Look at me. Now!

Yes, Seattle Opera scored a 'Tristan' for the ages. But that's not what everyone was buzzing about at intermission.

Now that Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde is history—now that the exaltation of performance has faded to a memory, now that the career debuts of two great singers in roles that will surely define their careers for years is a matter for the record books—it seems safe to ask a question that, raised during the run of the show, might have seemed surly or ungrateful:

Why is someone who scrawls initials on a public monument, if apprehended, prosecuted, while one who commits equivalent vandalism on a music drama escapes scot-free?

The Seattle Tristan was lavishly, and justly, praised by the critics for its gorgeous singing, taut drama, and the sensuous intensity of Armin Jordan's work with the Seattle Symphony. There was less unanimity about the physical production—the sets and costumes of Alison Chitty, Mimi Jordan Sherin's lighting, the stage direction of Francesca Zambello. But even the most captious reviewers failed to point out how the three ladies' work conspired to undercut, contradict, even deface the work of a great poet-composer who was also a master of theatrical effect.

Can the critics have been oblivious to the aesthetic vandalism that had audience members buzzing at each intermission? Not at all. But after 50 years of ever more indiscriminate fiddlework at the hands of directors and designers, even the most conservative opera reviewers have become inured to seeing repertory staples en travesti. They barely notice the absurdities and excesses, let alone demand that the perpetrators justify their depredations by showing how the effect of the work in question is enhanced thereby. Among dozens of unjustified (and, I believe, unjustifiable) production improvisations marring the Seattle Tristan, I here mention just three:

At the climax of the first act, Wagner contrives, by purely musical means, one of the most potent coups de théâtre in all opera. In the bride's bedchamber aboard ship, the protagonists face each other over the chalice they both believe contains poison: poison to end Isolde's agony of rejection and for Tristan to indemnify his faithlessness to her through death. Nothing else exists; the world has shrunk to the tiny chamber in which they stand. Suddenly, cutting through the fog of sexual angst and longing like a shaft of hot sunlight through the thick air of a sickroom, we hear outside the hoarse voices of sailors preparing the ship's arrival at the shore. The world floods back, with a vengeance.

The director and designers of the Seattle production are not content merely to execute the effect Wagner so carefully prepares through music: They have one of their own in mind. As the offstage chorus begins its hollas, a panel some 4 feet high and 40 feet wide beneath the steeply raked platform on which the principals stand drops to reveal some 16 apparently naked, tattooed, shaven-headed body-builders miming the act of rowing in a hotly lit expressionistic void.

The image so stuns the eye that judgment is temporarily suspended. But there is plenty of time left before the act ends to meditate upon it, as it recurs in ever more wince-producing variations. Time enough to savor its crudeness of conception, to ask oneself how imagery derived from the more lurid variety of music video or Vegas show relates either to the perfumed medievalism of Wagner's music or the frosty art deco of Chitty's set.

In Act II we find a vandalism less obvious but just as destructive of Wagner's dramaturgy. It has by this point been clearly established in the text that Isolde's mother is a mistress of the black arts, and that her daughter shares at least some of her skills. It has also been established that Isolde's waiting woman, Brangaene, is as ordinary as her mistress is exceptional: deeply devoted but also short-sighted, timorous, "practical." When Isolde commands her to extinguish the torch to signal that it is safe for her lover to approach, Brangaene demurs, counsels caution, pleads for a postponement of the lovers' illicit night of passion.

In Wagner, Isolde responds by taking the torch in her own hands and extinguishing it, with the words "if this flame were my very heart's light, undaunted, laughing, I would dash it." In Zambello's production, Isolde sings these exalted words, but it is the down-to-earth Brangaene who, with a sorceress' solemn gestures, extinguishes the light by remote control; Brangaene, too, who with the help of unseen stagehands evokes night's love spell (represented in this production by a golden McDonald's arch and a curtain of Disney Christmas lights).

Brangaene, in short, is recast as Frau Minne, the metaphoric love goddess invoked by the principals to explain their passion. It's an interesting notion, and if the director had somehow prepared for the moment by showing us that Brangaene, Athena-like, has always been the goddess in disguise . . .

No, wait a minute, it just won't do, interesting or not. Brangaene is part of the uncomprehending "world of day"; to turn her into an embodiment of night, rapture, unaccountability, is to shift the whole structure of Wagner's drama out of true. But what an effective way of establishing one's interpretive cleverness with the audience, few of whom are familiar enough with the rarely performed opera to notice the incongruity, or how it violates the exquisitely balanced symbolism of the work.

Act III of Tristan, dominated by the gargantuan tragic monologue of the wounded, dying hero and the rapturous self-abandonment of Isolde's Liebestod, offers little opportunity for cleverness. But Zambello still manages to come up with something: tiny in itself but perhaps more disfiguring than either of the more elaborate pranks aforementioned. In the very final moments of the opera—as Isolde's final F sharp fades into the orchestra's radiant B major, as she slumps over the lifeless body of her love, as the rootless chord of hopeless longing that began the opera makes its last faint appearance—the corpse of Tristan, or at least its right arm, comes back to life, to fumble its way toward Isolde and to take her hand as the lights fade to black.

Does this mean Tristan isn't dead after all? Surely not. Has the whole opera been only a postcoital dream? Oh, please . . . . Does it mean merely that even in death the lovers are united? But what else have the four hours of exquisite harmonic tension preceding this incandescent conclusion been saying? No, this gesture has nothing to do with Wagner. Never mind Wagner, it says; never mind Tristan or Isolde: Look at me!

The three examples noted could be multiplied indefinitely: The above were selected only because they so clearly contradict the letter and spirit of Wagner's work, and evince so unequivocally the producers' willingness to distort and deface for transitory effect's sake. It is, unfortunately, in the interest of directors and designers to wrench each work they take on out of shape. A production that attempts only to support and enhance earns no catcalls for its creators, but very little credit either. Only obtrusive effects get one talked about. And if one is not talked about, one soon ceases to get the commissions from major companies upon which an operatic career is based.

One has to sympathize a little with Zambello and her colleagues. With two of the most admired young singers of our era making their debuts in roles not adequately filled on American stages for the better part of a generation, who was really going to care much about the physical production? But to do them justice, Zambello and company met their self-imposed challenge. They made us care. We will remember their work, even those of us who curse it.

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