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Act II of Tristan und Isolde Makes Fine Impression


Camilla Nylund and Jonas Kaufmann joined Andris Nelsons (Robert Torres photo)

In 1857, after completing the full orchestra scores of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre and of the first two acts of Siegfried, Wagner stowed them away indefinitely against a time when they could be considered performable, and only then would he decide to finish the Ring. (He did, in 1872-74.)  He then determined to compose an opera likely to be more practical to sing and stage, and Tristan und Isolde was the first result of this new realism. (In 1862 its planned production in Vienna was finally given up after a legendary 77 rehearsals.) On the historical timeline, one can think of it as roughly contemporary with The Origin of Species and the Kékulé theory of molecular structure, but Wagner already knew how much new ground he was breaking; at the end of the sketch for Act I, he wrote So ward noch nie komponirt! (Nothing like this was ever composed before!)  I learned this from the late Robert Bailey, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the Tristan sketches, and who knew more about Wagner than any other expert of our time.

The second act is the real business end of Tristan und Isolde, the major dramatic focus, where the most serious and profound emotion gets worked through, from deep feeling to passion to ecstasy, and by the time the whole Liebesnacht achieves its terrible climax — it takes about half an hour — one is still left wondering how with all their furious conversation this star-crossed fairytale couple, cursed by a fatal drink, ever had time or energy left for honest lovemaking. But the scene includes some of the most sublimely beautiful music ever set down on paper, and it was heard with rapt attention by a full audience in Symphony Hall on Thursday night. (The BSO program said that Act II lasts about 75 minutes but it was actually closer to 85.)

The major portion of Tristan und Isolde was composed in 1857-58 in Switzerland, where Wagner and his wife were given a residence and material support by Otto Wesendonck, a prosperous merchant and Maecenas. The romance between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck has been well documented, but it exploded Wagner’s already long-strained marriage, and Wagner had to leave, eventually taking refuge in Venice, where he completed Act II. (It is worth noting that the Austrian police, who had held a warrant for Wagner’s arrest ever since the Dresden uprising in 1849, repeatedly sought to extradite him to Saxony for trial during 1859, but the music-loving Venetian police chief, aware that Wagner had renounced all political activity and wished only to be left alone to compose, just as repeatedly brushed off the Austrian demand.) During 1857-58, Wagner composed five songs on poems of Mathilde Wesendonck, which are as exquisite a sampling of Wagner’s mature style in miniature as anything he ever wrote; he identified two of them as “Studies for Tristan und Isolde” but the description fully fits all five. (Wagner orchestrated only the fifth of these songs, Träume, but the other four were no less beautifully scored by his disciple Felix Mottl. See if you can find the incomparable recording sung by Kirsten Flagstad and conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch.) It’s remarkable that the verses by Mathilde, an amateur, are actually quite good as song texts, and bear a much better poetic comparison than with Wagner’s own words for the Liebesnacht music, which are so weak as to be almost ludicrous; but then, one doesn’t listen to the Liebesnacht for the words.

Thursday’s concert began with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, composed as a love offering for Cosima on her 33rd birthday, Christmas Day 1870. The original version is for just 13 instruments — –, solo strings, but the work is often performed with a full string section, as it was here. The Boston Symphony’s sound was lovely throughout; but Andris Nelsons’s tempo, almost throughout, was undeniably too slow, and this sometimes made for ragged entrances for wind players.  Some of this could also be explained by Nelsons’s beat, which was often much too expansive for effective communication at slow tempo.  As an audience member I find it annoying when the conductor’s baton hand goes so high that the stick points backwards, directly at the audience; how will a player be able to see a beat in this?

