For a while I’ve sort of wanted to get into opera. There are so many things wrong with the very idea of opera; always singing, drama takes the backseat to singing, no simple dialogue but instead lots of singing. Also, personally, I find nothing beautiful about the wavering wobbling vibrato of all opera singers. Nothing beautiful at all. So I’ve sort of been putting listening to an opera off for a while. I saw “The Mikado” about a year ago, but that really isn’t a full on opera. But at long last I listened to my first opera: Tristan and Isolde.
Maybe Wagner wasn’t my best choice for a first opera, but it is what it is. The prelude is literally one of the most beautiful and rapturous things I have ever heard. The suspended harmonies and colorful chromaticism, oh my. I can see why it was such a big deal. However after such an amazing opening, it is pretty easy to go downhill. The first act is full of singing and full of intervals my composition professor is telling me not to use. This really is descriptive of the whole opera. But after the leads drink the love potion and the music from the prelude comes back, it’s like lightning. That’s a moment worth remembering. For me the second act left me questioning wether I wanted to go on with this whole opera thing. Maybe it was the english translation, but all the night/day symbolism seemed really hokey and very obvious, and not very sublime. There were a few spots throughout the opera where I thought, wow the text actually sounds really cool, but the night/day stuff, nope. Also I was not a fan of the whole “love duet” which to me was just Tristan and Islode shouting each other’s names in their highest register. I could handle the male voices okay, but the female voices, not so much. It just sounded like shrieking to me when Isolde would shoot up to a high G or A and stay up there for three bars. The third act on the other hand was something else entirely. It was amazing. Maybe it was the general absence of female voices until about 2/3 of the way through, maybe it was the brilliant prelude, maybe it was the cool english horn stuff, but whatever it was I loved it. I thought it was amusing that Tristan basically spent most of the act dying, but at the same time he was singing all this hard music. Little whisps of the opening prelude come back, and other little ideas from out the opera reappear and disappear. When at last the music reaches a resolution after about four hours it is the most satisfying thing. For whatever reason B major seems the right key to be in.
It’s hard to look back at Wagner and make a fair judgement on the music, because it has been copied so much. It’s sort of like Star Wars in the sense that it has been imitated so much, we can only see the original as sounding/looking like the copies. The urgent chromatics and rhythms sound unoriginal, but this was the original! I can see why so many people fell under the Wagner spell. I can detect some of this influence in Mahler. The gorgeous suspension that comes up so often in the prelude, is the same thing that comes up at the climax of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Also some of the orchestration is similar. In Wagner I heard a couple of those color shifts where one instrument finishes another’s line, which Mahler did so often and so well.
So at long last I’ve now listen to an opera, and a Wagner opera no less. I’m not sure when I’ll be going back into those waters again, but at least I can say I’ve gone swimming.