Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an opera often described as metaphysical, profound, transcendental and musicians and members of the audience often approach it with extreme reverence, often trying to frame their experience of the opera itself by a priori concepts rather than by the experience itself. Not today – my neighbours this evening behaved as if they were watching an adventure film in the movie theatre. A couple next to me seemed to have found it highly entertaining – they even laughed of the Liebestod. When I was going to get angry, I realized that the fact that they were watching it under a completely different light (even if bothersome and disrespectful one) made me realize that someone else - and a very important one – seemed to be seeing the whole thing with fresh eyes and ears. And this was veteran conductor Peter Schneider.
I had seen Maestro Schneider conduct this work in Bayreuth and praised his flexible beat and the beauty of the orchestral sound. On reading what I wrote then, I cannot help noticing that it has nothing to do with this evening, when the conductor seemed to have taken everything at face value: there was no concerns of producing important sounds, of manipulating tempo to produce gravitas or of adding any kind of profoundness. On the contrary, he kept a very regular beat that could give the impression that he could relax more either in exciting or meditative moments, his orchestra produced distinctively bright sounds in the string section and never overshadowed the other sections, his approach was built towards very clean, singing lines of accompanying figures that shared with the soloists the same degree of importance. Since we are talking about Wagner, the accompanying figures – although played with nearly Donizetti-ian flavor – are almost invariably Leitmotive and their variation. That made this evening revelatory in terms of structural clarity. Also, the house orchestra’s playing had an urgency that sometimes tampered with polish, but kept you in the edge of your seat in a Marth Argerich-ian way, especially in passages where the violins were able to showcase outstanding flexibility. As a result, the performance – in its lack of austerity – often seemed blunt in its obstinate forward-movement, its Verdian glittery passageworks, its almost bombastic succession of chords attacked straight-to-the-matter. As the soloists too seemed determined to avoid venerability and had almost all of them very clear diction, many scenes sounded quite new to me shorn of their dignified grandeur. This evening, Isolde’s indignation in act I had more than a splash of whim and Brangäne’s selflessness something of meddling for her own amusement; Tristan’s obscure musings in act II sound less philosophical than testosterone-ridden. If I give the impression that this made the story more superficial, do not mistake my words: I’ve found it quite refreshing to see these characters more realistic in their motivations in a storyline almost devoid of action.
This is the first time I could see Violeta Urmana in a complete performance as Isolde. I’ve heard a broadcast from Rome long ago and saw her sing act II in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and have found her one of the most interesting singers in this role these days. She was announced indisposed and took almost the entire first act to warm up and, even after that, had to carefully negotiate some high-and-loud passages, but she hasn’t disappointed me. First, there is some almost Italianate vocal glamour in her performance: the low and medium registers are warm and fruity, she is capable of legato and soft attack in lyric passages and the edge on her acuti (which can be bothersome in recordings) do help her to pierce through when the orchestra is really loud. Second, although she is not a terrific actress, she has studied this role with unusual attentiveness – she clearly knows her words, has an opinion about her character and portrays all that with both the verbal specificity of a Lieder singer and the attitude of someone who has sung roles like Norma or Aida. Third, she is bien deans sa peau in this role, which she portrays with sensuousness and femininity. This is really more than we can say about most Isoldas.
Her Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, whom I had seen in this part in Bayreuth, also with Peter Schneider. There, the acoustics helped him a lot. This evening, the lack of squillo in his high register sometimes made him inaudible amidst an unleashed Vienna State Orchestra. The role is still very distant to his personality, but this production makes his work harder to see to this problem. The results are not entirely convincing, but – in the context of this performance – this vulnerable, young-sounding Tristan makes particular sense. Especially when he sings so musically and with absolute technical security (his breath is impressively long, to start with).
The role of Brangäne is on the heavy side for Elisabeth Kulman, but she is a smart singer with solid technique and by unfailing focus, crystalline diction and dramatic imagination produced a compelling performance. Matthias Goerne too finds the role of Kurwenal heavy for his voice. However, differently from Ms. Kulman, his whole method is incompatible with Wagnerian singing. In the rare lyrical moments in the part, he provides beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, but he is often hectoring and producing white-toned high notes. Last but not least, Albert Dohmen – in spite of a rusty tonal quality – produced a far more varied and touching performance as King Marke than I could have expected, considering the last times I saw him.
There is not much to speak of David McVicar’s highly stylized and very superficial staging. I dislike the choreographed seamen but find the rest quite harmless in their basic colors and unobtrusiveness. However, although the production dates from 2013, it seems that the Personenregie is sometimes already lost. There were moments when these singers had not much idea of why they were doing what they were supposed to do and felt therefore free to do their thing. Fortunately, their “thing” often worked well this evening