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It’s been said that more has been written about Richard Wagner than about anyone else in history except Jesus Christ and Napoleon. That may sound like a stretch—Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, Hitler, and Einstein were no pikers when it came to generating press—but the statement isn’t all that far off the mark. After all, a torrent of words seems the best way to counter the epic outpourings of this great and gruesome Teutonic icon.

Wagner was one of history’s great scoundrels. He shifted his political affiliations to suit his career trajectory, impregnated his best friend’s wife, parlayed King Ludwig’s patronage into an obscene level of personal wealth, shamelessly leeched money from less affluent friends, treated womanizing as a divine right, and produced anti-Semitic writings so virulent only a Führer could love them. He pontificated in print on any subject that took his fancy—music or mythology, philosophy or travel, German history or the art of theater—writing with passion, even vehemence, and thinking nothing of reversing his own position on a subject depending on the day. His favorite topics were artistic philistines (read: anyone who didn’t like his music), the cultural superiority of Germans (read: those who might like his music), and the inferiority of Jewish musicians (read: his competition).

Yet friends and detractors alike forgave Wagner, enabled him, railed at him—but did so worshipfully. Why? Because this irritating, noxious little man was, quite simply, one of the great musical minds of Western history. In the opera world, he is Christ, Napoleon, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, Hitler, and Einstein rolled up into one oddly seductive hunk of strudel. It’s easy to assemble a laundry list of the things Wagner excelled at—the marriage of Bellinian “endless melody” to orchestral writing of enormous complexity, the treatment of mythic material that rivaled the ancient Greek playwrights in stage smarts and cathartic power, the librettos (written by the composer himself) that make cogent sense as philosophy and politics and offer pre-Freudian insight into character psychology, the way the scores are built on webs of interlocking themes (leitmotifs) that provide blueprints for the currents of emotion and power coursing through the operas.

But that’s all stuff on paper. Wagner’s genius involves the spell he casts over the long spans of his works—euphoria, catatonia, and weepy epiphanies. His magic doesn’t work on everybody, but once you succumb it’s damn hard to shake. The Wagnerian mojo is impossible to describe while standing outside the experience (am I sounding a wee bit like an addict here?), but its potency is undeniable when you’re in it.

If it’s done right.

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Washington Opera takes a good stab at Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, especially for a company that has pretty well ignored this most important of opera composers over the past four decades. The WashOp Tristan is not heavy on incantory power—the production is better for clear-headed appreciation than for chills and hallucinations—but this is an opera nearly impossible to realize completely onstage. The composer, with typical blushing humility, declared his operas “music dramas,” “complete artworks,” “the art of the future.” Well, he was right. By the time he wrote Tristan (1859), Wagner’s stage works had evolved into through-composed symphonic poems with voices, providing a model of opera composition for the rest of the 19th century and most of the 20th. Vocal display is plentiful (even if it’s of the anything-you-can-sing-I-can-sing-louder variety), but most everything of importance is in the orchestra, which functions as the characters’ individual and collective unconscious. Moreover, the musical writing is jaw-droppingly ahead of its time, with harmony pushed to its chromatic limits. Restless and surging, the score is built on chords so thick and ambiguous in their tonal center that Western music had nowhere to go from there but into Schoenberg’s wholesale embrace of atonality.

Needless to say, you don’t throw together Tristan with some half-assed community orchestra, and WashOp comes up trumps with the Opera House Orchestra under Heinz Fricke’s baton. If it lacks the sumptuous string sound of the opera house orchestras in New York, Vienna, or Berlin, it’s able to negotiate the turbulent waters of the score and connect phrases into the uninterrupted through-line that is so vital to the musical sense of this piece. Fricke finds the ache in the exposed wind lines and dovetails them masterfully, and he knows how to keep things moving at a good clip (through four-and-a-half hours, including two healthy intermissions) without losing the heat and feeling of suspended animation in the score. (Fricke’s Wagner sounds a lot more sympathetic here than in his four-square, soulless Flying Dutchman and surfacey concert performance of Die Walküre, Act I, early in his tenure at WashOp, but he’s brought the orchestra to a much better place musically, which helps enormously.) He’s also very good at allowing the orchestra to cushion the singers without overwhelming them. But, between Fricke’s customary taste for moderation and the lack of golden age, force-of-nature Wagner voices onstage, this Tristan never opens up to full throttle and lifts us to that other, delirious place the work is capable of sending us.

Even more than orchestral demands, the requirements of singing Wagner represent the biggest obstacle for any opera company trying to mount a slab of musical granite like Tristan. First off, Wagner had a habit of creating young, beautiful, sexually alluring characters, then writing music for them that can only be handled by singers with voices of superhuman size and endurance and the vocal and interpretive maturity that comes with middle age. That’s why a dewy-eyed teenage piece of beefcake like, say, Siegfried, is usually sung by a balding 50-year-old, built like something made by Frigidaire. (The current superstar Tristan and Isolde, Ben

Heppner and Jane Eaglen, are so large they render set designers superfluous.) No, dramatic credibility in Wagnerian performance is hardly a given. But we can endure that loss if the Sherman tanks rolling through the leading parts sing like gods.

Now the bad news: We’re currently in the midst of a worldwide famine of the so-called heroic tenor and soprano voices capable of getting through a run of Tristans. (Lower Wagnerian voices are fortunately much thicker on the ground.) Which means the handful of singers truly up to the task are stretched mighty thin, and they wind up taking bookings at only the largest houses and festivals. Everybody else has to scrounge to assemble a less-than-embarrassing cast. WashOp has managed to do the impossible in finding age-appropriate cast members who look great in their roles. Singing and acting effectively are another story, however, and the singers in this current staging are textbook examples of the one-or-the-other syndrome: There are decent singing and decent acting to be had, but don’t expect to find both in the same performer.

