Vermont is about to enjoy its first locally produced Wagner opera. And the choice of the tragic love story “Tristan und Isolde” is no accident.
“Of all the major Wagner works, it’s the one that least involves social, political, dramatic controversy,” explains Hugh Keelan, who is conducting. “That doesn’t mean it’s neutral. It’s not bland or ho hum at all, but it doesn’t sit in provocation the way some big Wagner works very obviously do.
“It’s based on what moderns would call human interest,” Keelan said. “It’s extraordinary.”
TUNDI will present Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” fully staged with orchestra, sung in the original German with English supertitles, at 4 p.m. Friday, and at 10 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 25, at the Latchis Theatre in Brattleboro. (Intermissions are extended to provide time for visits to area restaurants.)
TUNDI (short for “Tristan und Isolde”) is a new Brattleboro-based opera production company. Keelan, the founder and director, is longtime music director of the Windham Orchestra, and a world-traveling solo pianist and conductor.
For “Tristan,” Keelan leads a cast that includes Alan Schneider as Tristan, Jenna Rae (Keelan’s wife) as Isolde, Cailin Marcel Manson as Kurvenal, Roseanne Acklerley as Brangaene, Charles Martin as Marke, James Anderson as Melot, Robert Grady as Young Sailor, Stanley Wilson as Shepherd, and Dennis Ryan as Steersman, plus a chorus and the 64-piece TUNDI Festival Orchestra.
“In most cases the singers are either longstanding colleagues or seem to be irresistibly drawn to what we’re doing,” Keelan said recently during staging preparations. “Not one of them have we auditioned. We’re in this project because each and every one in it wants to do it. It’s something so absurdly big and desirable to do that we just decided to do it.”
And they’re from all over.
“Jenna is my wife, so she’s not so far away from Brattleboro most of the time,” Keelan said. “Rosanne is actually one of the people who was drawn to us and knocked on our door. She lives in New York City. The Tristan understudy is coming in from Cleveland. We have players in the orchestra, some of them are flying in from California. There’s one player whose recent job was principal viola at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. So we’ve got some pretty extraordinary people who found out about us.”
It’s all about Wagner (1813-1883), one of the most controversial of all composers, and perhaps the most innovative in opera. And, unlike other opera composers, he wrote his own librettos.
“He was there before anyone else,” Keelan said. “He was being Freud before there was any Freud. He was really dealing with the subtext of human character, even if he put them in gods’ clothing.
“He just digs — so that the very simple, practically banal expression of a singer on the stage is made profound and psychologized by what the orchestral cometry offers at each point. That’s completely groundbreaking.”
“Tristan und Isolde,” first performed in 1865, changed the face of musical theater forever. It tells of bitter hatred turned to uncontrollable passion; of betrayal, forgiveness, and redemption; of death, and love beyond death. Its surging music rises to heights of emotion never before heard on the operatic stage.
In the first act, set on a ship, Isolde is on her way to marry King Marke, but becomes entangled with Tristan and, of course, falling in love.
“We’ll have the sailors who are managing the ship on two catwalks,” Keelan said. “The intention here is to give the audience the experience of being onboard the ship — and, in a sense a little bit captive, a little bit forced to be close to the action.
“There’s a quality throughout the work of the lovers, whether together or apart, of being spied on — a sense of surveillance during the whole thing,” Keelan said. “That’s one of the themes we start to put into focus in the first act.”
Keelan has set the action, including staging and costumes, in non-historical “legend.”
“The second act is all about the lovers alone,” he said. “In the third act, Tristan becomes everyman, and the problems that Tristan is dealing with are absolutely everyman’s problem — the death of mother, the death of father, accumulated goings wrong, sadnesses, and how he, actually not alone, starts to put all those to rest and achieve a transcendence.
“As with other Wagnerian heroes, his life is complete when he dies. He dies when his life is complete,” Keelan said. “Suddenly he has everything he ever wanted — the moment Isolde arrives in the third act, and he expires. It really is a sublime moment, not a pity for the lovers that they couldn’t have time together.
“Where Isolde is going to go with it all really is about a spiritual and mystical transcendence and unification in another realm.”
This is a festival for performers as well as the audience.
“One of our goals is to provide time and space for the continuing development of Wagnerian singers, allowing them to further explore a well-traveled role or learn a new one,” Keelan said. “This will be an all-encompassing experience. The theater has you right inside the action. You’ll find yourself immersed in the swelling of the waves, the love garden, and the transcendence of love and death.”
Keelan is hoping that this “Tristan und Isolde” will be the beginning of a Wagner tradition in Brattleboro.
“We’re hoping to be beginning on a ‘Ring’ this time next year,” he said. “We’ll start with ‘Valkyrie’.”