"After first studying TRISTAN, I looked at everything through TRISTAN eyes,even the Beethoven piano sonatas." Not many musicians would have occasion to make that statement; maybe only one -- Daniel Barenboim, once a child prodigy of the keyboard and at fifty still a prodigious pianist, though most of his time lately has gone to his work as a conductor.
Backstage at the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, during the second hour-long intermission in Siegfried, Barenboim conducts an interview for which he could find no other slot in his schedule. You would not call this office a dressing room. Performing out of sight, Bayreuth conductors do not dress up, and Barenboim's short sleeves and casual slacks are chosen for the weather, not the occasion. A side table is incongruously occupied by the score of the obscure Egyptian March of Johann Strauss Jr., soon to be committed to disc with the Chicago Symphony. His assistant comes in, bearing cake and coffee. "Do you mind," Barenboim asks, "if I put my feet up?"
Tristan und Isolde is on his mind again. Twelve summers ago, he made his Bayreuth debut leading Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production. Now he is preparing to open the 1993 season with the Wagner festival's first Tristan since Ponnelle's. The director is Heiner Müller, probably best known as the playwright of The Hamlet Machine (itself best known in a production staged in Hamburg by Robert Wilson). Erich Wonder and Yohji Yamamoto complete the production team. Vague word has gotten around of a "Brechtian" interpretation, which has some Wagnerians worried. Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem are cast as the lovers.
In an age when maestros at the upper echelons rarely revisit the opera landmarks in successive productions, Barenboim also is following up five seasons of Harry Kupfer's postnuclear Ring at Bayreuth with a new one, at the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, again with Kupfer and the design team of Hans Schavernoch (sets) and Reinhard Heinrich (costumes). Like Götz Friedrich and Peter Sykora with their "Time Tunnel" for Berlin's Deutsche Oper (or indeed Wieland Wagner with his Bayreuth disc), Kupfer and Schavernoch structured their Ring around a single coherent visual metaphor: a bleak highway (history), stretching off into the misty distance (the future, essentially indistinguishable from the past). This image, Barenboim says, will not be recycled. "Our Berlin Ring will look different," he promises.
As the Staatsoper Berlin company's artistic director and general music director, with house privileges approaching carte blanche in Bayreuth, and with no less an instrument at his disposal than the Chicago Symphony for such a warm-up exercise as the performances of Tristan's Act II with Meier and Jerusalem last February, Barenboim would seem to have, in Hamlet's phrase, exceptional "will, and means, and strength" for Wagner exploration. (Only James Levine, with his dual base of the Met and Bayreuth, has similar opportunities at his fingertips.)
Strange to say, Barenboim does not have, to any overwhelming degree, the thing Hamlet names at the head of his list, "cause." Cause, that is, in the sense of an artistic compulsion. "Sometimes, actually, when you do a new production, there is not necessarily an artistic reason," he says. "I hate to disappoint you. I was very happy with the Ponnelle Tristan, and I wouldn't have chosen to do another one now. But in 1981, the production was going to be by Patrice Chéreau. Then he was afraid to do a 'fifth Ring opera' and pulled out. Then he was going to do this next one -- but again he pulled out, and I was committed. The attraction of Tristan in Bayreuth is that both major roles are being done by the artists for the first time. That's always a plus for me with very talented people. In Berlin, I would rather have waited with the Ring. But the Staatsoper is a house with a great Wagner tradition, and they haven't had a Ring in twenty-five years. They had planned it before I came into the picture, and I didn't want to disappoint them."
So Barenboim is destined to be seeing the world through Wagnerian eyes for the foreseeable future. And given the high profile of his projects -- a studio recording of Parsifal with Meier, Jerusalem and the Berlin Philharmonic is out, a companion Tristan is planned, the Bayreuth Ring is in the can for early release in audio and video (all on Erato), with various further chapters sure to follow as Barenboim and his Staatsoper design team soldier through the Wagner canon -- the world at large will be experiencing a lot of Wagner as filtered through Barenboim's original musical mind.
"Wagner is essential for a conductor," he remarks. "Few things are. Mozart is -- for any musician. I'm not distinguishing between opera and the symphonic music. Mozart is essential for one's own education, as hygienic treatment. Everything is transparent. Every fault shows. Wagner is essential from the point of view of size, for building a musical structure over a huge span. Even the Bruckner Eighth is short after Act I of Parsifal. But it's not just a question of staying power. Wagner is essential for the art of transition, for a continuous ebb and flow. And all the different means of expression are stretched to the limit."
