Tristan at El Liceo

Blanca Riestra. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

7 April 2010

Wagner’s operas are known for their hypnotic circularity. In Tristan und Isolde, the whole opera is structured around the tension and balance between day and night. The same theme can also be found in surrealist films or romantic novels.

At the end of February, while spending a weekend in Barcelona, the weather was spring-like: showery, but full of light. The streets around Las Ramblas hummed with activity. El Raval was cool, as if it had just been painted, overflowing with record shops selling vinyls and fripperies; El Macba was full of skateboarders, La Barceloneta full of cyclists.

On the Saturday, we saw Tristan und Isolde at El Liceo. Such pleasures are seldom found. Wagner-lovers know that. Hunting down a Wagner opera is an adventure sport; and it is expensive and laden with familiar emotions. Wagner-lovers are like drug addicts with withdrawal symptoms. I remember seeing a writer friend, whose name I choose not to mention, some 8 years ago now at each and every performance of Tristan at El Teatro Real. He was in the front row, almost falling into the orchestra pit with anxiety. During the interval, we spoke quickly, almost urgently, understanding each other´s reasons.

It came as no surprise: the five hours in front of David Hockney paintings (coloristic, naïve, pop) went by as if by magic. I remembered my grandfather Edward´s anxiousness for Wagner. He travelled to Bayreuth in the 1930s and premiered one of his own Wagnerian operas in Madrid. My grandfather wore gloves when he shook someone´s hand and only let people listen to Bach or Wagner at home. We could say that he considered el bel canto unworthy.

I also remembered Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí who, jokers and visionaries that they were, shot one of the greatest shorts in the history of the film industry in the 1920s: Un chien andalou. It is no coincidence that one of the main scenes unfolds with the music from Tristan in the background. The subject? Repression, amour fou… in other words, the strain day puts on night. That is the great theme of Tristan.

Djuna Barnes had two of her Nightwood characters hold this conversation:

"Have you ever thought about the night?”
"Yes. But thinking about something you know nothing about is pointless.

Then I remembered the Surrealists in Breton. It is incredible to realise that all the great themes of Surrealism had already been part of Romanticism. Lovers long for night instead of day because day, with its artificial casting sessions, is what prevents them from being together. But night also works as a metaphor of prohibition, of the loss of control, of the triumph of instinct, of irrationality over convention.

This turns the entire opera into an ode to Nacht, with all its violence, freedom, disappearance of individual identity and fusion with the great cosmos until the disturbing culmination of Tristan’s death in the last scene.

"In the heaving swell, in the resounding echoes, in the universal stream of the world-breath - to drown, to founder - unconscious - utmost rapture".

At this point, when I become obsessed with the search for circularity in the novel, I can only admire the structural way in which Wagner’s operas work, where each motif is repeated, interwoven, recovered and abandoned, redundant, transformed, elevated and quietened in a network of thematic dialogue and infinite melody. The gnawas of Morocco achieve a similar effect with the circular movement of the fringes on their metal hats. Repetition and hypnotic circularity.

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