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Jack Smith

More Hanky Than Panky in 'Tristan'

December 10, 1987|Jack Smith

I have survived 4 1/2 hours of Wagner in fairly good condition.

My wife and I were among the other opera lovers Sunday afternoon at the Music Center Opera's new production of "Tristan und Isolde."

Though I would not call myself a philistine, during a lifetime in which I have not spared myself many entertainments, somehow I had never seen a Wagnerian opera.

I think I could have gone on suffering that deprivation, but my wife wanted to go. As a girl at home she had listened to Wagner on the Saturday opera hour, while she helped her mother clean the house, and those soaring love duets had been going through her head ever since.

Besides, she likes the pomp and finery and thrill of first nights at the opera. So do I, except it has been only recently, since I found a tuxedo shirt with buttons, instead of studs, that I have not hated dressing.

I was not keen about spending 4 1/2 hours in my seat, except for two intermissions, listening to the agony and ecstasy of Wagner's music; I kept thinking what else I could do with that much time: fly to New York, sail to Catalina, watch a football game (with two overtimes), read a book.

But I was enchanted. The time flew. I can't say it was the plot, either. Arnold Schwarzenegger has had better plots. Tristan, nephew and favorite knight of the Cornish King Marke, slays an ambitious Irish king and brings his betrothed, Isolde, to Cornwall as Marke's bride.

On the ship, Isolde's maid prepares a love potion, instead of the poison Isolde has asked her for, and she and Tristan drink it, preferring death to dishonor. The potion releases the love they secretly feel for each other. Its spell lasts through the third and final act, which is occupied throughout by Tristan's dying.

Tristan and Isolde spend the second act in a prolonged assignation on an evidently comfortable rock outside Marke's palace. Betrayed by Tristan's treacherous friend, Melot, they are discovered by the king, who is naturally disappointed in them. He rebukes his nephew in a long, plangent and moving solo.

Tristan takes sword to Melot, but deliberately drops his guard, seeking death, and is run through. He is taken away to his castle in Brittany by his faithful friend, Kurwenal, who spends most of the third act peering over the ramparts for a sign of Isolde's ship. He has summoned her to heal the dying Tristan.

I won't tell you how it ends, in case you haven't seen it, but take your handkerchief. The pathos is almost more than one can bear.

Tristan, though he is bleeding to death, sings his final love-death lament with vigor, when most people would hardly be able to make a sound above a gurgle.

In an essay printed in the program Susan Sontag suggests that all the spilled blood is Wagner's metaphor for spilled semen, but I suspect that Ms. Sontag is just being her usual creative self.

Being a musical illiterate, I was obliged to wait for Martin Bernheimer's review to know exactly what I thought about "Tristan," but I felt vindicated by his judgment that the production was "a major achievement, worthy of a major international company."

I don't know what the sets for "Tristan und Isolde" are usually like, but David Hockney's innovations for this performance were refreshing and almost playful. For the third act he had created a soaring rampart of rock formations that looked strangely to me like prehistoric predatory fish.

During one of the breaks I bumped into William Wilson, our art critic, and I asked him how he liked the sets.

"I don't know," he said reasonably. "I haven't written my piece yet."

I vowed never again to ask a critic what he thinks during or immediately after a show. None of us know what we think until we sit down at the keyboard to write.

At the party upstairs after the performance, at which, by the way, everyone seemed to have been starved by the prolonged tragedy onstage, I went up to Hockney to shake his hand, which must have been thoroughly wrung by then.

I asked him if it was true that his rock formations in the third act were meant to represent predatory fish.

He said no.

So much for my critical acumen.

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