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Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde
Oxford University Press, 2003
248 pp., $49.95
John H. McWhorter
Wagner and The Lion King
Richard Wagner's lasting claim on our attention rests above all on his conception of the "total work of art" or Gesamtkunstwerk, in which music, poetry, dramatic action, and visual spectacle blend to create an overpowering experience. In description, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk operas tantalize. One reads that in his later works such as Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and the Ring Cycle, Wagner eschewed arias designed to show off singers and provide passing delight. Instead he tightly yoked vocal lines, orchestral accompaniment, and visual setting to the purpose of conveying inner psychology, mythic ideals, and philosophical truths, in a quest for a quintessentially mature art form. One eagerly anticipates the magic.
In performance, however, these operas are a truly curious experience, and ultimately exhausting. One must do without discrete songs; the vocal lines are mostly a kind of extended recitative, integrated tightly with ever-shifting colors from the orchestra. The narratives themselves would fit on one side of an index card; most of the time, little is actually happening onstage, and what does happen moves quite slowly. In Die Walküre, Wotan spends an hour recapitulating the events in the preceding Das Rheingold. In Tristan and Isolde, King Marke, catching his bride Isolde with Tristan, declaims his sense of injury for about twenty minutes—and in vocal lines with not even a hint of a "take-home tune." The pieces also require a certain Sitzfleisch: the second act of Die Walküre alone runs over two hours. Tristan takes over four hours for a plot that consists of the lovers coming together by drinking a love potion, Tristan being mortally wounded and taken to his homeland, and Isolde coming to expire along with him.
Why do these pieces occupy such an exalted place in the artistic canon? Addressing that question regarding Tristan and Isolde, Roger Scruton's Death-Devoted Heart is an elegant, erudite exploration attempting to make the operagoer "get" this ...