Tristan, Isolde, Wagner and I. "Must I waken?"

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Mon, 2006-10-23 23:15

I saw the opera Tristan and Isolde on the weekend (staged by the Welsh National Opera), my first Wagner opera. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about and see (with an open mind) if Wagner was really the operatic genius that some people claim he is.

I have to say that theatrically it was a bit boring, I almost fell asleep at one part - even though I know the story well. I had seen the very excellent movie version (very much in the Randian life-affirming spirit) earlier this year - and I subsequently looked up the more traditional variations of this story.

Musically it was more interesting in places, even quite conventional and not as atonal as I imagined. However, again surprisingly, these were only musical highlights interspersed amongst some very dull and uninspiring music. The best parts musically of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde were the prelude to act one (already a quite well-known and popular piece played on Classic FM) and the finale to act three (the sort of gloriously thunderous finale you would expect from Wagner).

From a "sense of life" point of view, this opera was the worst thing you could imagine. Wagner was fully in love with Schopenhauer’s philosophy by this stage of his career, so that the whole opera is just full of yearning from Tristan and Isolde about how wonderful it would be to be dead instead of having to endure such a strong and passionate love. There are even two lines that spoken by each character explicitly saying that when they die they will become one with the Universe - in that old Buddhistic ideal Schopenhauer advocated.

But don’t just take my word for it; here is a quote from a book written by a Wagner fan.

“In ActII they again want to die together. They are now openly in love with each other, and are longing for the only true oneness open to them, the oneness of the noumenal state to which death will return them.

Isolde: Let me die now.
Tristan: Must I waken?
Isolde: Never waken.
Tristan: With the day, must Tristan waken?
Isolde: Let the day to death be given!”

I might try again with another Wagner opera (open minded as always), but the rest of the book does not make encouraging reading.

“Readers will remember that in Wagner the idea of a man and a woman united in death, released by their love from the need for any further life in this world, goes back through “Tannhaeuser” to “The Flying Dutchman”; but previously it had been based on rationally unsupported intuition, whereas now it has behind it the whole magnificent edifice of Kantian-Schopenhauerian philosophy.”

Oh charming! Not just boring then, but Wagner had moved on with "Tristan and Isolde" to wickedly boring! Shall I give him another try? Hmmmmm Smiling

( categories: )


Tim S's picture


I don't know which Trisan & Isolde production you saw, but the one I saw last weekend at the Royal Opera House was so mind-blowingly good I can scarcely contemplate your review, now that I've finally caught up with this opera three years down the track. Yes, the director of the particular production I saw masturbated all over the visual staging too much in typical minimalist, German post-modernist style; and yes, Wagner did let Tristan did go on just a little too much about the terror of daylight vs the "wonderful night" in Act II. But to focus on those attributes alone would be positively Parillian.

What I saw in it was 4 hours of orgiastic wallowing followed by one stupendous unloading in the form of the Liebestod (courtesy Nina Stemme). If that didn't do it for you I can't think what's wrong!

The conclusion of the Levin's article...

Marcus's picture

...seems to be that there is something indescribably "not nice" inside of him that is strangely attracted to Wagner's operas.

Levin thinks that Wagner's operas show the ugliness of man as well as the heroic and that this gives a balanced view of ourselves. That almost bespeaks the mentality of religious fundamentalism and environmentalism.

Wagner's ring and Tolkien's ring seem to be getting closer all the time!!!

I am still waiting for Peter's response, though.

Siegfried's Funeral March & Hitler's Suicide

Ted Keer's picture

Perhaps someone will know this reference. About 10 years ago I was watching a late night interview show (Charlie Rose, for those who know - and hey, I didn't have cable, so lay off) where the interviewee had just published (if I remember it) a History of Art. What interested me was that during the War he was a translator for the British radio corps monitoring German civilian broadcasts. Toward the end of action in Europe he was alone, listening (I think at night) to a radio broadcast from Berlin, when, unannounced, the regularly scheduled broadcast was interrupted, and Siegfried's funeral march (the mournful bit with the drums and horns from the movie Excalibur, for those who don't know it) began playing without explanation. Knowing the thematic nature of the German broadcasts, and that Wagner was invariably played when Hitler was about to make an announcement, our translator immediately realized that this death tribute, which had never before been played, was the announcement of Hitler's demise. In ecstasy, the translator realized that this meant that Hitler was dead, and that he was likely the first, and perhaps the only person in the Allied Forces to be aware of that fact. Can anyone remeber this anecdote, or provide an educated guess as to whom the translator / art historian might have been?


