Stage folk in the straight theater are skittish about “the Scottish play,” never speaking the antihero’s name if they can help it. Their colleagues in opera don’t play that game with Tristan und Isolde, though Wagner’s death-haunted score does have its scary associations—especially in Munich, the site of its world premiere in 1865 and this week’s breathlessly awaited new production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros in historic role debuts.
The lovers of the original cast were the 39-year-old Danish-born Portuguese soprano Malvina Schnorr von Carolsfeld and her 28-year-old German Heldentenor husband Ludwig, chosen by Wagner after 70 rehearsals in Vienna convinced him that the singers there could never manage their parts.
Malvina and Ludwig ran into trouble, too. Shortly before the scheduled premiere, Malvina experienced hoarseness, which postponed the big day by nearly a month. But that was a blip. Six weeks later, with just four performances of the opera under his 5XL belt, Ludwig suffered a fatal stroke. Layfolk blamed the superhuman physical demands of Tristan’s role, which includes a 40-minute love duet and a hallucinatory death scene that makes up the lion’s share of the 80-minute third act. (Isolde’s transcendental Liebestod clocks in at a mere nine minutes.)
Munich was due for more bad news in 1911, when the conductor Felix Mottl suffered a heart attack during the second act of the opera, and in 1968, when another conductor, Joseph Keilberth, was struck down in the same manner, at the same point in the score.
That said, since 1865, in Munich alone, hundreds of performances of Tristan und Isolde have proceeded without newsworthy medical emergencies. Let’s trust that Kaufmann and Harteros will come through with all their characteristic musical and theatrical electricity, free of fateful interventions. Believe it or not, the premiere is also the show’s closing night, except for a virtual encore streaming on Tuesday for 24 hours only.
Then the production goes into mothballs until next June, when it returns with alternate principals and an alternate conductor in place of the company’s former music director Kirill Petrenko, who leads the premiere.
In truth, our hopes for the theatrical values are guarded at best. To date, the handiwork of the director Krzysztof Warlikowski has consistently struck us as arbitrary, confused, and wicked hard on the eyes. The good news for viewers at home is that video directors like to zero in on faces, and you can always just close your eyes, though with faces like those of this year’s dream team to look at, you won’t want to.
Tristan und Isolde is available for streaming on the Bayerische Staatsoper Web site on Saturday, July 31, and on Tuesday, August 3
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii