In many ways, the Shaw Festival saved the best for last. Under the sympathetic eye of director Eda Holmes, co-writers/composers Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey have successfully mined the emotional power of Thomas Mann’s short story, “Tristan,” and delivered a moving testament to the doubt and despair that truly fine art can invoke.
But let’s be clear: this is a play that features music rather than a musical in search of a storyline. But oh what a huge, huge pleasure (unlike bigger-room song-and-dance extravaganzas both here and farther north in Stratford-on-Broadway)—there was nary a microphone to be heard.
The ever-so-tidy Blue Spruce Quartet and Sportelli’s discreet and supportive accompaniments were in perfect balance with the varying vocal talents of the cast. The untouched, unmixed totally acoustic result went a long way to bringing this deeply personal essay into the minds and hearts of the audience in a manner that body mics and a touch of reverb never can. Merci mille fois!
The music itself is an engaging mix of Sondheim sparseness and Debussy’s pastel palette. There is much declamation, plenty of pizzicato and no counterpoint. The occasional choruses (notably, the “La Bohème” moment after the sleigh ride when the walking wounded and their caregivers—the action takes place in a German sanitarium—burst into song-and-waltz only to have their rapture abruptly truncated when the young beauty of the Alps, Gabrielle Kloterjahn—Glynis Ranney, who glows in the role—prophetically spits up blood), cry out for more.
The infrequent duets (e.g., “All the possibilities,” where the two male suitors—Mark Uhre as the semi-attentive husband, Heinrich Kloterjahn and Jeff Madden as the reclusive writer, Detlev Spinell, sear through a passionate sing-off over the woman they both love in different ways) have dramatic punch if little to whistle on the way home. No worries. The first act closer, “One Face” brings instant relief to the melodic drought. “One face, one voice, one choice,” decries Spinell in his soliloquy to the throng. Madden crawls under our skin and into our psyche as his love for the talented Gabrielle (also a new mother) is revealed—now, if only he could add support to the top and find a way to avoid the nasal cavity, this song could bring a whole new meaning to the term “showstopper.”
Then there’s the Wagner (and a snippet of Chopin). Gabrielle’s performance at the piano is key to both the plot (she seems to deteriorate from the artistic strain) and the mood (until her mini-recital, much of the play’s tone is light and airy thanks in no small part to Neil Barclay’s gay-on-the-surface rendering of The General and Jane Johanson’s savvy portrayal of the selectively deaf Frau Hohlenrauch). But—like the cute kid in a W.C. Fields film—as soon as the first bar from the fabled masters is heard (Sportelli’s sensitive readings are deftly mimed by Ranney) everyone on both sides of the footlights is reminded just why such “old” music will never go out of style (just out of consciousness as “song bites” suit our “Ipodic” world far more than five hour excursions into the complexities of the human spirit).
Of course, in Mann’s original story the music must be imagined as the doomed lovers soar briefly to the heights of ecstasy before crashing into their lost dreams (she to be a musician; he to write something that might find a wider audience than his fellow patients). Knowing this, Sportelli and Turvey have crafted a production that favours the fun—the subplot of Frualein von Osterloh (Patty Jamieson) scheming her way into the heart of Doctor Leander (Graeme Somerville) is the sugar on the main story’s dark complexion—and lets the music find its own quiet way rather than brazenly demand our attention.
In 1860, Wagner’s epic tale, with its prophetic overthrow of stagnant tonality, forever changed both the scope of opera and the possibilities of harmonic structure. Forty-three years later, Mann’s minimalist expression of the power and transcendence of art belied its mere forty pages. Now—thanks to the dedication of the creative team and unwavering support from the Shaw’s artistic trust—we have the next installment in this unquenchable combination of deceptively simple narrative and the potential force of great art to forever change or shatter lives. It could find no better place to germinate and flower than with the company whose considerable musical skills are anchored in the bedrock of first-rate acting. JWR