Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Eternity in a Drink

Yesterday was quite a day at Tristan und Isolde rehearsal. Our Tristan and Isolde, Clifton Forbis and Annalena Persson (left), have been in town for a couple of weeks now, working on their extremely long parts; several of their fellow cast-members, however, began rehearsal yesterday, owing to scheduling conflicts (plus the fact that their roles aren’t so long). When I stopped by in the morning, our stage director, Peter Kazaras, was sharing some of his ideas about the piece.

Peter began thinking deeply about this opera several decades ago, when he was getting to know Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein challenged him to deal with the curious way Tristan und Isolde structures time--how the opera seems to compress time, then dilate it, and finally shatters it into a million fragments, while compressing all of eternity into a single moment. Peter spoke about “Tristan” time, an experience of heightened awareness, of time reaching back and forth into different dimensions, of the magnification of time; he encouraged his cast to read the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, by Ambrose Bierce, conveniently posted HERE, as another approach to this question of the nature of time. In this famous story, Bierce expands upon the idea of life flashing before your eyes as you die. Kazaras suggests that Tristan and Isolde have the same experience, as they drink their magic potion.

Like the “Tristan” chord, which Asher Fisch discussed in our recent video, the magic potion is a symbol so fraught with a multiplicty of meanings that it almost doesn’t mean anything. As Tristan himself sings, in his great epiphany and mad scene in Act Three:
The fateful potion that caused this torture,
I brewed it myself!
From father’s need and mother’s pain,
from tears love caused all my life,
from laughter, weeping, grief, and bliss
I fashioned the drink’s poison!
If you want to cogitate about “the mystery of the potion”, as Brangäne puts it, here are some representations of that iconic moment, that image at the heart of this opera, that fraught moment when the woman offers the man a beverage. This kind of story always needs that scene, whether we’re talking about Tristan and Isolde:
Photo by Ken Howard
And I particularly love this one with Melchior and Flagstad:


Or Siegmund and Sieglinde:

Image by P. Craig Russell
Or Siegfried and Gutrune:

Painting by Arthur Rackham
Or Aragorn and Eowyn:


Or, in Neil Gaiman’s recent riff on Beowulf, Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s mother and Ray Winstone as the hero:

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