BTW, A. Damasio of "Descartes' Error" uses T&I as his example of the most exquisite love song ever. I have to admit I rarely enjoy Opera, prefering what I call "heavy metal" - like Beethoven's 3-9th, Liszt's Preludes, and the malevolent stuff like Bald Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition. But I enjoy the suggested listening

Just when...

mckeever's picture

Lindsay wrote: "Not at all. It's an incontrovertible, objective truth that one would have to be stupid to wear a bow-tie, or any kind of neck-tie. Unless one were being paid to. As one was on that occasion."

Just when I was prepared to discover you cannot take a joke, you prove me wrong.  Glad to meet you Lindsay.



Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.
-Oscar Wilde

> the entire opera was five

PhilipC's picture

> the entire opera was five and a half hours...two other old men sitting next to us were also snoring away.

I don't know much about Wagner, other than the masochistic length of his operas, but I have it on good authority that most of them were originally orchestrated for oboe, trumpet, snorers, and passing wind instrument.

Alas ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Not frequently enough.


Peter Cresswell's picture

"So, Lindsay...what you're saying here is... You will be stupid for money?"

And frequently has been. Smiling

Cheers, Peter Cresswell


Melissa Lepley's picture

So, Lindsay...what you're saying here is...

You will be stupid for money?


"Shiny. Let's be bad guys."

Mr. McK

Lindsay Perigo's picture

And Lindsay: one might similarly conclude that one would have to be stupid to wear a would be just as whimsical and false.

Not at all. It's an incontrovertible, objective truth that one would have to be stupid to wear a bow-tie, or any kind of neck-tie. Unless one were being paid to. As one was on that occasion.

Marcus writes: "You are a

mckeever's picture

Marcus writes: "You are a "range of moment" type, not someone that can defer judgement to inference. Doing so is all part of growing up philosophically."

Oy-yoy-yoy.  Hello to you too stranger.

You make that sweeping inference on the basis of your extensive exposure to the facts regarding my morality, statements, and conduct!?  There is a limit to what one can infer from a person's like of a melody or harmony, especially when you have NEVER HEARD THE SONGS IN QUESTION.

Oh to be as grown up as you.

And Lindsay: one might similarly conclude that one would have to be stupid to wear a would be just as whimsical and false. 

Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde

Bernard Levin

Peter Cresswell's picture

Perhaps the best thing I can do is post an excerpt from the late Bernard Levin (a long excerpt, but in doing so I'm in good company, and I feel sure Bernard's shade would forgive me) reviewing his own pilgrimage to the 1988 Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, Germany. (He used to go every year.)

Why am I posting this?

Well, partly because I'm too pushed for time presently to say all that I want to say on this, partly because of Levin's own wit (and to indicate the intelligence he expected in his readers), but also because reading Levin's many, many pieces in which he wrestled with his Wagner obsession were one of my own introductions to the Wagner phenomenon, and at the same time a great help in navigating my own initial reservations with old Richard once the bug began to bite.
* * * * *

Excerpt from ‘Thoughts from the Darkness’ by BERNARD LEVIN, a column reviewing his Bayreuth experience of 1988.

The sickening tide of the cult of Richard Wagner, which began in his lifetime, still flows unabated — indeed, more strongly than ever. There are, of course, detailed studies of the works and lives of his few equals; the literature on Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Bach, is very substantial. But the Wagner library is much larger than all of those together.

Why is it that the ore of the Wagner-mines alone is inexhaustible, and the efforts of the miners likewise? Alas, there is an answer, and it covers those who cannot break free of his spell as well as those who hate him and every bar of his music. It is that he alone in all genius knows all our most terrible secrets, and forces us to know ourselves as we are — or, worse, as we might be. Wagner is Honorary Psychiatrist Extraordinary to the art of music, and you will find him in the third scene of Das Rheingold, under the name of Alberich, wielding a whip over the workers in his power (including his brother) as they dig deeper and deeper to tear out of the innocent earth the truth about human beings. He does it by dealing impartially and implacably with the most sublime of humanity’s attributes — love, heroism, nobility, truth — and also the darkest of humanity’s secrets — hate, treachery, incest, murder. And what moves both those who are his slaves and those who are his declared enemies is his iron insistence on the most dreadful truth of all— that good and evil are equally available to all, entwined like the rope of the Norns in Gotterdammerung.

