Although separated by six decades, the two works have more in common than you might think. Musically, the expanded harmonic language of "Tristan" marked the start of a sea change in composition style that eventually led to the serialism of Schoenberg, with its complete demolition of conventional notions of consonance and dissonance. Dramatically, both "Tristan" and "Erwartung" mix images of love and death. Or, as Freud would have put it, Eros and Thanatos.
In Wagner's opera, the musical and psychological tension set up by the unsettling "Tristan chord" in the first measures of the "Prelude" aren't resolved until nearly four hours later when Isolde, in the rapturous "liebestod," wills herself to join her lover Tristan in death. In "Erwartung" the mixture of the erotic and the violent that forms the subtext of "Tristan" comes to the forefront in a stream of consciousness libretto written by poet and medical student Marie Pappenheim and inspired by Freud's "The Interpretation of Dreams."
Scored for soprano and post-Wagnerian orchestra, "Erwartung" unfolds as a somewhat hallucinatory monolog in which the narrator (The Woman) wanders into a nocturnal forest expecting to meet her lover and instead finds his corpse. "The line between truth and fantasy grows increasingly blurred," writes Paul Schiavo in his program notes. "Who killed her lover? Did she do it herself? The only reference point is the dramatic impulse, but the protagonist is unreliable, in thrall to her own circuitous dream logic." Schoenberg himself, in his essay "New Music: My Music," said the aim of the piece "is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour."
This is demanding music, both for the audience and the soloist. Schoenberg's didactic, theme-free score is no easier on the ears now than it was over a century ago and the challenges it presents to the singer are substantial. She has to hold her own against a huge orchestra and convincingly portray a wide range of disordered emotions without tipping over into absurdity. It requires a performer with a powerful voice and exceptional acting skills.
Karita Mattila clearly has both. She gave us a jaw droppingly intense performance Friday night. A striking, statuesque figure in a slinky black gown and gray shawl, Ms. Mattila commanded attention from the moment she walked on stage during the final pages of the "Tristan" prelude and held it all the way through the deranged twists and turns of "Erwartung."
The focus on the drama was enhanced by the canny use of lighting, as the house was dimmed more than usual and the orchestra illuminated by lights that changed color to match the mood of the text. The opening section describing the forest was all in green, for example, with a change to the silvery when the narrator's attention shifted to the moon. The lights went red when the narrator raged against a rival and then gold when the sun rose; very effective.
The orchestra's performance was no less impressive. The occasional massive musical explosion not withstanding, "Erwartung" has long solo and small ensemble passages that leave individual musicians very exposed. Peter Henderson on celesta and Allegra Lilly on harp acquitted themselves particularly well, I thought.
The concerts opened with a lush and passionate Brahms "Symphony No. 3" in which the rubato dial was cranked up to 11. I'm usually very impressed with Mr. Robertson's ability to highlight the musical architecture of a symphony while still retaining the dramatic tension of the music from beginning to end. This time things got rather sluggish as Mr. Roberson tended to linger lovingly over too many phrases and there were occasional intonation problems, especially in the third movement. It sounded somewhat under rehearsed in spots, which made me wonder whether or not it got short changed by the Schoenberg.
The concert repeats tonight (Saturday, March 29) at 8 PM. It will be broadcast live on St. Louis Public Radio, 90.7 FM, HD 1, and via Internet stream at the station web site. If you plan to listen that way, make sure you have a copy of the "Erwartung" libretto handy (the libretto starts on page 59 of the linked PDF file).
Next at Powell: Christian Tetzlaff is the soloist and Mr. Robertson is on the podium for Shostakovich's "Violin Concerto No. 1" and Sibelius's "Symphony No. 2." Performances are Saturday at 8 PM and Sunday at 3 PM, April 5 and 6. For more information: stlsymphony.org.