“Tristan und Isolde” with Simon Rattle, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stuart Skelton

03 Apr 2016

Berliner Philharmoniker
Sir Simon Rattle

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Stuart Skelton

  • Richard Wagner
    Tristan und Isolde: Act 1 (concert performance) (80 min.)

    Eva-Maria Westbroek Soprano (Isolde), Stuart Skelton Tenor (Tristan), Sarah Connolly Mezzo-Soprano (Brangäne), Michael Nagy Bass-Baritone (Kurwenal), Stephen Milling Bass (König Marke), Roman Sadnik Tenor (Melot), Simon Stricker Baritone (Steersman), Thomas Ebenstein Tenor (Shepherd, Sailor), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey Chorus Master

  • Richard Wagner
    Tristan und Isolde: Act 2 (concert performance) (72 min.)

  • Richard Wagner
    Tristan und Isolde: Act 3 (concert performance) (86 min.)

  • free

    Sir Simon Rattle on Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” (36 min.)

Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde was premiered in Munich in 1865 and is based in its outline on a medieval epic poem. He called it a “drama in three acts”– for all intents and purposes a paradoxical designation, given that the work is characterised precisely by the fact that remarkably little happens on the surface. In all three acts it is primarily related what has happened before the curtain rises: be it Tristan’s murder of Isolde’s bridegroom and his inauspicious mission to bring the daughter of the Irish king whom he loves to a former vassal of her father, and the resulting inner conflicts of the two main figures (First Act); be it the disputes that Isolde – by now the wife of King Marke – has with her handmaid Brangäne about the reliability of her lover’s friends (Second Act); be it the attempts of Tristan’s servant Kurwenal to alleviate the hallucinations of his feverish lord by telling him what happened since Tristan walked into the open sword of Melot, who has remained devoted to the cuckolded Marke (Third Act).

If, every now and then, major events leave their traces in the events on stage in Tristan und Isolde – for instance, the decision that actually gets the drama going is only supposedly a decision by Tristan and Isolde to put an end to their lives (First Act), the discovery of the couple’s nightly tête-à-tête and the resulting duel (Second Act) and Isolde’s delayed and thus ineffective arrival at Tristan’s castle (Third Act) – all these are negotiated completely undramatically by Wagner, away from the centre of interest. A concert performance of the opera would seem to do justice to the composer’s intentions, as he ventures into musically previously “unheard of” dimensions to a particular degree with his Tristan. Especially considering that Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stuart Skelton in the title roles head up a top-class ensemble of singers.

“I can hear the horns calling”

Suspension of Reality through Music in Wagner’s Tristan

If we believe we have seen a Liebestod(love-death) at the end ofTristan und Isolde, it is the result of precisely calculated musical preparation. The “reality” that interferes with unconditional love is subtly obscured. Isolde seems to die at the end, while the dead Tristan is brought to life. The magic trick of illusion succeeds; at the same time, the hopelessness of this situation becomes clear: there is no place on this planet for Tristan and Isolde’s love.

On the threshold of modernism: Wagner’s Tristan chord

Whole shelves of musicological literature have been written about the “Tristan chord”. Yet defining the harmonic relationships of this brief sequence becomes all the more futile the more one aims for unambiguity. Its meaning is revealed to the ear immediately, however. During the first three bars Wagner establishes a principle that is characteristic of the entire opera: lack of resolution, suspensions and half cadences as the harmonic, tonally intensified impulse for a continuous expansion of desire. A fundamental ambiguity is conveyed here, not only that of the harmonic progressions. It works, because Wagner’s Tristanchromaticism is still based on major-minor relationships. Thus, the famous chord stands on the threshold of modernism but does not cross it.

What follows the Prelude is an unremitting intensification, perfectly concealed in the music: both an acceleration and a dynamic and tonal expansion of space, a progressive blurring of boundaries. Its effect is so certain and so powerful because what one hears coincides with what one can encounter in rare and extreme moments of extra-musical experiences in which barriers are removed: a vast flow that continues further.

