Review: Music and lyrics carry audience to ecstasy


While Hugh Keelan and Jenna Rae have regularly produced and performed opera in Brattleboro, bringing local people together to an inspired outcome such as last year's "Turandot," nothing as inspired and as far reaching as TUNDI Production's upcoming performances of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" has been undertaken before. In order to bear this out I would like to provide a little history.

Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" musically imposed itself upon the composer while he was busy writing his famously enormous "Ring Cycle." When Wagner finally diverted his attention from the "Ring Cycle" and yielded to the musical threads he was hearing, the "Tristan und Isolde" that emerged turned out to be so demanding and revolutionary that it was finally performed only after six years' failed attempts. It is worth noting that the first tenor in Tristan's role died at age 29 after only four performances, leaving his wife who played Isolde opposite him widowed and grief stricken to the degree that she retired from the stage. Two conductors perished after collapsing on stage, both in the midst of conducting the second act of Tristan. And while it is not regularly deadly, "Tristan und Isolde" continues to be a challenge to produce and to perform.

Yet it is this, the challenge, that works along with the beauty of the music and lyrics to carry performers and audiences alike to its eventual ecstasy. "Tristan und Isolde" is composed to leave audiences unsettled over the long course of the opera. Another way of expressing this is that the music and poetry of "Tristan und Isolde" invites the audience to follow performers in taking a risk, to abandon all the usual ways we resolve emotional and psychological tension and, instead, to join in with the main characters' obliterating and transcendent love.

All this being said, conductor Keelan and soprano Rae, founders and the driving forces behind TUNDI Production, have no interest in academically priming their audience about the history of this or any opera. Instead, TUNDI embraces Wagner's idea of `all-encompassing artwork' as distinct from composer, actor, writer, and audience member. In this way TUNDI is abandoning control of the outcomes and is inviting any who come to the performances or attend any of the many events that are scheduled on Saturday to participate in a shared space of immersion, to abandon previous indoctrination and explore what we each think and feel up against Tristan und Isolde's love and death experience. Put forward this way Wagner can become a community resource, to learn together and understand who we each are and how we belong together, a radical notion for this time.

Finally, after all this explication, I am compelled to admit that I know very little about opera. I am slowly being educated by my 11-year-old son who, particularly since his choral participation in Windham Orchestra's 2018 production of "Turandot," demands more and more involvement with Hugh and Jenna and their musical exploits. I announce that I am a novice because I am interested in catching the attention of as many other people who may be inexperienced with opera and who don't accept as given, Wagner's genius. Because these are the people who can make these performances of "Tristan und Isolde" what they are meant to be, which is more than opera. Because Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" and TUNDI's drive to perform it is not any more or less about opera than it is about the political anarchy of punk rock, the intense human curiosity behind astrophysics or the striving of whichever spiritual practice we find ourselves engaged in. People from all walks of life who are interested in sharing in something familiar and new and unknowable and ecstatic should consider being present, adding their hearts and minds to either of the two performances of "Tristan und Isolde" and any of events on Saturday's Wagner Festival Day.

Tickets and information about Saturday's events are available online at

Asher Pucciarello writes from Brattleboro.



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