Cursing the “False Light of Reason”: Schopenhauer, the Goddess, and Lyric Opera’s Production of Tristan und Isolde

On Saturday, February 28, 2009, my friend Carla and I had the exquisite pleasure to join 3,600 fellow opera buffs for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s final performance of Richard Wagner’s 1865 masterpiece, Tristan und Isolde. It was, quite simply, five hours of my life that translated into the most powerful, beautiful, and immanent experience of the Sublime that I’ve ever had. 

I had very high expectations and I knew that I wasn’t going to be disappointed. 

Carla and I are people with keenly developed aesthetic sensibilities, so we knew that we were going to be treated to a night of utterly fabulous sensual enjoyment, from our celebrated high-end fashions, to glasses of sumptuous Moët et Chandon during the two intermissions, to the heavenly sounds and the dazzling spectacle of this acclaimed opera production that would unfold before us. Our stage-left seats in the twenty-second row of the main floor were well worth their collective $400 price tag.


The Old World ambiance of the theatrical space (“gilded majesty” is how I would term it) was palpable; I had no difficulty imagining that the year was 1865 and that I was in Berlin instead of Chicago, about to witness this opera’s amazing debut. I had warned Carla in advance that the music would affect me profoundly and that, tactile person that I am, I would have to squeeze her arm periodically to help me channel the sensory overload. If merely listening to the opera’s Prelude alone and in the comfort and tranquility of my living room had the tendency to induce quasi-orgasmic sensations in me, then how would witnessing the full-blown opera live in front of my hungry eyes and receptive ears affect me?!


I’m not being hyperbolic with the mentioning of orgasmic sensations, either. That wily Wagner knew full well that he was delving into deep erotic territory with Tristan und Isolde. Even the composition of the opening chord—the combination of the four notes F, B, D-sharp, and G-sharp (known to musicians since as the “Tristan Chord”), is the quintessential musical depiction of yearning at the most profoundly sexual level. That chord—along with the opera’s revolutionary harmonies, tonalities, and vibrant orchestral colors—cemented Wagner’s status as a musical genius way ahead of his time, anticipating and setting the stage for Europe’s great 20th-century composers. 


There was a reverential hush in the crowd that immediately broke, like the force of a bursting dam, into rapturous applause as six o’ clock drew near and Sir Andrew Davis stepped up to the conductor’s platform. I squealed with delight and violently tugged on Carla’s right arm, exclaiming, “This is it! This is it!” I excitedly began to stamp my stiletto heels into the carpet and was all but bouncing in my seat, not unlike a manic child desperately in need of Ritalin. An elderly gentleman fashionably dressed in a classic tuxedo sat on my right. He glanced over at me with curiosity and a faint smile of approval at my obvious display of unbridled giddiness.


I felt my breathing pattern change as the familiar and deeply loved “Tristan Chord” mentioned above began to pierce the silence—the stern cello, viola, and violin combinations offset by the achingly beautiful high notes of the flute…and then, like the onslaught of a tsunami, the combination of the instruments swept me up into the stratosphere as the chord unleashed its full emotive power of absolute longing. I continued to breathe slowly and deeply, not attempting to blink back the tears that began to swell in my eyes.


This was it, I was all aboard the Beauty Express, bound for the Sublime heights of human artistic achievement, and the most appropriate response I could engender was to silently weep at the loveliness of it all. 


As the opera’s simple narrative of forbidden love unfolded, I wept for Isolde and recognized her in myself, with all of her elemental fury, passion, determination, and longing for dissolution in the cosmic pool of Undifferentiated Nothingness from which we arose and to which we will all return. Philosophically, Wagner was heavily influenced by Schopenhauer’s classic treatise The World as Will and Representation (Die Welt als Will und Forstellung), which I remember greedily devouring in my sophomore year of college as part of my studies that would lead to my B.A. minor in philosophy. Although I highly doubt he would have called himself that at the time, Schopenhauer comes off as a sardonic Gnostic peppered with a healthy dose of Buddhist philosophy.


We all come from a Source and we separate from that Source with our descent into matter—and the world, as experienced by mortals with their conscious minds (their “Day” selves, as opposed to their “Night” selves—there is a lot of Day/Night symbolic dichotomy operating throughout this opera), is a corrupt place of vain struggle and longing. Its value comes from identifying earthly manifestations of that Source—our proverbial “other half”—with whom we yearn to not only unite but dissolve our fraudulent sense of our identities into (the Self, of course, being an illusion). Naturally, death needs to occur in order for that full merging to take place, and by the time Isolde concludes her monologue at the end of Act III, it’s quite clear that Night is the metaphor for this cosmic Womb-Tomb because this longing for undifferentiated merging with Source falls under the domain of the Unconscious. 


In addition to profound psychological and philosophical insights, Wagner’s opera makes much use of the power of mythology. “Tristan and Isolde” is a very old Celtic tale, one which would come to have great resonance in the legends of King Arthur and his knights, culminating in the love triangle formed between Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot. Like her later Celtic cousin, Guinevere, Isolde is clearly a goddess figure—one with solar attributes. In Celtic and Germanic pre-Christian mythology, the sun—the giver of life in those cold northern lands—was seen as being female. And it was through associating themselves with the archetypal sustaining power of the sun that male leaders sought to legitimize their rule: the Sun goddess represents Sovereignty, and by being wedded to Her earthly form, kings stayed in power and were bound in a covenant to the land. Hence the stories of wars fought for the sole purpose of taking the Queen/Goddess captive (in the medieval French Arthurian tales recorded by Chretien de Troyes, Guinevere was always being kidnapped) for a new king. But if the king were to ever lose favor with the Goddess—whether by growing old or otherwise displeasing Her—the land would need a new champion, typically a younger, stronger man whom the Goddess would woo.