So too with Tristan Act II, which by contrast began much too fast, and much of the time remained at an inflexibly fast tempo.  It was especially troubling to hear the opening pages go by so quickly that the beautifully flowing wind passages got lost in the shuffle, when one couldn’t hear the value of their individual notes — these are melodic lines, after all, not School of Velocity exercises. The offstage horns were therefore hurried to the point of inarticulateness, but they were hard to hear in any case with doors closed — they’re marked ff in the score but they were apparently muted, in an effort to make them sound lontano, and the result didn’t work well. (A few bars after the last offstage horns, the same horn music appears within the orchestra [page 329], with muted horns, and that was superb.)  When the Liebesnacht finally began (“O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”, p. 550), the muted strings were way too soft — but the tempo was about right. The first part of this section coincides with Brangäne’s call from the watchtower, over arpeggiating strings. It was gorgeous, but the bottom of the orchestra was missing in the sound; I couldn’t hear the basses at all. (Think of how Debussy’s heterophonic orchestration was influenced by this music.)  The catastrophic return of the hunting-horn music (pp. 664-665 and 667) was shattering, but the brass were nevertheless too loud: less would have been more! The score moves before the climax from Sehr drängend to Immer etwas drängend to Sehr schnell at Brangäne’s shriek to a more moderate Sehr lebhaft as King Mark’s men come hurrying in, but this too was too fast. In all, this performance quite lacked a very necessary flexibility of tempo that has to be operating essentially all the time, and about which the score, lacking metronome markings, is nevertheless very explicit.

With the very fine singers up against an on-stage orchestra, one could understand why Wagner, in his own design for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, submerged the players below the stage so that they wouldn’t drown out the singers. Nevertheless, I was glad to hear an entire act of a great Wagner opera performed in Symphony Hall. One can download a short performance video HERE.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.


By Brian Bell

The Boston Symphony began performing Wagner in the first month of its existence, in 1881, including one concert in which the band’s first conductor, Georg Henschel, also sang Pogner’s Address, “Das schöne Fest, Johannistag”, from Meistersinger. Henschel also led a Wagner tribute concert within a couple of days of the composer’s death, in 1883. Altogether the BSO gave more than 500 performances of Wagnerian selections during the last two decades of the 19th century. Even the Pops frequently played Wagner through its early history, featuring all-Wagner nights to entice patrons. Both Arthur Fiedler and Keith Lockhart included Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey in their debuts as Pops conductors. When the BSO Pension Fund concerts began, in 1903, they frequently featured all-Wagner affairs with some of the leading voices of the day. Over the past 50 years, however, Wagner has receded from Symphony Hall, the common excerpts sounding much less commonly (just some 300 performances over the past half-century). Making a greater impression than mere selections have been the complete acts of Wagner heard in recent seasons, such as the complete Das Rheingold at Tanglewood last summer with Andris Nelsons; the Act 3 Meistersinger (2009) and the complete Flying Dutchman (2005) with Levine; both Levine and Haitink conducted the Act 1 Walkure and Act 3 Gotterdammerung, with the former leading both in a single performance at Tanglewood in 2005, the latter in Symphony Hall performances in 1992 and 1994. William Steinberg gave the only previous complete Act 2 of Tristan at Symphony Hall in 1972; Seiji Ozawa led a wonderful performance in 1981 at Tanglewood.
My favorite tale regarding Tristan in Boston concerns the great Felix Weingartner in the first Boston Opera House production, February 12th, 1912. Lillian Nordica was booked as Isolde, but on the eve of the premiere had no voice. So the manager cranked up his telephone and called Johanna Gadsky at the Metropolitan, who agreed to sing in spite of a sprained ankle.When Weingartner learned of the substitution, he flew into a rage, “Mein Gott! Verdammt!”This was because Gadski knew only of Toscanini’s cuts at the Metropolitan, which were different from Weingartner’s. An assistant conductor, armed with a vocal score, took a New York-bound train and met Gadski’s Boston-bound railcar in New London. From New London on, Gadski learned all the new cuts, and the critics compared the results favorably with Toscanini’s recent performances at the Met.
Brian Bell, a well known producer, interviewer, and announcer on WGBH and WCRB for 27 years, now can be heard on


4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I agree with Mark DeVoto’s comments! But let’s go further. I don’t think Camilla Nylund made a convincing case for being cast as Isolde. Jonas Kaufmann was better but also not making a strong case for being cast as Tristan. For sure, he will not erase anyone’s memories of some of the great Tristans of the past. Kaufmann had a rough first half until the love scene began, the volume came down, and his voice opened up. There was some beautiful singing at that point, but still, I have heard better from him in his Met in HD performances than we heard last night in Symphony Hall.

