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An Appalling State Of Affairs

Posted by acdtest on June 2, 2003

An Appalling State Of Affairs

one are the days when one could pick up the nation’s “Newspaper of Record,” turn to the music page of its Arts & Leisure section, and be both delighted and enlightened by the erudite critical writings of a Harold C. Schonberg, or an Edward Rothstein. But the time for the regular on-music writings of such critical heavyweights at the Times is now past. Today we’re treated to the on-music writings of such critical midgets as Ann Midgette (perfect!), and Anthony Tommasini. I’ve previously had occasion to remark on Ms. Midgette’s appalling cluelessness and ignorance on matters Wagnerian, and now we have proof that Mr. Tommasini’s cluelessness and ignorance on such matters is fully as appalling (actually further proof, for this is not the first time Mr. Tommasini has made an ass of himself in print on matters Wagnerian) as is made abundantly clear by two telling comments in his review of the new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Vienna Staatsoper (covered by Mr. Tommasini because it marked the debut of American soprano Deborah Voight in the role of Isolde).

Writes Mr. Tommasini:

The only way the legend [of Tristan and Isolde as treated by Wagner] has psychological resonance is if you accept that the love potion is a kind of truth serum that unlocks their inner erotic yearnings. Such dangerous emotions, the opera suggests, are nothing but trouble.

The above is, of course, arrant nonsense. The opera — the music-drama — has no “psychological resonance” if one accepts that the potion drunk by the two lovers has any magical or pharmacological effect at all, either as a love potion or “truth serum.” The drama has psychological resonance only when one understands that the potion has no effect as a potion per se, but rather because the two lovers are both convinced it’s a powerful death potion (i.e., poison), and are therefore both certain they’ll be dead within a matter of minutes, and so for the first time feel completely free to confess fully to each other their long-secret and forbidden love, each for the other.

As to the opera suggesting “[s]uch dangerous emotions…are nothing but trouble”: More sheer ignorance on the part of Mr. Tommasini. The music-drama in fact celebrates those “dangerous emotions.” And if it “suggests” anything about Tristan’s and Isolde’s love (and it does more than merely suggest) it’s that a love that profound can be consummated only when both lovers have become part of the great World Soul; become one with the Universal One (as in one-ness).

As if Mr. Tommasini’s above quoted gibberish were by itself not enough, we have this from him as well:

In a telling turnaround of imagery, at the end of the opera, when Isolde confronts the dying Tristan, she stands again at the end of [the] metal table, this time facing not the armored shell of Morold but the human shell of her beloved. To signal his death, she shuts his eyelids with her hand, blocking out the hated light of day; to signal her own death, she simply stands by him motionlessly and covers her own eyes. Mr. Krämer [the director] makes metaphorical staging seem humane and free of cliché.

I bypass the stage business of the metal table and the armored shell of Morold, which are but conceits of this clearly Eurotrash production, one which Mr. Tommasini saw fit not to savage as it surely deserved, and move on to his praising of the eyelid-shutting and covering, and Isolde’s “death” at music-drama’s end: the famous, and famously erroneously-called, Liebestod (“love-death”).

In his mindless praising of that rank bit of stage idiocy, Mr. Tommasini is clearly ignorant of the fact that it was not for nothing that Wagner referred to the ending of his great mystical paean to love not by the term Liebestod — a term he reserved to denominate the prelude to the first act of this three-act music-drama — but by the term Verklärung (transfiguration). And for good reason, too. Wagner’s stage directions indicate explicitly that Isolde does not die, but rather sinks as if transfigured onto the dead Tristan’s breast. Not only that, but for a full ten minutes or so prior to her transfiguration, Isolde, hallucinating, imagines Tristan alive and standing before her, beckoning to her. As far as Isolde is concerned neither she nor Tristan is any longer part of the world of air, earth, and sky. That, in fact, is the whole point of the Verklärung. The very last thing Isolde would be doing is closing Tristan’s eyes or covering her own. She’s after all in the throes of an ecstatic vision. But to read Mr. Tommasini’s clueless comments, one would have no idea just how idiot, and counter to the sense and substance of both music and text, that stage business really was, or that anything about it was even amiss.

As appalling as this all is, the truly appalling thing is that the sort of ignorance displayed by Mr. Tommasini is not an exception today when it comes to writings on matters of high art in the mainstream media, but rather the norm — everywhere. One is tempted to exclaim with Cicero, “O tempora! O mores!“, but what’s the point. With the triumph of pop culture world-wide, all critical writing on the high arts in the mainstream media has been dumbed down to the point of misinformation, even insult, and hardly worth the paper it’s printed on, or the phosphor by which it’s made visible on-screen.

Welcome to the brave new world of the 21st century.

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