The Tristan Chord: Tristan und Isolde at the Met Opera

PierluigiI Longo

This season, the Met takes on Wagner.

Classical music has progressed mostly wormlike, in unnoticed advances and subliminal retreats. There have been times, though, when the history of music has taken a sharp, screeching turn: the first opera (Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, in 1597); the invention of the cast-iron-frame piano in 1843; a stoned Terry Riley dreaming up the incantatory In C on a San Francisco bus in 1964, effectively founding the minimalist movement.

This month, New York’s Metropolitan Opera opens its season with one of those moments, a sigh of unquenchable desire in the first seconds of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. (The new production is directed by Mariusz Treliński and features soprano Nina Stemme, who combines nuance and ferocious power.) The 1865 opera starts with a slow, quiet moan that slides upward into a four-note chord, F–B–D sharp–G sharp, an utterance of such epic ambiguity that it goes by a unique name: the Tristan chord. It sounds pleasurably unstable, like a body suspended at the upper end of a pendulum’s arc. Yet from that point of maximum tension it could still keep flying onward, or pivot in any direction, instead of just subsiding into consonance. The music tumbles into another unsustainable position, then another and another, like a dancer perpetually aloft. A magic potion brings Tristan and Isolde together; the chord gives them hope. So long as it doesn’t resolve in a contented sigh, love remains infinite, death only theoretical. Only when these two forces merge, just before the final curtain, does destiny have the last word. Opens September 26; 30 Lincoln Center Plaza; 212-362-6000; metopera.org.