    The show was stolen by Georg Zeppenfeld, who sang the role of King Marke, and Mihoko Fujimura, who was a strong Brangane. But Zeppenfeld was the star of the evening by far. What a voice! What command! All I could think was, wow, that’s a Wotan if ever I heard one. He was magnificent.

    The performance of Act II of Tristan und Isolde was wildly uneven, but make no mistake, there was some real magic at times during the performance, and for some extended sections, it was transporting. Perhaps with more rehearsal time and frankly BSO experience performing this music, those sections could have lasted longer. Still, even if only a glimpse, it was worth hearing.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — April 6, 2018 at 4:57 pm

  2. Looking forward to the transmission. I have only hear the two small clips till now.
    Mogulmeister, if You refer to Met transmissions with Kaufmann You forget that they transmitted the forth or fifth performances and not the first of a role debut! Las wait for today and later coming Tristans from Kaufmann. He never will sound like a trumpet (Schager), always paints a role with fine and delicate singing.
    Zeppenfeld is a very experienced Marke, sang it often on stage. I do not like him so much as he has a somehow “one-coloured” singing.
    May be audience prefers loud and one-dimensionalperformance.

    Comment by Waltraud Riegler — April 7, 2018 at 7:21 am

  3. As far as projection goes, Marke (and really, all of the supporting roles) were much more effective than the principals last night. The mismatch will be less obvious on the broadcast, no doubt, but Nylund and Kaufmann– while singing musically throughout– don’t have instruments large enough to compete with an orchestra on stage. Maybe in a small European house with a pit…

    Has anyone else noticed that the BSO strings (primarily) have a bit of a glassy and bright sound these days? The Idyll and much of the opera, until Brangaene’s warning anyway, had a kind of solid-state hifi sheen over the orchestra. This could be from balance between sections, but seemed to me to be stemming more from the kind of sound that the violins, especially, were encouraged to make. I heard less of the core, and more of the bright overtones, not all of which were helpful. Or, to put it another way, less wood and gut, and more artifacts of perlon and titanium/platinum. I’ve heard that effect before under Nelsons’ direction, but I don’t remember it ever being a problem with other conductors even after Joseph Silverstein’s departure.

    Comment by Camilli — April 8, 2018 at 10:57 am

  4. I can find much of myself in all the previous comments, having attended the performance on Saturday, April 7. Indeed, both Camilla Nylund’s and Jonas Kaufmann’s singing was exquisitely beautiful and, at last, fully audible when the orchestra toned down for the Liebesduet (yet, in this German speaking listener’s experience in the last row of the middle section on the second balcony, even the duet was still lacking in clear and crisp diction). Granted that this was the first foray into Tristan-and-Isolde-land for both, the artists may be forgiven for clinging onto their scores and music stands. Yet they did so to the disadvantage of the work, and of themselves as well: they were not open and free enough to fully engage in the passions this music requires. Placing Isolde to the left and Tristan to the right of conductor Andris Nelsons did not help matters either, but, worse, added to the impression that these fine vocal artists were there solely to acquit themselves to the best of their capability of their most difficult assignment to date. I hope that this performance will be the fertile ground of many important insights as to how go forward in improving things as the years ahead unfold. Tristan as work in progress, with the Boston performances being the very first public start of a long haul. I agree with Camilli that both protagonists would do well in a smaller European house – my favorite would be Venice’s La Fenice. (Disclosure: I confess I harbor the warmest of feelings toward this house.) That said, Jonas Kaufmann has stated he will be singing the whole Tristan by 2021. Based on the rather mixed and somewhat underwhelming impression of last Saturday night, I wish him well in this ambitious endeavor. May he find the appropriate small house to sing (!) this punishing, ravishing part. Otherwise, based on what I have heard at this time, I fear I would have to come to only one conclusion at the end of a full-length Kaufmann Tristan: “Tristan dead. Tenor too…” I rather would give anything to hear him sing Tristan in Venice, where Act Two was composed, and know he is alive and well, while making my way back to my rental apartment far to the east of Piazza San Marco, along the narrow streets and across the bridges of La Serenissima…

    Comment by Edgar — April 9, 2018 at 11:31 am

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