Jonas Kaufmann: Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ Is ‘Like a Drug’
Posted April 6, 2018 7:16 p.m. EDT
BOSTON — The love duet at the heart of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” makes little sense. Breathless ecstasy is conveyed through made-up, often bafflingly long words as the titular lovers declare their devotion — over and over — for 40 minutes.
So why is this scene one of the most enrapturing and adored duets in opera?
“This music is like a drug, extremely addictive,” said star tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who is making his much-anticipated debut as Tristan in concert performances of the opera’s second act with soprano Camilla Nylund and the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week before bringing the program to Carnegie Hall next Thursday. “You can never get rid of it. It is always there, stuck in your brain.”
In an interview during rehearsals here, the two singers and Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony’s music director, attempted to grapple with the forces at play in the scene, which is so difficult in the context of a four-hour score that it is often cut by up to 10 minutes. (At these concerts, it will be performed in its entirety.)
At this point in the story, Tristan and Isolde have drunk a love potion so powerful it makes Tristan forget the name of his king, who by Act 2 is married to Isolde. The furtive lovers meet in the darkness of night — which, likely influenced by Schopenhauer, is an otherworldly plane free from the bounds of reality — where they can finally be together, at least until daylight returns.
The music alternates, often without warning, between grandiosity and, as Nelsons said, the intimacy of Schubert lieder. The dialogue is a volley of sweet nothings that verge on nonsense as passion renders the characters a bit insane. (One moment, when Tristan says he is now Isolde and she is Tristan, seems to prefigure the all-consuming love of “Call Me by Your Name.”)
Kaufmann and Nylund are both Wagner veterans, but neither has sung this opera before. In the interview, they said that the love duet has challenges unlike any other in Wagner’s major works. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What is Wagner saying about love here?
NELSONS: The first “Tristan” score I had was the “Vorspiel” [prelude] in Russian, with a written Wagner quotation, like: “I don’t really believe in love as a feeling. But it is so strong, I want to write an opera about it.” I wonder whether he actually thought that it’s a crazy state of mind which is not healthy. But I find that this goes beyond the norm of what we expect of love. It’s all exaggerated, over the top. It is as if it is not a real thing in life, not possible. I think he doesn’t believe in this himself.
KAUFMANN: For that, I think he did it very well.
NYLUND: Maybe Wagner was also looking for something. What is love? It has to be something more than this love we speak about, the usual stuff. It’s something more. But it’s not something you can achieve here in your life.
Q: How do these ideas play out in the text?
NYLUND: I think they are playing some kind of word game.
KAUFMANN: This has alliteration and all these games Wagner loved to play, like nine-syllable words that I’ve never heard put together, because sometimes he wanted to express things in a way that probably was never done before. It’s like children that play a game and try to overtake each other with something more. It’s insane. By the end of Act 2, he’s completely cuckoo.
Q: That doesn’t sound like romance in other Wagner operas.
KAUFMANN: Real love, or even straightforward love, doesn’t exist in Wagner. In “Tannhäuser” you have love: One is innocent and pure, and the other is sexual. In “Walküre” you have brother-and-sister love. Then you have Siegfried’s love for the old lady, Brünnhilde. All kinds of strange loves.
NYLUND: And betrayals.
KAUFMANN: Of course, opera lives for that. But usually you have the happy innocent moment of love, and then destiny strikes.
NYLUND: Which is here in “Tristan,” kind of. It makes this moment of happiness even worse.
Q: How do you pace yourselves?
NYLUND: You can never lose control.
NELSONS: For the orchestra, it is challenging. Wagner writes a lot of “più forte,” but then you have to drop down without losing any of the intensity. But it’s also like when you run a marathon and there is a moment when you think you can’t anymore — once you overcome that, then you lose time and go on.
KAUFMANN: It’s not a marathon. It’s like one high jump after another. And you don’t have time in between to come properly back to the ground and accelerate for the next one. It’s just jump, jump, jump. If on just one of those notes you hesitate — you wait a little bit because you’re not sure where the harmony is or whatever — you can completely break your neck and lose your voice in a second.
Q: Is it the same with the orchestra?
NELSONS: Yes, but I also always think that when conducting or hearing Wagner’s music it actually takes you to another psychic world as well. I feel these emotions that I cannot put into words, and the music has to show that, how you think this is going to explode. It’s orgasmic.
NYLUND: It’s actually very dangerous to drive a car and listen. You always drive much too fast.
NELSONS: A few conductors have died during “Tristan.” The reason is Act 2. It might seem relaxing, but actually the heartbeat and the intensity and level of excitement — it’s so high that you can’t stand it for a long time. So I don’t want yet to die, but I might.
KAUFMANN: Do it on Saturday, so at least we’ve done one concert.
Boston Symphony Orchestra
The program repeats Saturday at Symphony Hall in Boston; 888-266-1200, bso.org. It comes to Carnegie Hall on April 12; 212-247-7800, carnegiehall.org.