Steeling myself, I stood in front of the [Bayreuth] Festpielhaus bookstall and began to count the books by and about him: I ran, shrieking for a sausage and a beer, when I got to eighty-seven. My dissertation will be called Sausages and Phallic Symbolism in the Works of Wagner. There is, I fear, some galumphingly obvious sexual symbolism in Harry Kupfer’s production; . . . Kupfer, though a wretchedly limited man, is an ingenious one, and some things came off splendidly; the use of lasers was exciting, the gantries and catwalks of Nibelheim worked well, even in British Telecom yellow; the giants were a triumph - fully 14 feet high, and moving on invisible wheels — at one point, Froh had to skip nimbly out of harm’s way. (‘Cause of death: run over by mechanised giant.’) And the Woodbird appeared in a dangerously uncanonical but most striking form, though a world-renowned authority on songbirds whom I met in the interval assured me that the whole scene was based on a fallacy; apparently they do not sing while flying, only when they come to rest. (Presumably the production will be panned in the Ornithological Quarterly.)

But in the end, it won’t do, if only because Kupfer, whenever faced with a real difficulty, runs away from it. Take those giants; because the men inside them can do nothing but sing, they cannot pick up the gold, let alone quarrel over it, so there is no visible reason for Father to murder his brother. There is no attempt to deal with the problem — the people out there are only the audience, and what do they matter? So the production gets progressively lazier and more contemptuous, till it peters out in the clichés of the day before yesteryear, which Kupfer doubtless thinks the last word in modernity, where he comes from, it probably is.

He comes from East Germany. Now the physical brutality of Siegfried towards Mime in Kupfer’s production is more marked than any I have ever seen; perhaps he has a brother in the Vopos, who showed him how it is done. Very well; but if there is one opera-house in the world where it should not be permitted for a production to have a character representing a Master Race seize a member of a race he is shown as hating and despising and make to thrust him into a furnace, then that opera-house is Bayreuth. Millions of a despised race went into furnaces by the order of the Wagner family’s most loved and honoured regular patron; if Kupfer, next year, has not removed this filthy gesture from his production, Wolfgang, who will remember the honoured guest, no doubt with mixed feelings, as Onkel AdoIf had better do so for him. (Jeremy Isaacs told me that when the scene took place, the man sitting behind him laughed.)

And yet, musically, this came very close to the Ring of my dreams. Barenboim, whose first Ring it is, has cleared out the old guard almost completely; I cannot remember a year with so many leading roles taken by singers new to Bayreuth — with, I am happy to say, the Brits to the fore: John Tomlinson was a Wotan of formidable power and beauty of tone, Graham Clark a deadly, ice-cold Loge and an amazingly acrobatic and mellifluous Mime; Linda Finnie a Fricka more human and intimate than most (and she threw in a Norn and a Valkyrie as well).

More to the point, Siegfried Jerusalem is the conquering hero the world’s opera-houses, as well as Brünnhilde, have been waiting patiently for; he is so far singing only the Siegfried Siegfried, but when he has mastered the Gotterdammerung one as well, the role is his wherever he wants to sing it — the voice is beautiful, ringing and equal to all the tasks Wagner set it. (But he may be called to higher things. He fielded his bouquet — they are flung from the end of the front row — with sensational skill; it crossed in front of his body shin-high, and he had the light in his eyes as he dived for a brilliant left-handed catch. Bayreuth be damned; this man is needed in the slips for the MCC.) There is also a sensational new Korean Hagen, Philip Kang, and an equally exciting new Alberich, Günter von Kannen, with a voice almost too rich and fine for the character’s evil. (Brunnhilde? Hm.)

As for the conductor, Barenboim had been criticised for uncertain tempi; by the time I got there they had largely settled down, and his loving, rich but restrained version reminded me of the years with Kempe at Covent Garden, and none the worse for that.

At Bayreuth, the mustard for those sausages is provided in a bucket — a large, green plastic bucket. Well, it is not the only thing that comes by the bucketful in Wagner’s opera-house. I begin to think it is time for me to pack up the entire box of tricks, cut the puppet-master’s strings, and free myself from lifelong bondage. For great genius that he was, perhaps the most original figure in all art, he was nevertheless a man of his time, which was the second half of the nineteenth century.

