilling experience of the work, and the brilliant artists, who devoted all the imagination, thought, and effort they could muster for what was literally a labor of love, deserve a satisfactory interpretation of the great thing they have accomplished. My praise and admiration can be taken for granted. The most important point is that this is a prime example of new pathways to Wagner and his masterpiece—a development in its reception both Wagner and Brecht would have approved of.

The Latchis Theatre, built in 1938, decorated with murals and sculptures of Greek myths and mythological figures in celebration of the owner’s country of origin, is now owned and run, along with the adjacent Latchis Hotel, by the non-profit Brattleboro Arts Initiative. I’ll venture the assumption that this is the first time an opera has been presented within its walls. It has no pit, so the orchestra played on the main stage behind a scrim, on which Hazel Keelan’s expressive drawing of the unhappy lovers was projected, followed by the sea and other images relevant to the action. A platform with three levels suggested the poop deck of Tristan’s ship, and King Marke’s or Tristan’s castle, as needed. TUNDI made clever use of the walkways leading along the side walls from the stage to the balcony. The chorus of sailors sang from the walkways, giving the audience the feeling of actually being on board the ship, and they provided King Marke, Melot, Kurwenal, and Brangäne an an effective path to arrive at Kareol in Act III. The singers, appropriately if uncommonly in our perverse times, wore medieval costumes. The acoustics of the cinema, which seats 750 people, were on the dry side, as opera houses customarily are, and nicely balanced, serving the orchestra and most of the singers well. The auditorium was a bit weak at the lower end, and, curiously gave soprano Roseanne Ackerley (Brangäne) and baritone Cailin Marcel Manson (Kurwenal) a bright, hard edge, which vanished when they sang from the catwalks. The principals of TUNDI, Jenna Rae and Hugh Keelan, plan to continue at the Latchis next year and beyond, taking advantage of its unique features for a repeat of Tristan, Das Rheingold, and Die Walküre. In a way the Latchis’ classical ornament embodies the style of King Ludwig’s throughly classical city, Munich, where Tristan und Isolde was premiered and suggests that it may be the perfect home for the Bayreuth of New England.

The acoustics encouraged a particularly detailed treatment of work, with clear diction and finely shaped phrasing from both the singers and the orchestra. This only made the overall effect of the score more powerful. The spell of Wagner’s creation took hold from the first notes and did not let up until conclusion of each act. Maestro Keelan favored especially slow tempi, but the concentration of everyone on stage kept the flow together, and one actually had the feeling that the performance was fast-moving and even brief. Let anyone who is afraid of operas more than five hours long think on that! From conversations during the intervals, it was clear that some audience members, who didn’t know quite what this show was to be, were thrilled by their experience and had no intention of walking out early. This remarkable performance reached both Wagner connoisseurs and absolute newcomers.

The nature of the hall also made the lead roles accessible to attractive people who could sit on a bench together and act. We were sitting about halfway back, and I could see the faces of Jenna Rae (Isolde) and Alan Schneider (Tristan) perfectly clearly. One misconceived Ring in which the characters all wore masks proved to me how important it is to see the faces of the singers in Wagner and to allow them to act naturally. And these singers—as well as the entire cast—were able and interested in this kind of acting, which brought the audience into the story they were telling with a special immediacy. (Stage direction at TUNDI is developed by a group called the design team, mostly comprised of those appearing on stage, who create this unique dramatic approach in costumes, sets, and acting.) Along with this, both Rae and Schneider were vocally as well as physically agile, able to shape and inflect their melodic lines with understanding and musical beauty. Both had studied their roles profoundly and projected an impressive command of music and text with assurance—and fine tonal quality. I am keenly looking forward to their return in the roles next summer.

Roseanne Ackerley (Brangäne) and Jenna Rae (Isolde. Photo Jeff Lewis.
Roseanne Ackerley (Brangäne) and Jenna Rae (Isolde). Photo Jeff Lewis.

Roseanne Ackerley’s Brangäne was warm, vulnerable, and loving towards her mistress, and tragically wounded by her own short-sightedness. This was the first time I have ever heard a soprano sing the role, and I didn’t even know that Anna Deinet, who created the role in 1865, was a true soprano until Ms. Rae informed me of the fact. I looked into past recorded performances, and the only soprano Brangäne I could find was Viorica Ursuleac, Richard Strauss’s favorite soprano (but generally appreciated more for her musical acting than her voice), who sang Brangäne late in her career, in 1948 in Buenos Aires under Erich Kleiber. Indeed she sounds very much like a soprano next to Kirsten Flagstad’s Isolde. In contrast, it is interesting that the rich-voiced mezzo, Margarete Klose, was equally admired for her Brangäne and her Erda. Cailin Marcel Manson brought a handsome, variegated baritone and lively, original acting skills to his Kurwenal. Charles Martin offered a beautifully sung and phrased King Marke, entirely convincing in this challenging and complex role. I’ll look forward to following this impressively gifted bass in the future. James Anderson made more of his portrayal of the treacherous Melot than most singers in the role. His self-contained, closed manner hinted at complexities in his relationship with Tristan, which motivated his betrayal. Kevin Courtemanche and Stanley Wilson sang the Steersman and the Shepherd most ably.

Hugh Keelan. Photo Jeff Lewis.
Hugh Keelan. Photo Jeff Lewis.

The orchestra played with intense concentration and energy under Hugh Keelan’s firm but flexible direction, struggling only occasionally in the more agitated passages. The eloquence and tasteful phrasing of the English horn, clarinet, and other wind solos were especially significant contributions to the performance, and the horns were most impressive in the hunting music of Act II. The close rapport between conductor and orchestra was evident throughout. Maestro Keelan conducted his own reduction of the score.

The next day there was a recital of various singers associated with TUNDI, and I had the opportunity to hear the orchestral parts of Tristan played—with gorgeous color and fluent expression—by Hugh Keelan. This reminded me of something my most important music teacher, the late Wendell Cumberland, showed me about Tristan many years ago, that when played on the piano so that its harmonies come through, they sound as if the music were written fifty years later than it was.

Apart from having heard and seen an exceptional performance of one of the most difficult operas in the repertory in an unexpected place,  its strong dramatic qualities enabled me to leave with a rare treasure. I understood for the first time that the story is not only about the love of Tristan and Isolde. She is not the only one who loves Tristan. All the men—Kurwenal, Marke, even Melot, who acts largely from jealousy—love him as well, and his death is an existential loss for them all—the end of knightly truth, loyalty, and honor—Tristan der Held.

Tristan und Isolde, Cast. Photo Jeff Lewis.
Tristan und Isolde, Cast. Photo Jeff Lewis.
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