Monday, February 23, 2009

Tristan | La Scala | Barenboim

First a word about La Scala.

It is glamorous. Bella figura rules. People Dress. Whatever their flavor or style, they are a class act.

Each box has a corresponding cloakroom (I wondered at first what all those other numbered doors were. A parallel universe facing away from the stage?) The last time I was there I sat in the Gallery; a different scene.

The ushers are all young and attractive. They wear black uniforms; the tunic coat gives them an air part ecclesiastical and part military. They wear a chain around their necks with a medallion. The impact is of another time. They open your box and your cloakroom with keys they carry, and if the box is empty at the intervals they lock it until you return.

It was clear from the outset that there was a special rapport between Barenboim and the orchestra; the audience applauded them rapturously every chance they got, even before a baton had been raised or a note played.

It's not easy to be an Isolde. Many try, few succeed. Technically, musically, emotionally, the role is a ballbuster. Beginning as a young, angry, betrayed princess forced into a politcal marriage, she transforms by means of a magic potion into a vortex of all-consuming passion and she dies in a swoon of love that reaches beyond mortality.

Waltraute Meier magically transforms herself into Isolde; it is a role she was born for. She inhabits it like a second skin, channels some cosmic Isolde longing to sing, and sings it like it's real.

Clearly she was a little thrown by Tristan. He was spelling the original Tristan in this production, Ian Storey, and it was his first time out. It had to be clear to everyone concerned that he simply did not have enough voice to sing over the orchestra and rise to the rafters. His voice certainly did not rise to my seat, and I had a choice seat in the front row of a center box on the third tier. I heard and saw everything beautifully, from the smallest orchestral detail to the greatest climaxes, and there are many. I heard soft woodwinds and quiet strings, I heard Melot and Brangane and Kurwenal and King Mark effortlessly. I heard the lonely sailor singing a capella. But I didn't hear Tristan. It wasn't "Tristan and Isolde," it was "Isolde."

The Chereau production is real and virile. Isolde is imprisoned in a man's world, where she has only Brangane and her magic to protect her. The men are not menacing, but they are always there, taking off their shirts and washing their bodies at a water barrel, lounging aimlessly, coiling rope. They look at her; they can't help themselves. They are men. At the end of the prelude the ship emerges from the fog; by the end of the act, in full light and orchestral brilliance, having both drunk the love potion, Tristan and Isolde had to be torn apart while the magisterial Matti Salminen as King Mark strode on board in an executive overcoat. It is a stunning coup de theatre.

To overcome the obvious deficit, the orchestra was extraordinarily brilliant, and Baremboim knows exactly how to exploit the full magic of this music. It rages and simmers and burns with ecstasy. He clearly has an extraordinary artistic connection with Mme. Meier, and knows how to coax both her and the orchestra into the perfect blend of Wagnerian bliss.

When the orchestra was playing softly and you could hear him, Tristan had a pleasant enough voice. And to his credit, he was wonderful physically, considering that he has to sing while dragging himself across the stage by one arm, or while he clawed his way up and down a steep flight of stairs on his stomach. But whenever the music rose above a mezzo forte, his voice simply vanished. During the love duet Meier rode the waves of sound majestically while Tristan sank beneath them.

I was touched by the way the other artists circled the wagons around him to protect him from the loud, inevitable boos of the loggionisti. At the final curtain most of the bows were taken by the entire ensemble, or in groups, but in deference to the radiant performance of Meier and the stature of Salminen, individual bows had to be taken, but only one, and Tristan was booed loudly and it was over very quickly, primarily because the audience was rapturously appreciative of everything else wonderful about this performance.

The unusual intelligence that Barenboim brings to the realization of music is not only musical. He is one of those rare people who has seen the mountaintop. He is not only one of the great conductors of our time; in addition to his unique artistry he is a brave and committed human being. It was international news when he, an Israeli and a Jew, took on the hardliners over the issue of conducting Wagner in Israel. He fought the good fight. He did not win, but he did not lose, either.

As a Jew, I am often put in a very defensive posture because I find Wagner's music sublime and it moves me like no other. I was thrilled to hear Maestro Barenboim say what I had long been saying: that you have to be able to separate the man from the music, the artist from the art. If you can't, more art is compromised than not. Many of the greatest artists in human history were monsters in their personal lives. But the music exists on its own, it was willed into being by the force of genius, and must be appreciated free from considerations of the monstrous personality of the only person crazy enough to have been able to create it. Wagner's music is like the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal; it doesn't matter what we think. It is. Whether we like it or not, it exists in all its glorious and profound humanity.

Barenboim is both an Israeli and Palestinian citizen, which places him in a minority of one. He is committed to finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to further this end he, along with his late colleague Edward Said, a Palestinian-born writer and professor at Columbia University, formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He took a group of musicians, aged 14 to 25, from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Israel, welded them into a musical ensemble and coaxed brilliance from them. They are an object lesson. They remind us that anything is possible. They now perform all over the world. You can read about it on his website Many of his journal entries there are particularly interesting.

There was a moment at the end of the Liebestod where Barenboim did some alchemical articulation of the music that levitated me right out of my seat, a shiver of the sublime down my spine. It was a moment of absolute perferction and those moments are rare. I forgot about Tristan, I forgot about the seat in the opera house, and about me. I was part of the music. If orgasms lasted that long, they'd be better.

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