“Just consider my music, with its delicate, oh so delicate, mysteriously flowing humours penetrating the most subtle pores of feeling to reach the very marrow of life, where it overwhelms everything,” Wagner wrote to Mathilde Wesendonck two and a half weeks after completing the third act. Wagner used a metaphor from physiology, medicine, and anyone who regards the music of Tristan und Isoldeas a narcotic drug is supported by the composer himself, since the goal of his musical drug is to “overwhelm everything that looks like sagacity and the self-interested powers of self-preservation” by “sweeping away all that belongs to the delusive madness of personality and leaving only that wondrously sublime sigh with which we confess to our sense of powerlessness – how shall I be a wise man when it is only in such a state of raving madness that I am totally at home?”

Disorientation spreads

For the audience the path to such a state begins with a mild suspension of consciousness, being an observer, following the proceedings as an opposite number. Wagner encourages this by, on the one hand, interweaving the harmonic, rhythmic and tonal events so densely, so seemingly without transition that the analytical mind is forced to capitulate in the face of an excess of information. On the other hand, the central thematic material is repeated so continually, transformed, alluded to or paraphrased that the musical process almost seems like a kind of liturgy, and the constant repetition puts the listener’s brain into a trance.

There is a method behind the lack of clarity, impalpability, or at least ambiguity. The fact that Wagner went further here than before or afterwards was facilitated by a story in which the unspeakable (we love each other!) combines with the indescribable (what kind of force is this which defies all social standards?) in the language of allusion and mystification. Because it is repeated in so many different guises, by the end of the first act the ear has learned so well what the Tristanchord represents that its repetition after Tristan and Isolde drink the love potion now makes it quite clear what emotion is involved, even if their bodies, still unconscious, tremble: “They are seized with trembling. They clutch convulsively at their hearts and raise their hands to their heads.”

Reality or illusion

When the curtain rises for the second act, a process begins in which we soon perceive the world with Isolde’s ears. After a spirited Prelude, horn fanfares are heard: King Marke’s hunting party has ridden out, only Tristan has stayed behind – it is his chance to be alone with Isolde. The horn calls come from offstage, however, and the audience hears what Isolde perceives: the sound of horns from a distance. Brangäne hears them differently: “They are still near; I can hear them clearly.” Isolde contradicts this and declares Brangäne’s perception to be false and mistaken: “You are misled by the grove’s whisperings, laughingly rustling in the wind.” So what should one be afraid of – leaves rustling in the wind on a summer night or the sound of the hunting party? At first we hear so much from the horns that there is no doubt about it: Isolde is having an acoustic hallucination. But then Wagner combines the horns and the rustling of the strings. The offstage fanfare motif comes to an end, while the clarinets play a soft murmuring figure, which is then joined by the muted second violins and violas. It is a superimposition that is barely perceptible as a transition, because the (muted) horns in the orchestra add soft, sustained notes until the first violins enter, divided into four parts. When Isolde sings “Not the calling of horns”, there are in fact no horns left. Everything else happens entirely from Isolde’s perspective and, when Tristan joins her, from that of the couple.

The triumph of a magician

When the “love-death” comes in the third act, we see Isolde standing before Tristan’s body, staring ahead impassively, without “hearing” anything else. Now something uncanny happens: Isolde thinks she sees (and also wants all the others to see) how the dead Tristan opens his eyes, how his body begins to glow, how his heart “swells with courage”, “how in tender bliss sweet breath gently wafts from his lips”. Isolde repeats her exhortation to the world two more times: “Friends! Look! Do you not feel and see it?” In the all-embracing “friends” there is not only a resolution of all contradictions with Marke’s world, it is also an invitation to the “friends” in the audience to go along with Isolde’s complex synaesthetic perceptions against all medical reasoning, to feel and see them like she does – and now to hear them as well, for not only breath but music also streams from the dead Tristan’s mouth, a “melody so wondrously and gently sounding from within him, in bliss lamenting, all-expressing, gently reconciling”. The symphonic waves become more insistent, and Isolde evolves from the receiver into a transmitter. The wondrous melody soars after it has passed through Isolde and enveloped her body in sound, as Wagner’s music envelops us.