The self-education that Barenboim advocates is no limited course of study but a continuing program to which he is fully committed. He has formed his own core ensembles of Mozarteans (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Cecilia Bartoli, Lella Cuberli et al.) and Wagnerians (headed by Meier, Jerusalem, John Tomlinson and Deborah Polaski). For many years, he produced annual Mozart cycles with the Orchestre de Paris. Since his inaugural Bayreuth season, he has spent every summer there, investigating Tristan, the Ring cycle and Parsifal.
He says that Bayreuth offers model working conditions. "You can't take away the fact that the orchestra meets only to play Wagner, only once a year. And the productions don't remain static. They can grow musically and theatrically, rather than just being repeated mechanically to reproduce the premiere."
The commitment to long preparation makes a difference, too. "At Bayreuth, I always start a year early. For the new Tristan, I even started the musical rehearsals two years early. Starting so early, you can work in a different way. Starting later, you have to take decisions every day, or you don't meet deadlines. This way, we can try things, leave them and pick them up again. It's not only the total hours that are important but the long span of time."
As Barenboim points out, this lesson can be applied elsewhere, and he means to do so at the Staatsoper. Whether Bayreuth's single-mindedness -- tunnel vision in excelsis -- can be duplicated is less certain. At the Festspielhaus, from the first run-through with piano to closing night, each production remains in effect a work in progress, the object of continuing intellectual inquiry. "I try," Barenboim says, "and I don't know how well this succeeds or comes across, to play the four pieces of the Ring in four separate styles."
He raises a cautioning finger and two cautioning eyebrows. "I say this to clarify a point about musical character. Don't take it literally -- it's very exaggerated. Rheingold is like Berlioz. Walküre has a completely different, broader orchestral texture, like Bruckner. Siegfried is like Liszt. Actually, it's in two styles -- the third act is like Tristan, with an orchestral virtuosity and brilliance that are unique. Stylistically, Götterdämmerung goes with Walküre, except that Götterdämmerung is bigger, and not just in length, and it already has a lot of Debussy -- the Norns."
Cross-reference, one cannot help noticing, is the warp and woof of Barenboim's musical thought. By way of explaining the Berlioz connection in Rheingold, he points to the transparent instrumentation and particularly the "almost obsessive string detail": various divisi markings that may call for only half a section, or for only the first four stands, or for eight players, one in each stand. "I've observed these directions religiously," he says, going on to point out that Pierre Boulez makes many similar requests in his Notations, which Barenboim conducted at its world premiere. "I didn't know Rheingold then," says Barenboim. "Later, I asked Boulez whether it had influenced him, and he said, 'Absolutely.' He wrote Notations at the time of the Chéreau Ring."
How much the rich background that Barenboim brings to the podium shapes the audience's experience of the scores is another question. His results are by no means to everyone's liking. Without apparent resentment, an aspiring conductor on the Bayreuth musical staff offers the unsolicited professional assessment that Barenboim "can't conduct"; but Alan Blyth, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, compares him, guardedly, to Furtwängler.
Not even his staunchest partisan would pretend that Barenboim's conducting is consistent. At last year's second Bayreuth Ring, the difficult Rheingold prelude came off murky and disorganized, its points of inflection all but unnoticeable. The first full fantasia on the Valhalla theme, on the other hand, streamed forth with a dreamy, faraway glory, free of conventional pomp and circumstance. The lovely flyaway wisp of melody associated with Freia inspired Barenboim to exquisite tenderness. The Walküre prelude inched by at a dreary crawl, but the music for the lovers swept along on a gorgeous wave of passion. Poul Elming's otherwise Bunyanesque Siegmund was left in the lurch at "Nothung! Nothung!," unsustained by any power from the pit. Tomlinson, a Wotan of matchless dynamism, found himself similarly abandoned during the last phrase of his farewell. And so it went. The Norns' scene featured brief passages of diaphanous beauty and delicate pulse. Other than that, Götterdämmerung came up short on pretty much all musical fronts; the climax of this cycle had come and gone in Acts I and II of Die Walküre.
