(jumping the queue to discuss the San Francisco Tristan. . . . )
There’s quite a difference in going to Tristan after a full week of work and devoting a day to it in Bayreuth. For one thing, I spent all of the next day with a Tristan hangover (dizziness, disorientation, discontent). I wouldn’t put the performance on the same level as Bayreuth, though I very much liked Christine Brewer (which is good since I’m also hearing her as Isolde in LA this spring) and Jane Irwin as Brangane. Thomas Moser, unfortunately, I thought was only adequate, and by Act 3 he was swigging water so regularly from his bottle that I was hoping his supply would last longer than his voice. I’ve heard some suggest that the house is too big for his voice; maybe so. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an elderly but eloquent and moving King Mark.
And I had to put up with my left-hand neighbor, one of those short people who take up huge amounts of room, and who constantly snorted and sniffed and breathed louder than anyone I’ve ever heard. He also made comments about Ms. Brewer’s size. Swine. I was surprised when he returned for the second act and pleased when he didn’t for the third, though that, being a Tristan-heavy act, was the weakest of the three. Before the opera started, he read the summary and announced, “Well, they left a lot out [as compared to the recent movie, which he and his wife had just been praising]. I don’t see how this is going to take four hours.” This may be one of my favorite audience remarks ever, though the pickings are pretty slim there. And it takes five hours.
The real surprise for me was the effectiveness of the David Hockney sets. I had seen pictures of them when they were new, back in the 1980s, and despite their beauty as pictures they looked inappropriately bright to me. He said at the time that the colors were those of medieval illuminations of the story, which is true, but the music is not medieval in sound and considering the importance of darkness and night in the opera all those vivid yellows and reds just felt wrong to me. Maybe they’ve darkened over the years, but I thought they worked beautifully, though I understand the increasingly steep raking of the stage act by act was a problem for the singers.
For some reason most of my opera subscription this season has been for final performances, which is a switch from the previous fourteen or so years I’ve had this series. Sometimes this is an advantage (Ballo, I’m getting to you) and sometimes it’s not, since if I want to see something again I don’t have the chance. For instance, this Tristan, being less dependent on subtle acting, would have been a good candidate for a cheaper seat in the balcony so I could hear the always effective music again. But no such luck. I went to the Wagner Society’s excellent Tristan Symposium and was privately shamed to discover I was the only person there who hadn’t already been once, twice, even four times. I think even the guy who asked at the end of the afternoon, “What is the Tristan chord and where can I hear it?” had already been more than once. It’s tough to keep up.