And that’s the bare bones of the story here: an older king, King Mark of Cornwall, authorizes his nephew Tristan to claim the beautiful blonde (of course she’s blonde since she represents the Sun) princess Isolde as his new war prize upon conquering Ireland. Act I of Wagner’s opera shows a royally pissed-off (pun intended!) Isolde on board the ship that’s fated to bring her to her soon-to-be-husband, King Mark. Accompanied by her faithful servant maid, Brangäne—another powerful female character with Goddess-turned-witch overtones—Isolde curses the elements and wishes that the ship would sink during its voyage.


Words have power. Hence Isolde sets in motion the death wish for herself and for Tristan that will karmically come to collect its debt by the end of Act III. The sight of American soprano Deborah Voigt as the bewitching Isolde cursing her fate and lamenting her freedom would strike a powerful chord with anyone who possesses even the slightest feminist sensibilities. And soprano Petra Lang as Brangäne, mistress of magic potions who is torn between loyalty to her princess (Isolde commands Brangäne to concoct a death potion for her and Tristan to drink before they arrive in Cornwall) and obeying her conscience, is an absolute firecracker of a performer—able to sustain high song notes with high dramatic flourish in emotionally compelling scenes. (I will definitely be on the lookout for her in future Lyric Opera productions!)


Well, the wily Brangäne substitutes a love potion instead of a death one, and when Isolde and Tristan consume the contents, the fateful course of doomed love is set in motion, and Act I ends with the pair collapsing in each other’s arms in a loving embrace. 


Let me say a thing or two about David Hockney’s stunning set designs for this production. The sets were highly evocative—with design, color, lighting, and mood—with an economy of elements. The theme uniting the sets for all three acts—the ship en route to Cornwall (Act I), the tree-lined grounds of King Mark’s castle in Cornwall (Act II), and Tristan’s cliff-side ancestral castle in Brittany (Act III)—were notable for their sweeping angularity and for giving me the overall effect that I was looking at three-dimensional expressionist paintings. Whether the prow of the ship, a tree-lined avenue, or a rocky crag jetting out of a castle wall, the visuals drew you up and away in a sharp, upwards angular spiral towards an illusion of infinite space. One might be tempted to say that Mr. Hockney was noting the points in three-dimensional space where one’s soul could leap out of the world of matter into the Schopenhauerean black void of Undifferentiated Nothingness.


I really admired the singers for being able to nimbly maneuver about those steep, 45-degree angles…knowing my propensity for clumsiness, I could see myself as an Isolde who manages to spurt out just one aria just before tumbling headlong, long blonde wig and all, into the orchestra pit!


It was in Act II that the full Schopenhauerean flavor of Wagner’s ideas comes to the fore. Tristan and Isolde, waxing eloquently about the rapturous bliss of their love, curse the “false light of reason” associated with Day and heap praises upon the Goddess of Night, whose dark cloak enables them to meet in secret passion. Their glorious duet has each one declaring that they have become the other person, as Clifton Forbis’ heldentenor Tristan gushes, “Isolde, my love! I am Isolde” to Voigt’s Isolde replying that she has “become Tristan.” (I instantly thought of Emily Brontë’s darkly passionate novel Wuthering Heights, when Cathy in her “fevered” state declares that she has become Heathcliff…could this passage have served as a literary source of inspiration for Wagner?) Here’s the dissolution of Self, the expressed hope of merging back into Source.


Their happiness, of course, is short-lived, as King Mark—played by the tall and imposing Stephen Milling, who boasts a stunning baritone voice!—returns from a hunting trip to find the lovers in the woods; when one of the king’s loyal knights takes a sword to Tristan, the latter, out of a sense of guilt and shame, allows himself to be mortally wounded. 


Act III was when Clifton Forbis’ amazing vocal talents truly shone. Up until the point that he was shown writhing on the rocky crag near his seaside castle in Brittany, one was almost tempted to say that his Tristan was overshadowed in timbre, undulation, and stamina by Milling’s King Mark. But when he became a Tristan practically lying on his side on the stage floor, bleeding from his gut and bewailing the machinations of the Universe to his faithful servant Kurvenal, his voice was so powerful in capturing a sense of existential agony that I couldn’t help but get the shivers. His death was noble, tragic, and beautifully evocative of the Sublime, as was Voigt’s Isolde who realized that her Goddess-derived magical healing powers arrived too little, too late.


Brangäne and Isolde, like Fortenbras and Hamlet at the conclusion of Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy, are the sole survivors amidst a carcass-littered stage. But for Isolde, her reason for living gone, death becomes a welcome respite. She didn’t sink onto Tristan’s corpse, as I’d expected, but instead stood her ground like a Goddess with her arms upraised and then slowly falling as her powerful final monologue blended once again with the passionate “Tristan Chord” that marked the opera’s beginning. And then, whether it was “the light of reason” or Isolde’s solar fire, the last remaining spotlight, concentrated on Voigt’s face, was snuffed out, and the theatre positively rumbled with wave upon wave of thunderous applause. 


I know that these recollections can’t fully encapsulate how transformed I was by the experience of that evening. All I know is that I felt truly possessed by Art, and that such an endeavor is, to me, the most crucial ingredient in the recipe for a well-lived life.


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