The Dallas Opera will open Wagner's masterpiece, Tristan and Isolde, Thursday at the Winspear Opera House in a full production. While this may sound like a "so what" statement, this was not always the case. In a recent interview, Artistic Director Jonathan Pell detailed the journey from full production to a budget-enforced concert performance and then back again for this opera.
A big part of the Dallas Opera's ability to change this from a concert to a major production is the availability of Elaine McCarthy, a stagecraft wizard of projections. Anyone who experienced her magnificent work in the highly acclaimed TDO premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's opera Moby-Dick, knows that McCarthy can work wonders. For example, there was a moment when the sailors scurried up the massive wall that was in the background. Suddenly, by McCarthy's prestidigitation, they were sitting in lifeboats. The effect got an audience gasp and enthusiastic applause the night I was there.
Now, she is back for Tristan.
"Actually, there is a lot of overlap with Moby-Dick," she says. "The first act of Tristan takes place on a ship, so I am right back in the water. We need waves and ocean and sails. I'm waterlogged."
While Moby-Dick was a whaling ship, soaked in blood and blubber, Tristan is on a very different kind of vessel. "I think that this is a battle ship," says MvCarthy, "since they were recently at war. You would never have sent anything else to pick up the princess, who is being delivered as a wife to King Mark."
Actually, Tristan is very different from the large production that Moby-Dick required. In its own expansive way, Tristan is really a chamber opera (on a Wagnerian scale, of course) and has very few characters and only minimal chorus. Yet, the story of the two star-crossed lovers has fascinated for hundreds of years. A 2006 movie on the subject, while criticized for anachronisms and overly schmaltzy acting, proves the endurance of the medieval story. The difference here is that Wagner's music transports it into sublime realms Hollywood could never achieve.
Working with the director, Christian Rath, McCarthy isn't really trying for any particular era, preferring a more timeless representation.
"Ships in the year 1100 still had sails, so we are using that theme," she says. "In general, throughout the entire opera we are working with the contrasts of light and dark to create the feeling of the infinite. We have the two lovers enveloped in the light—the lovelight, so to speak—and the dark is the contrast."
Many feel that projections are the only future of set design and current theatrical experiences certainly bear that out. The recent production at the Metropolitan Opera of The Enchanted Island, which was seen in the HD broadcast in movie houses, is a projectional tour de force. McCarthy, a pioneer in the business, has been doing theatrical projections for more than 25 years.
The technology has changed completely in that period of time. It used to take weeks to make a change to the basic animation. It would have to be redrawn and then a piece of film made. Now, it can all be done in real time. "I have animators that can make changes as we work. We can try different water, different clouds, or a different color, or different reflections. It is quite remarkable," she says.
Tristan is a medieval tale, yet the theme of overpowering yet impossible love resonates throughout literature and opera, from Gounod's Romeo and Juliet (which TDO performed last year) to Verdi's La Traviata (which they will open on April 13). Because of this universality, the production team for Tristan is working hard to keep it out of the "real world" and more into the representational somewhere/sometime. Both the set and the costumes (by Susan Cox) are era nonspecific, yet are slightly medieval. Thus, it is timeless and yet era-suggestive.
This certainly is reflective of the dichotomy the music presents, which is both timeless but very specific of the era in which it was written. Wagner's opera was progressive, even revolutionary. It was the first real use of a chromatic musical language freed from tonal centers that had kept music grounded since before Bach.
Musically, it wanders in the chromatic thicket, sometimes inhabiting only the outer edges of the keys where the tonic never appears. The atonal revolution that followed was a reaction to Wagner's overripe romanticism. Although Strauss and others soldiered on into even more complexity, Wagner had painted composers into a musical corner. There was no escape but to abandon the tonal system altogether and start over, with mixed results, but it had to be done.
Tristan depends on that one universal overpowering emotional rollercoaster that almost all fortunate humans share: the flash of first love.
When asked if she remembered that moment, a look of sheer joy came over McCarthy's face. "Oh sure," she beamed. "But, more powerful than that, I remember the moment of first true love. That was when I met my husband. The first instant I saw him I knew that he had a place in my heart. It was a second in time that took my breath away. I am reminded of this every time we get to that spot in Tristan. Wagner was able to really grab that indescribable feeling."
One of the big questions in this opera is Isolde's so-called "love death." As she stands over the body of her deceased lover, she experiences a moment of ecstatic visions and joins him in death—or maybe just drifts into madness. McCarthy is definitely on the "she dies" side of the argument. "To me, in my view, I think she does. I think she joins him, right there and then."
When asked if she's sure that Isolde just doesn't lose it, there was a long pause before she answered. "No," she says quietly, "I think she dies and joins him. You hear about couples who have been together 60 years. When one dies and then other usually dies within a few months. Without one there is no other. Anyway, I wish that death for her rather than to think she just descends into madness or dementia."
And that's something that the wizardry of projections can't illuminate. It's all about the performers.