Newberry Consort

at the Newberry Library

October 5

Of course Wagner came up with the most famous and definitive version of the story of Tristan and Isolde’s doomed love–the one in which Isolde sings for more than 20 minutes before death transports her to the Valhalla for postsuicidal couples. But Wagner was by no means the first to capitalize on the tale’s dramatic and commercial potential. In the 12th and 13th centuries, poets and musicians on both sides of the English Channel padded the Celtic legend into long-running serials that gripped the popular imagination. A fortnight ago the Newberry Consort opened its season with what amounted to the greatest hits from this courtly medieval soap opera.

Many variations on the legend flourished in the late Middle Ages, most of them derived from English and French prose and poetry. By 1250 the most popular and elaborate version was the prose Romance of Tristan, which contained numerous subplots and walk-ons straight out of King Arthur’s court. A stripped-down version might be told this way: Tristan, a Brittany knight, escorts the Irish princess Isolde to Cornwall, where she is to marry his uncle King Mark. En route Isolde discovers that Tristan killed her childhood sweetheart. In revenge, she concocts a poison to be taken by both of them, but unbeknownst to her, her maid substitutes a love potion for the poison. After drinking the elixir, Tristan and Isolde realize they’ve been in love all along and proceed to consummate their relationship. Once in Cornwall they continue their affair–until King Mark is convinced of their betrayal. Tristan is banished to Brittany. Despondent, he once again embarks on knightly adventures and is fatally wounded. On his deathbed he sends for Isolde, but she arrives too late. Lying next to his body, she chooses to die too–and in death they are united forvever.

Medieval performances also included a number of lays, or lais in old French–poetical declarations or commentaries sung by characters, whether knights, damsels, or messengers. (The genre is of obscure Breton ancestry and appealed to the medieval listener for its air of mystery and nostalgia.) A lai, as the Newberry’s Mary Springfels points out in a program note, commemorated past feats rather than simply telling a story: it was “both an immediate outlet for its creator’s passions and a memorial to [past] emotions.” Like popular tunes from Hollywood musicals, some lais connected with the Tristan romance became hits in their own right–statements about a bygone fictional love that cogently expressed the medieval attitude toward love. Lais appear in many surviving manuscripts of the romance, but the number included and the order of appearance may be different, depending on the copyist’s preferences. The Newberry Consort excerpted these lais from a nearly complete manuscript now housed in Vienna.

For their performance the five Consort members and medieval harpist William Taylor were seated behind two long tables facing the audience. Accompanied by Taylor, countertenor Drew Minter and mezzo-soprano Judith Malafronte took turns singing selected lais (in old French). The other Consort players provided instrumental interludes based on motets written around the same time as the Tristan romance. The idea was to re-create as closely as possible the ambience of a typical evening of musical entertainment in a wealthy medieval household. As such, the Consort succeeded admirably. For almost an hour–the length of the performance–I listened raptly to Minter’s eerie, ethereal voice, to Malafronte’s rapturous phrasing, to the delicious way both soloists caressed each syllable, to the similarity in their timbres that stressed the lovers’ intertwined destinies. The harp accompaniment was tenderly empathetic and discreet. And as always, I listened with fascination to the masterful playing of the lute, vielle, citole, and other early instruments by Springfels, Kevin Mason, and David Douglass. The dirgelike finale, in which Arthurian heroes and heroines gather at Tristan’s grave, was affecting in a way that the rest of the lais were not.

But the Consort surely had another purpose in mind–to tell us how and why the Tristan romance kept 13th-century audiences enthralled. (Its presentation followed the Folger’s costumed performance of Romance of the Rose, given the night before; both were part of an academic conference on medieval music.) Here, I was disappointed. Maybe the gulf between the notions of love in the age of chivalry and in our cynical age is too wide. Even Randy Travis might blush singing a line like “In my breast I always nurtured Love, she always dwelt there.” Maybe a string of musically unrelated lais cannot rival the dramatic pull of Wagner’s delirious march to “death as the fulfillment of love.” In one lai, Tristan is serenading a young lady about his grief; in another, he’s celebrating his own legend. Maybe even in this telescoped version the romance is too weighed down by digressions and extraneous characters to sustain its emotional momentum. Maybe the romance would be better served by a staged and even more heavily edited performance than by this “documentary” montage. But for whatever reason, I was not drawn into the story, nor did I feel for either Tristan or Isolde. Without an emotional anchor, the Newberry’s lively and assured presentation was like a glossy illustrated guide to an enchanted isle–it pointed out the bright spots but failed to disclose the sources of enchantment.