What do I want all that musical mahogany for, what do I want with the horrible Stabreim, that never was talked by land or by sea, why do I tolerate the entire Wagnerian system of the leitmotivs (I think it was Saint-Saëns who said it was like meeting a lunatic at a party who keeps giving you his visiting-card), why do I put up with the gibberish, the reverence, the interminable hours in Stygian darkness while the characters review the plot and ask each other idiotic riddles? (There is only one laugh in the Ring it is unintentional, and you have to wait from Tuesday to Friday for it. It is also not very funny.)

There is damnable darkness in these works; what in God’s name am I doing, wallowing where Hitler wallowed? Even the audience demonstrates the triumph of the Manichee; did you know that booing, by however few, can always be heard over cheering, by however many? Why don’t I just retire from Wagner, and spend the rest of my life with Mozart and Schubert, who show me they way to a real heaven, not that gimcrack Valhalla, and with Beethoven, who tells me that for the brave there is heaven even on earth?

Because I stayed on for The Mastersingers (another success for the Brits — Alan Opie as a marvellously bureaucratic Beckmesser), and the glorious human goodness of that tremendous score not only soothed my soul to quiet, but told me that my ravings about the Ring will dissolve instantly every time, as soon as that E flat steals out into the darkness. And so they will; because for all the fear and cruelty and beastliness it contains and all the beauty and passion and excitement, as well as all the intolerable demands it makes of us over those sixteen hours, it is among the world’s profoundest and most certainly eternal masterpieces, forever challenging us to confront and absorb it. And because, finally, it tells us, in sounds utterly different from anything else in music, that those creatures from the depths of the human psyche are in us all, and that unless we face that truth, as Siegfried faces the fire, we shall never heal the split that rives us, and be whole. Believe me; when I say I shall never come to Bayreuth again, I lie.

The Times September 3rd, 1988

Peter, I hope your reply...

Marcus's picture

...will address the point of Wagner's sense of life in this opera - not my taste in music.

However, the irony is that I actually say in this critique that I enjoyed two pieces of music in the opera. If you really wish to belittle my taste in music, why don't you take into account that fact as well?

Anyway, this is an opera: a combination of theatre, voice and music. Why do you just concentrate on the music in that case? By the way, it would interest me whether or not you have actually been to a live performance of one of Wagner's operas - especially this one - Tristan and Isolde?

Except that ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Those criteria, I thought, might better meet Marcus's implicit criteria than the longer, more complex, more uplifting Wagner.

That's a mistaken inference. Recently Marcus was bitching at Puccini for being too short (Tosca)! One doesn't mind length if it's quality stuff. Much of Wagner is just tuneless droning. Having listened yesterday to Parsifal in its entirety I was reminded just how much!

It's fair and just to belittle the intelligence and attention spans of headbanging fans, since they clearly have to be stupid. One should tread more warily with authentic fans of authentic music.


Peter Cresswell's picture

My rather trivial point with suggesting Marcus should try the Ramones instead of Wagner was that in contrast to Wagner their songs are known chiefly for being:
a) short (often less than two minutes)
b) simple
c) bubblegum pop.

Those criteria, I thought, might better meet Marcus's implicit criteria than the longer, more complex, more uplifting Wagner.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

PS: I'll try and find the time to post a more substantial comment later today (NZ time).

You've heard one Ramones

JoeM's picture

You've heard one Ramones song, you've heard em all, pretty much. How much can ya do with the same three chords?

Don't be so intellectually lazy Mckeever.

Marcus's picture

Q) What was I yawning at?

A) The idea of listening to US punk music.

You are a "range of moment" type, not someone that can defer judgement to inference. Doing so is all part of growing up philosophically.

There are yawns and...

mckeever's picture

Let's not drop context ole' boy.  You said "yawn" to suggest dismissal of a band that, by your own admission, you've never even heard of...a condemnation that preceded any examination of the facts at all.  In other words, you failed to judge justly.

That said: you might very well, if you had listened first, come to the same conclusion you already did.  I don't think all minds infer the same sentiments from a given beat/melody/harmony, and what sounds like admiration of the good to one person might sound like the glorification of misery to another.  Lyrics are a different matter though, even there, one has to know whether one is listening to a sermon or to a comic sketch.  In the case of the Ramones' music, the lyrics usually fell into the latter category.

And, all that said: I certainly don't think you somehow owe it to yourself to try out the Ramones.  I was just sharing some personal likes with you, in the hopes of building relationships with others who value life and rationality.