Does Isolde die? She sinks into Brangäne’s arms, but that could also be a fainting spell. The important thing is that we believe we have seen her death. It is the triumph of the greatest illusionist of musical theatre – to make us see that Isolde is dead and that this death is also the greatest possible pleasure, “utmost rapture”. This music promises a sensory experience of synaesthetic totality: to plunge and soar at the same time. Sound, fragrance, light, to oneself become the world that Tristan and Isolde imagined in their song of love. A promise is made and immediately fulfilled: the feat of romantic transformation of the world through a new interpretation of perception. Wagner demonstrated this so fascinatingly in his characters that we can now do it as well. Founder. Drown.

Holger Noltze

Translation: Phyllis Anderson

Eva-Maria Westbroek was born in the Netherlands and trained at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague. Her vocal teachers included Iris Adami Corradetti and American tenor James McCray. A winner of prestigious international competitions (including “Angelica Catalani” and “Santa Maria Ligure”), she made her professional debut with the role of Tosca at age 25 at the Teatro Manzoni in Rome. This was followed by guest appearances in various European theatres and at the Komische Oper in Berlin, where her portrayal of Chrysothemis in Elektra attracted particular attention. From 2001 until 2006, Eva-Maria Westbroek belonged to the ensemble of Staatsoper Stuttgart, where she sang roles such as Carlotta (Die Gezeichneten), the Duchess (Doktor Faust) and Desdemona (Otello). The soprano has appeared in nearly all of the great opera houses and festivals in the world including the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Opéra National de Paris, the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro alla Scala in Milan and Semperoper Dresden. In 2003 she made her debut at the Salzburg Festival, and in 2008 Eva-Maria Westbroek sang the role of Sieglinde in Die Walküre at the Bayreuth Festival. For her interpretation of Jenufa at the Bavarian State Opera in 2010, she was awarded the German theatre prize “Der Faust”. In February 2011 she created the role of Anna Nicole Smith in the world premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera Covent Garden. Eva-Maria Westbroek performed with the Berliner Philharmoniker for the first time at the end of October 2005; she last appeared in the concert performances of Puccini’s opera Manon Lescaut conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in April 2014.

Stuart Skelton, a native Australian, was first trained in Sydney and graduated at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music in 1995. Since then, an international career has led the tenor, who was named Male Singer of the Year at the 2014 International Opera Awards, to the major opera houses and concert halls throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Stuart Skelton has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, English National Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, Zurich Opera, the Semperoper in Dresden, Deutsche Oper Berlin and at the state opera houses in Vienna, Munich, Hamburg and Berlin. His repertoire encompasses Wagner roles such as Parsifal, Lohengrin, Erik and Siegmund, as well as Strauss’s Kaiser, Beethoven’s Florestan, Saint-Saëns’ Samson, Dvořák’s Dimitrij and Britten’s Peter Grimes. Moreover, the tenor is invited to appear as a soloist with the most prestigious symphony orchestras. Stuart Skelton works together with conductors such as Daniel Barenboim, Daniel Harding, Mariss Jansons, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, Simone Young, Michael Tilson Thomas and Franz Welser-Möst. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in December 2011 as soloist in Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, and last appeared with the orchestra in September 2013 in Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Sarah Connolly, born in County Durham in England, studied piano and singing at the Royal College of Music in London. The mezzo-soprano is now a regular guest on leading international stages with a repertoire that includes roles in Monteverdi, Handel, Purcell and Gluck as well as the trouser roles of Mozart, Bellini and Strauss, and in works by Bartók and Britten – for example, as Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and La Scala in Milan, as the composer in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in Gluck’s Orfeo and in the title role of Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. She has also appeared at the festivals in Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, Aldeburgh, Edinburgh, Salzburg and Tanglewood, and at the legendary Last Night of the Proms. The singer has worked with conductors such as Riccardo Chailly, Sir Colin Davis, Daniel Harding, Philippe Herreweghe, Paul McCreesh and Simon Rattle. As a much sought-after interpreter of contemporary music, she has also appeared in premieres of works by Turnage, Harvey and Tavener. For her portrayal of the role of Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, Sarah Connolly was nominated for the Lawrence Olivier Award. She was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2010, and in 2011, she received the Incorporated Society of Musicians’ “Distinguished Musician Award”. The artist made her debut in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts in April 2013 in Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