Not that Tristan’s a piece of cake to act. A doomed-lover romance of the Romeo and Juliet school, it has a Schopenhaueran jones for oblivion, with night and darkness and death seen as friends to love and garish daylight as an impediment, the symbol of an illusory world. Wagner’s story concerns a war between ancient Cornwall and Ireland, after which Cornwall’s victorious King Marke claims the Irish princess Isolde as a bride-prize. Isolde isn’t keen on being told what to do, and to make things worse, the best man is Tristan, a Cornish soldier she once nursed back to health on the battlefield, despite the fact he had slain her fiancé. (Ah, the ways of attraction are mysterious indeed.) Isolde figures a death potion will solve her problems, but her servant Brangäne serves up a love potion instead. Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and become very attached to each other, so to speak. Marke discovers them and is devastated (heavy shades of the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle here); Tristan is mortally wounded by his weasly, outraged friend Melot and is whisked off to Cornwall to die. Isolde arrives just in time to catch a final kiss and finishes the whole shebang by singing the thrice-familiar “Liebestod” (Love-Death) and sinking into that longed-for oblivion.

The love potion, of course, is just a device to unleash years of pent-up longing and let the lovers do their thing. Likewise, the simple plot is just a springboard for psychological explorations in a dozen different directions, here involving conflicting loyalties to state and self, paternal feelings vs. romantic love, the loss of parents, the betrayal of friendships, and making peace with death. That’s a lot for a singer to play, especially in an opera where very little actually happens onstage and it doesn’t actually happen for a very long time. What’s needed in Tristan is acting of subtlety, ardor, and psychological insight, and singing capable of conveying nuance—oh yeah, and conveying it over an 80-piece orchestra. A pretty near impossible dream, yes, and WashOp’s production is not one for dreamers.

Act 2 is more successful than the rest of the production, with Lotfi Mansouri’s stage direction of the lengthy love duet avoiding the usual moony-eyed “symbolic” yearning and giving us instead real eye contact and exchanges of tenderness that look genuine for a change. Again, it doesn’t hurt that Jyrki Niskanen and Carol Yahr are a handsome, believable-looking Tristan and Isolde, or that Yahr works at creating a compelling character. Frode Olsen gives the most complete performance of the evening as King Marke (who will be played by Siegfried Vogel in the final three performances), rolling out a fat, sonorous bass-baritone and arresting attention in his long, often static Act 2 monologue. Olsen’s really got the measure of this guy. James Shaffran also does much with the tiny role of Melot.

The outer acts bring as many losses as gains. Rosemarie Lang and Jürgen Freier sing the hell out of Brangäne and Kurvenal, Tristan’s faithful-unto-death servant. Lang boasts a big woody tone with just a hint of incisive edge, and she knows how to mine her words for maximum meaning. Freier has the swaggering, hale-and-hearty brand of Wagner singing down pat, his voice suggesting a smiling countenance and a full tank of testosterone. What a shame their acting consists of standing, immobilized, staring full out at the conductor, or overemoting with an abandon that must be seen to be believed. Niskanen’s brand of vocal heft and lyrical sweetness is quite a find, considering the current dearth of good Wagner tenors, but no one’s going to confuse him for an actor. Listless, goofy, disengaged, and prone to jut out his lower lip into a little puppy-dog face when he’s not singing, this Tristan is best listened to appreciatively and with one’s eyes closed. (You can blame the stage director for these lapses, but perhaps these singers are simply stones even a veteran like Mansouri can’t draw blood from.)

What leaves the most serious hole in this production, though—and my reaction is based on the second performance (March 2), which may have been a very different animal than opening night—is the condition of Carol Yahr’s voice. This lovely, committed Isolde sings with a big, flapping vibrato, an uneven lower register, underpowered high notes, and a dry, papery quality throughout her range. Her quiet singing, as in the love duet, is quite lovely and moving, but anything above medium volume gets her into trouble. Far more illustrious colleagues of Yahr’s have struggled through recent Wagner performances with equally ugly results—Hildegarde Behrens, Eva Marton, and Gwyneth Jones come most readily to mind—but that doesn’t decrease the disappointment and concern for the well-being of Yahr’s pipes, which sound in more perilous shape now than during her appearance in WashOp’s Tiefland several seasons ago.

The set, by Mauro Pagano, which WashOp is sharing with San Francisco Opera, is a catchall of postwar Wagnerian design clichés—cloud scrim, circular stage platform, abstracted trees, phallic ship’s prow, gargantuan moon, star curtain, backdrops of single, saturated color—but manages to lend unobtrusive emotional support to the goings-on onstage. Two unfortunate, mood-killing situations at the performance I attended perhaps have not been repeated. The first, in Act 1, involved some electronic enhancement of the offstage chorus (live mics? prerecording?), which was grotesquely overamplified to the point of distortion. The other was the travesty made of the gorgeous English horn solo at the opening of Act 3 by an audience that decided, en masse, to clear a winter’s worth of phlegm from its lungs. Kurt Masur walked off the podium recently when a New York Philharmonic audience turned into an impromptu TB ward during some particularly delicate music. What will it take to drive the point home to Washington audiences?

Tristan is an opera perhaps best staged in the theater of the mind; real footlights, and all the attendant variables of live performance, tend to undercut its hypnotic power. WashOp provides its share of distractions, but the production as a whole works decently enough, and it gives a pretty good idea of what this Wagner Thing is all about. Catch it while you can. Operas of this size and complexity have not been given a place on next season’s roster. CP