All the best Marcus.


Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.
-Oscar Wilde

What's that Mckheave?

Marcus's picture

To be objective, I am not allowed to yawn anymore?

Marcus wrote:"...supposed to

mckeever's picture

Marcus wrote:

"...supposed to be some sort of US punk band.

A gentle nudge: Why not try before yawning?  Why not gather the facts before prejudging?  Why not be obj.....

Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde

Marvellous, Marcus!!

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Great to see you holding out against punks & poseurs! And if you need someone to vouch for your sense of life, I will. And your attention span. If someone says both are suspect because you find five hours of (mainly) tedium tedious, he, in that instance, is a poseur. KASS him! Smiling


I thnk that the Ramones are...

Marcus's picture

...supposed to be some sort of US punk band.


Nothing Good on the Wild Side

mckeever's picture

Nah: I've never found much "wild" in Taking a Walk on the allegedly Wild Side.  There's nothing admirable in the rhythm, or the chord progressions, or the harmonies, or the melody, or in the lyrics...and certainly nothing in the singing...not that I claim Joey Ramone to have had a great voice, mind you.

Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde

The Ramones!

TimV's picture

Crikey! Next he'll be suggesting something really dire - like Lou Reed. Smiling

Gabba Gabba Hey!

mckeever's picture

Hi Marcus.  You've never heard the Ramones?  Ouch.

You've never tasted the opening chords of "The KKK Took My Baby Away?"
Never Remembered Rock 'n Roll Radio?

Man you're missing out on a lot of fun music.  My suggestion: park the philosophical treatises set-to-music for a while, plunk down $11 for a copy of "End of the Century" (, and admire the hell out of the guys who invented Marshall amplifiers and Mosrite guitars as you dance another fine product of the rational mind (Little Eva): The Locomotion.

Rachmaninoff can wait, even if the Ramones "Can't Make it on Time".

Lie and the world lies with you.
Tell the truth, and the world lies about you.

-Oscar Wilde


Marcus's picture

I've never heard the Ramones?

I have seen Puccini's Tosca just this year though - also by WNO - and it was excellent from start to finish. Problem was that it was over too quickly. Puccini should have slowed down a bit more, so I could have enjoyed it longer.

Wasted on you.

Peter Cresswell's picture

Yeah, it's obviously wasted on you.

Stick with something that suits both your sense of life and your attention span -- like the Ramones.

Cheers, Peter Cresswell

A lasting impression

Marcus's picture

The funny thing was the entire opera was five and a half hours (they gave you a half hour and then a one hour break between acts), but I almost fell asleep in the act I. But looking around me, my girlfriend Maria looked as if she was on the verge of sleep, and two other old men sitting next to us were also snoring away.

That is not to say that people were not applauding and shouting "Bravo" at the end of the performance. I heard one person behind me saying that this was the best performance of "Tristan and Isolde" he had ever seen.

So, I don't think anyone could blame the production quality of the WNO.

By the way, Maria liked the Opera much more than I did on the night. But she hasn't rushed out to buy the CD, and it hasn't left her with a lasting impression.

Forget the stopwatch, first

Duncan Bayne's picture

Forget the stopwatch, first you'll need a defibrillator to revive him Smiling

Forget the words and acting...revel in the music

mckeever's picture

Perhaps I benefit from my ignorance both of the German language and of the words and acting in Wagner's operas: I've never studied either, nor have I studied Wagner's philosophical tastes/messages.  However, I find the music - the instruments, the melodies - at times to be quite heroic and passionate.  Listen to the Venusberg or, as Lindsay says, get a disk or two of excerpts (overtures etc.).  They're great, and my listening to them does not imply an endorsement, by me, of Wagner's philosophy.

Bottom line: there's nothing wrong with listening to the Beatles or the Ramones because you like the beat, the sounds of the instruments, or the harmonies, even if the song in question is "Run for Your Life" (Beatles) or "Havana Affair" (Ramones). 

Put another way: some of the best looking dresses are made of the most uncomfortable materials, but none of that is of any consequence to a male onlooker like myself.

Has anyone...

Robert's picture

got a stopwatch on how long it takes Cresswell to land his riposte? Smiling

Herr Dr. Bachler ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

However, again surprisingly, these were only musical highlights interspersed amongst some very dull and uninspiring music.

What's surprising about that? I told you that all along!! Get a Greatest Hits CD or two & then forget him! Smiling

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