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Music: Revolution (Cont’d)

3 minute read

Richard Wagner’s grandsons were at it again. Last year they shocked old-line Wagnerites by ditching the old three-dimensional scenery, stripping heroines of their winged helmets, and generally flouting sacred traditions. Last week, continuing to modernize grandfather, they opened the second postwar season at Bayreuth with a streamlined version of Tristan and Isolde.

Designer Wieland Wagner achieved most of his atmosphere by the use of lighting effects rather than scenery, and his sets contained a minimum of props. Act I was furnished with a single couch for Isolde (not a sign of the usual sail or sailors); there was no castle in Act II and none of the customary trees in Act III. The stage sloped so steeply that Tristan on his couch almost seemed in danger of rolling into the orchestra pit.

Said Wieland: “I want to concentrate on the persons.” His other general idea was to avoid the style of a 19th century romantic love story and display Tristan as the “erotic mystery” he thinks “the old man” meant it to be.

Part of the Bayreuth revolution was the use of top singers who had not come up through the German chain of promotion (from provincial opera houses to major cities to Bayreuth). Chilean Tenor Ramon Vinay, familiar at the Metropolitan Opera but a stranger to Germany, looked handsome and heroic and sang brilliantly as Tristan. German Soprano Martha Moedl, 37, had begun to sing only eight years ago, but was a warm, natural Isolde. The Brangaene was a Ukrainian contralto named Era Malaniuk. Whatever the critics thought of the sets. they seemed to agree that the new Tristan was a fine musical success.

Much of the credit for that success belonged to Austrian Conductor Herbert von Karajan, 43. In some ways, Karajan was an innovator too. He rearranged the seating positions of the orchestra to suit himself, regardless of frowns and the fact that Richard Wagner himself had laid down what those positions should be. As a conductor who pays more attention to the orchestra than to the stage, he kept the singers uncomfortably on edge. They fretted that he might neglect to give them their cues, especially as he sometimes conducts with his eyes closed. “If I didn’t know my part so well.” grunted one singer, “I’d be swimming in space like the Rhinemaidens.”

But despite some podium idiosyncrasies, Karajan is one of the most richly talented younger conductors in Europe today. He gave Tristan long and careful preparation, he showed full respect for the sacred score, and he wound up with a performance of freshness and precision. When it was over, Bayreuth’s applause rolled in.

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