Tristan Und Isolde, the latest Metropolitan Opera Broadcast (from an Autumn 2016 performance), is one of the more revolutionary operas in the repertoire. No one can say for sure whether or not its composer, Richard Wagner, knew its creation would be a pivotal moment in operatic history. But over 150 years later, audiences can take in the emotional depth and musical breadth present in the work. We can appreciate what Wagner’s contemporary critics — including a negative Clara Schumann (“It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen or heard in my life”) could not.
Even the shortest of discussions surrounding Tristan und Isolde would not be complete without the inclusion of the “Tristan Chord”, as listeners and musicians alike have come to known the unsettling combination of B-D-F#-G# that seems to encapsulate the sexual tension and longing present in the story. As host Merrin Lazyan explains in this week’s episode of He Sang/She Sang, this chord in and of itself wasn’t new — what was new was Wagner’s use of it. It’s a chord that disorients the listener and disrupts the key, that idea of a musical “home.” The chord sets the tone for the music and the drama; the unsettling score mimics the physical and spiritual longing of the two lovers.
In the HS/SS audio below, Tenor Stuart Skelton (Tristan) reveals how the opera still challenges audiences today. “If we give it even the smallest permission by listening even fairly attentively,” he explains, “it pulls us into its world. And it’s not a world we’re comfortable with. It’s against almost everything we hold as a society.” It doesn’t allow one to escape into saccharine daydreams, and it is not art one turns to as an escape from the bleaker aspects of life. “It keeps our nose in the fact that there is a whole other side to life, called death.” It’s dramatic, it’s tragic, it’s thought-provoking and — if you spend enough time with it — one can even find it rewarding.
Conductor: Simon Rattle
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Kurwenal: Evgeny Nikitin
King Marke: René Pape