Bayreuth Festival: Opera Thoughts

Otherwise known as the post in which I hopefully convince you to give opera a chance. I’ll go over what the Bayreuth Festival is in a different post (I think it lies somewhere between a ‘Wagner Comicon’ and ‘Wagner Coachella’) but this is going to be more about the three operas I’m seeing at the festival: Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal and the new production of Tannhauser.

A couple thoughts on opera: One secret about enjoying opera is that you should always go into it knowing the plot and the score. Listen through the whole thing or at least the well known arias and if you can, listen to a couple different singers for the same aria so you can figure out which artist’s interpretation feels right for you. It’s like when you go to see a cover band – you have your gold standard which is what you expect to hear but maybe that band interprets it a bit differently, plays with the tempo, etc. You line up the new interpretation against what you previously heard and decide if the changes made were for better or worse. You should enjoy opera the same way.

Don’t let the connotation of opera put you off from going. It’s not as pretentious as it sounds. It’s not a black tie affair unless you want to make it that – you’ll see people at the Met roll in with evening gowns right along with people in jeans. And nearly every production uses super titles (an English translation that’s projected above the stage) or something similar so there’s no language barrier to be concerned about. The stagings vary between those with traditional period costumes to ultra modern interpretations and everything in between. And opera isn’t dead, there are still operas being written today. But I think if anything can change your stereotype of what opera is, I would like to share with you that someone wrote an Anna Nicole Smith opera AND IT WAS PERFORMED AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE!

The Anna Nicole Smith opera. No words. But the Met did put a stripper on a pole in the recent production of Rigoletto so maybe this is the direction we’re going.

Tristan und Isolde

Short summary: Act I! Isolde is aboard a ship on her way to marry the man she’s promised to, King Marke. The knight who is escorting her on the voyage is Tristan. Prior to this voyage, Isolde had found Tristan wounded and used her magic to heal him. Then she found out that Tristan was the one who killed her fiance Morold. Because of this revelation, Isolde tries to kill Tristan but can’t bring herself to do it. So she spares his life and tells him to leave and never return. Well, some time passes and back come Tristan to fetch her to be bride for King Marke. Isolde is not happy at all. So she digs out a potion from her things and decides on a murder/suicide scenario to get back at Tristan and keep her from marrying King Marke. They drink the potion but instead of dying, they fall in love (Isolde’s handmaiden Brangane had switched the vials). They approach land and Act I ends. Now in King Marke’s castle, Act II consists of Isolde waiting for Tristan to come to her bedroom while Brangane tells her how awful an idea this is and how Tristan’s friend Melot seems to have figured out what’s going on. Isolde frankly does not care what Brangane thinks. So who shows up to Isolde’s room but Tristan and a very long duet ensues…until Melot and King Marke walk in on the two of them mid-song. King Marke is Tristan’s uncle and he doesn’t understand why his nephew is sleeping with his wife-to-be. Tristan tells the King he wouldn’t understand and makes a thinly veiled suicide pact with Isolde. Melot stabs Tristan and Tristan begins the long process of dying goes on almost until the end of the third act. Act III! Tristan goes from dying in King Marke’s castle to dying in his own home thanks to his friend Kurwenal. He proceeds to spend the entire act dying/proclaiming his love of Isolde as he waits for her to arrive and heal his wound with her magic. Just as Isolde shows up, Tristan dies. Right behind Isolde are Melot, King Marke and Brangane. Kurwenal and Melot take each other out almost immediately and then King Marke tells Isolde that he was enlightened by Brangane about the love potion and came to see them with the intention of bringing the lovers together. Isolde sings about Tristan and then she dies too.

My 7 euro program that may or may not survive in my backpack over the next 8 months.

Very short summary: Tristan chord plays in prelude then…[wait four hours]…Liebestod!

Very very short summary: Suffering.

Most-well known parts: There are two, which seems like not a lot for such a long opera.

The most important part of Tristan und Isolde has no lyrics so you don’t even have to worry about translating anything from German! It’s simply a chord progression that sets the tone for the rest of the opera. I’ve put a pair of videos below that do an excellent job of explaining how the Tristan chord takes opera’s themes of longing and unfulfilled desires and writes it explicitly into the score. You can listen to the whole prelude here.

This is a clip from a documentary that Stephen Frye did called ‘Wagner & Me’ where he explores his obsession with Wagner. It explains the Tristan chord really well and also includes Frye nerding-out repeatedly over Wagner.
Another really good explainer on the Tristan chord from Antonio Pappano (Royal Opera House). I really enjoy listening to him explain music because you can hear how passionate he is.

The second most well-known part is the Liebestod (meaning “love death”) sung by Isolde at the close of the third act. Tristan is dead but Isolde imagines him alive. In life they are never able to consummate their love but in death they find that bliss (not sure if this is the word I want but think Romeo and Juliet). To that end, in the middle of the Liebestod we finally get the resolution to the Tristan Chord that started this whole thing.

Liebestod, the closing piece to Tristan und Isolde, with English subtitles. This is from a different production also done at Bayreuth.

Bayreuth Experience: The house isn’t air conditioned so the fact that we had wonderful weather was an absolute blessing. You could still tell though that some of the guys were suffering in their suits. But it’s Tristan und Isolde – the whole point is to suffer!

Interesting take on the plot by Katharina Wagner. Instead of having Tristan and Isolde fall in love at the end of the first act, they are madly in love from the time the curtain starts and spend the opera trying to commit suicide so they can be together in death. The sets are fabulous, especially in Act III where a delirious Tristan encounters a series of ‘fake’ Isoldes standing in lighted triangles all over the stage. The ending is a different interpetation as well – instead of Marke coming to unite the lovers, he lets Isolde sing Liebestod, decides that’s enough of that and drags her off. It’s not the original plot but it works. I found the whole performance online if you want to scroll through for the set design.

Final thoughts: I’m not sure I could have had a better time at my first Bayreuth outing. I finally was able to see (okay not really see because Bayreuth) Christian Thielemann conduct in person (he won the most applause and foot stomping at the final curtain). Even better, I made friends with the woman sitting next to me from Nuremberg and spent the two intermissions talking with her and her friend about Wagner and the opera in Europe versus the US. I was so pleasantly surprised with how not stuffy and welcoming the entire experience was. Less people going there to be seen and more people going because they truly love the music. Obviously, I’m now very excited for Tannhauser on Sunday.

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