Monday, August 23, 2010

Looking Back on Tristan

Now that Tristan and Isolde have united in death on Seattle Opera’s stage for the seventh and final time, we wanted to look back at the provocative diversity of reactions to the production that we’ve enjoyed reading in traditional media reviews, in the blogosphere, and on Facebook. Asher Fisch’s conducting and the strength of the cast were universally praised, but other elements of the production invited—and received—a wider variety of responses.

No, Annalena Persson (Isolde) and Clifton Forbis (Tristan) didn’t touch one another until that final moment, a directorial choice inspired by the unresolved tension in the music, the palpable frustration at the heart of this opera. Some were expecting more obvious carnal passion to accompany Tristan and Isolde’s journey toward death; but Linda Stein, who chimed in on our Facebook page, wrote: “How two people could sing up a sexual froth that built for four hours without ever touching each other was magic to behold. Transcendently gorgeous and hot.”

Stage Director Peter Kazaras at a Tristan rehearsal.

And, of course, with a non-representational set, the field of interpretation is limitless. Take for instance, the wide range of theories on the wrapped set pieces at stage left. James Bash of the Oregon Music News pegged them as “representations of pent-up sexual desire.” Irene M. Piekarski offered that they might be “sails, walls, a marriage bed, or a torture rack.” “My guess,” wrote Robert P. Commanday of the San Francisco Classical Voice, “was paintings in storage or awaiting shipment.” Michael van Baker of wrote that the pieces suggested “both the belongings Isolde sails with and the sheeted furniture in a house where someone has died.”

If we were to ask Robert Israel, he would likely say “all of the above.”

If art is supposed to provoke the audience and inspire a myriad of reactions, Seattle Opera has done its job with this Tristan und Isolde. Even one of the self-admitted “booers” on opening night (the only performance to provoke this particular response!) wrote in to Oregon Music News to say he wanted to encourage people to buy tickets—and that he was hoping to return on closing night.

Conductor Asher Fisch, General Director Speight Jenkins, and Stage Director Peter Kazaras at a Tristan rehearsal.

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