Michael Nagy received his first musical training with the Stuttgarter Hymnus-Chorknaben. He studied singing and conducting with Rudolf Piernay and Georg Grün in Mannheim, and lied interpretation with Irwin Gage in Saarbrücken. Master classes with Charles Spencer and Cornelius Reid completed his training. In 2004, Michael Nagy won the International Art Song Competition Stuttgart. After two seasons as a member of the ensemble at the Komische Oper in Berlin, he joined Oper Frankfurt where from 2006 to 2011, in addition to the lyric Mozart roles, the baritone made many role debuts, including Wolfram (Tannhäuser), Valentin (Faust), Jeletzki (Pique Dame), Marcello (La Bohème), Albert (Werther) and Frank (Die tote Stadt). Guest engagements have taken the singer to the opera houses in Oslo and Zurich, Deutsche Oper Berlin and to the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, where he sang Stolzius in Zimmermann’s Soldaten under the direction of Kirill Petrenko. In summer 2011, he made his debut at the Bayreuth Festival as Wolfram in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser. As a concert singer, Michael Nagy has appeared with orchestras such as Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Leipzig’s Gewandhaus and the NHK Symphony Orchestra. He has worked with conductors including Adam Fischer, Philippe Herreweghe, Paavo Järvi and Helmuth Rilling. He gave his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in April 2013 at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival and subsequently in concert performances in Berlin as Papageno in Mozart’s Zauberflöte, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. His last appearance was in November 2014 under the direction of Alan Gilbert in works by J. S. Bach and Carl Nielsen.

Stephen Milling studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music before making his debut at the Royal Danish Opera in 1994 in a number of bass roles which form the core of his repertoire today. His success in the roles of Fernando (Fidelio) at La Scala and as Fasolt (Das Rheingold) and Hunding (Die Walküre) in Seattle Opera’s Ring cycle paved the way at an early stage for his international career. He has since appeared as Gurnemanz (Parsifal) at the Salzburg Easter Festival and at Vienna State Opera, as Hunding (Die Walküre) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera, as Fasolt (Das Rheingold) at the BBC Proms and Dutch National Opera, as King Marke (Tristan und Isolde) at the Berlin and Vienna state opera houses, and as Daland (The Flying Dutchman)at Bavarian State Opera. He has also sung the roles of Philip II (Don Carlos) at San Francisco Opera and Rocco (Fidelio) at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Padre Guardiano (La forza del destino) at the Palau de les Artes in Valencia, Sparafucile (Rigoletto) at the Metropolitan Opera and Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte) at Bavarian State Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In 2015, Stephen Milling made his acclaimed debut at the Bayreuth Festival as Hagen (Götterdämmerung) under the baton of Kirill Petrenko. The singer, who is one of the leading interpreters of the Wagner repertoire, works regularly with conductors such as Colin Davis, Zubin Mehta, Christian Thielemann, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Franz Welser-Möst, Antonio Pappano and Daniel Barenboim. He made his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in Verdi’s Requiem in March 2010, conducted by Mariss Jansons.

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