Sunday, March 2, 2008

Wagner's Isolde

When orchestras perform music from Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, they usually perform the Prelude (which opens the opera) and Liebestod ("Love Death," which closes the opera) in tandem. The Love Death is best done with a soprano (Isolde) singing (as Wagner intended), but Wagner wrote the music in such a way that it can be done successfully with orchestra alone.

The Love Death can be played by itself, but not so the Prelude, since it ends inconclusively. (For my opening concerts with the Hartford Symphony in September 2002, I followed the Tristan Prelude with Thomas Ades's Gefriolsae Mae for men's chorus and low strings.)

Several years ago, a retired music critic from Philadelphia gave me the idea of doing an Isolde program -- in essence, the music from Tristan und Isolde without Tristan. At first, I didn't find it very doable, but the more I thought about it, the more it intrigued me. And since orchestra audiences are accustomed to hearing an Isolde sing the Love Death, why not have Isolde sing other music from the opera as well?

Performing music from a Wagner opera in concert is an enormous challenge. It does not lend itself to excerpting because of the music's 'through-composed' nature; unlike the music in an opera by Mozart or Verdi (with frequent stops and starts), Wagner's music is continuous, and cutting it up in order to present it on an orchestra concert is far from ideal.

But I pressed on with the idea nonetheless, and committed to the idea one year ago, thinking I had plenty of time to figure out exactly what I would do. It turned out to be an enormous challenge, understandably, since no one else had done it, and I'm certain many have tried. A colleague shared two Stokowski recordings, where he took music from the love duet in Act II and elided it with the final Love Death. Another practice is to take one act by itself.

Nine months later, I finally had a plan which encompasses music from all three acts. The first half will be music exclusively from Act I; the second half will begin with Act II and end with the Love Death which concludes the opera. The entire concert will be a typical length for an orchestra concert.

Indeed, this was the hardest part of the exercise -- deciding which music to leave out. The toughest decision of all was not being able to include the opening of Act III, music which has haunted and bewitched me from the moment I first encountered it over twenty years ago.

There were many other decisions to make -- which music would Isolde sing, and could we perform music written for Tristan and Isolde without the singers? (Yes -- a violin/viola duet will perform the Love duet from Act II.) A trumpet will fill in for Brangaene; a trombone will play for King Mark. And when I had to decide which chunks of music to leave out, I have strived to move seamlessly from scene to scene.

Why do it at all? Music lovers in Hartford won't hear the Connecticut Opera performing Wagner anytime soon. It is expensive to produce, and finding singers to sing Wagner are in short supply. And you can drive to New York to hear it and see it on stage, and real Wagner fans travel to Bayreuth to hear his music dramas in the space for which it was intended. But I want the Hartford to play this music, because it makes us a better orchestra, and it allows you to hear the music of Tristan in Hartford and still be home in time for the evening news. (Wagner operas are notoriously long in length.)

Will our presentation work? Honestly, I do not know, because this is a first time, and it needs an orchestra and an audience to make the final determination. This performance then, is a premiere of sorts. No orchestra has ever done Wagner's Tristan und Isolde as we are doing it. I hope you like it.