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F, B, D♯ & G♯

October 10, 2009

Some days are surreal, yesterday I picked up the news of the Nobel Peace Prize just before a performance of Tristan and tweeted my surprise. Awards I always thought were meant to be for doing something, not saying that you plan to do something. My tweet to that effect elicited several responses to the effect that he got it for not being Bush. When I got home in the early hours of the morning the weekly edition of The New Statesman (still one of the best and reliable reads) had the pictured cover. Now while one can admire the efforts of Norway (pop. 5m) to influence the United States (pop 308m) to adopt a value system closer to its own, they do appear increasingly desperate. Giving the prize to a former President (Carter) having failed to achieve the desired result, they tried someone (Gore) who was elected but disposed by a legal system insufficiently separated from the Executive. When that didn’t work they have now attempted a current President.

I suppose the next attempt in three years time will be to select the Democrat closest to their ideal in the primaries. Having attempting past, wantabe and present, future is the only thing left. I say four years rather than eight, partly because I think the New Statesman has a point, partly because, as far as I can see, Obama is being swiftboated but seems to be making all the same mistakes that Kerry made in terms of response.

Now there are parallels with Tristan, described by Wagner at the time as the most audacious and original work of my life which is anything was an understatement. It contains the first elements of modernism and marks the transition from his early operas, with their roots in Italian opera, to the transcendental form of Meistersinger, the four elements of The Ring and Parsifal. The Tristan Chord is the most famous chord in musical history, as Isolde and Tristan consume what they think is poison, transfigured by acknowledgment of their love in the presence of death, the tristan chord strikes (there is no better word for its impact on the audience). For those not familiar with it, the chord creates a moment of tension that requires resolution, but the form of the resolution (this makes it unique) is that each resolution creates more tension, a harmonic system that “circles around itself without ever reaching its goal” (Metzmacher, Vorhang Auf quoted in programme).

Now any performance to Tristan stands on the performance of the main performers, from the Tristan Chord to Act III. Each completes the others contribution, setting up the response; in this opera, more than any other one good performance is enough enough, we need three from Tristan, Isolde and critically Brangäne whose pragmatic focus on survival is essential. When this works (as it did in the WNO production a few years ago) any feeling person is transfigured and transformed by the end of Act II, unable to speak, in tears, immobile in body. If any component fails then this is not achieved. Last night Ninne Stemme was magnificent, in voice and physical presence, for fainting Irish Princess going meekly to her wedding but Medb Queen of Connacht reborn. I plan to arrange travel to see her Brunhilde in San Francisco if I can. However Ben Heppner was fighting off an infetion and could not rise above the aduience, while Sophie Koch’s voice would be wonderful in many an opera but does not have the strength or depth for this role. So while one performer was outstanding, the failure of others meant that the performance as a whole was disappointing.

And of course, in this Opera death and love have an interdependency that cannot be broken.

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