All in all, Barenboim's Ring was a puzzle too in the strange contrast between the singers' highly pointed parlando and an instrumental reading that was lean in sound, mostly stripped of monumentalism yet nebulous in its definition of musical architecture. It was as if two separate performances were going on in parallel, one on the stage, one in the pit, each with its own defining aesthetic. The mind was simultaneously riveted to each moment of the dialogue and set adrift in the wordless song of the orchestra, never quite on the crest, not awakening to swells of eloquence until they were half over.
Barenboim's answers to these observations are characteristically analytical. Characteristically too, they draw him on to questions of fundamental structure. "I don't know how you mean that," he says, starting with the last point, "but I take it as a compliment. This music is not written with new beginnings. One thing goes into another. It's in Wagner's writings -- everything comes out of what comes before. This is not an angular musical structure. There are no separate numbers. It's all one sweep. There is nothing disconnected in music. People say when you have two notes, there's already a relationship. Even one note is in relationship to something: to the preceding silence. It's the organic element, and Wagner takes it to extremes."
On the subject of the text, the maestro cites Wagner's correspondence with Liszt when Liszt was preparing the world premiere of Lohengrin in Weimar. "Wagner gives Liszt exact directions. He expects singers to be able to speak, declaim and sing. Rheingold has lots of recitative. In Wotan's monologue, in the second act of Die Walküre, you get all three -- the spoken, the declaimed and the beautiful Italianate line. The words and music go hand in hand. Sometimes the text motivates the music. Sometimes it's the other way. Sometimes music was too strong even for Wagner. The words give a clear indication. You can't play Wagner as pure music without thinking of the text, and vice versa.
"Music notation is less precise than one likes to think. The moment you start putting words to it, it's even less so. In German especially, there are problems with the consonants. The vowel has to be on the chord -- that's generally accepted. But where does one put consonants, and what are the expressive possibilities with duration, with dynamics, with crescendo or subito piano? Often you have to anticipate a soft vowel with a loud consonant. Attention to these things gives very much a parlando character. Therefore there's not a contrast between the singing and the orchestra, but rather counterpoint."
A counterpoint to which the theatrical realization adds another strand, potentially of equal complexity. Barenboim works with directors who are demanding -- Kupfer, Müller, Chéreau. Does he ever feel they get in his way? "No," comes the rare short answer. Does he feel that their work enriches his own?
"Oh, definitely, even if it doesn't influence the musical conception. With a great régisseur, you become aware of possibilities of gesture, pose, stage picture. Polyphony is that -- everything having its own voice and independence. I'm not interested in working with directors who only make illustrations, even very beautiful ones. It's important to work together from the beginning -- for audiences too. Even if you know a work very well, you can't separate ears and eyes. In a real operatic experience you listen with your eyes and see with your ears. That's what I look for."
How often does he find it? "Sometimes. Sometimes just at moments. Beginning to end with the Wozzeck with Chéreau." (That production, unveiled at the Châtelet in Paris last year, will be moving to Chicago next season, with its cast intact.)
Barenboim volunteers no illustrations from Wagner, yet examples are near at hand. Not an hour before our conversation, there was the transcendent business with Siegfried's horn call, wondrously passed back and forth across the stage from Siegfried to the Wanderer, who, second horn in hand, watched the young hero unseen. (According to the libretto, the Wanderer is not onstage at this point at all.) Another such moment is in store for the final evening. The dying Siegfried's agony will mimic the moves of Brünnhilde's awakening, even as the music quotes it. Then a gulf will yawn open in the road of history to swallow the corpse, left unattended. As the funeral music begins, Wotan will emerge from the wings and toss his shattered spear down after his failed hero. Finally Brünnhilde will appear too. Father and daughter will kneel by the gulf in silent contemplation, neither making eye contact nor evading it.
These are moments on a level with the close of the retired Ponnelle Tristan, when in the space of the last eight bars, darkness fell on the radiant Isolde like a beat of the wing of death and then lifted to reveal the dead Tristan in the arms of his faithful Kurwenal. Isolde was gone. In the wisest, cruelest of ironies, the Liebestod too was shown as part of Tristan's hallucination.
By such instances, Barenboim's ideal stands revealed for what it is -- comprehensively theatrical rather than narrowly musical, true to the unifying spirit of the Gesamtkunstwerk. Now and in the future, it is by that ideal that his accomplishments on all his many stages must be judged.