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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde’

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

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In his days in the Opéra de Paris, Myung-Whun Chung seemed to had made to the short list of conductors who get the best orchestra, soloists and recordings – I can remember the Samson et Dalila with Waltraud Meier and Plácido Domingo, the Otello with Cheryl Studer and Domingo, La Damnation de Faust with Anne Sofie von Otter and Bryn Terfel. He would later appear more often in Italy, where his appeal for the musical establishment has declined a bit (a Carmen with Andrea Boccelli sounds desperate to you?). However, the Italian years have revealed a most positively surprising facet of the Korean conductor – his  Wagnerian credentials. I particularly remember a Tristan and Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana, which seemed then quite fresh-sounding and compelling. That is why I have decided not to let go the opportunity of seeing Maestro Chung conduct this very work here in Tokyo (only three hours after my arrival from Germany).

Chung is Honorary Conductor Laureate of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2001 and has decided to give the orchestra an opportunity to celebrate the Wagnerian jubilee in the grand manner – a concert performance of Wagner’s masterpiece with international soloists. As much as I admire Furtwänglerian depth, deluxe strings and stately tempi, I cannot help believing that this score is about passion and works particularly well when done urgently, intensely and dramatically. And that’s Maestro Chung’s point of view. From the overture on, this music runs inevitably and unbridedly to its Liebestod. Of course, this is also the sensible choice when you don’t have an orchestra the sound of which is alone an expressive tool such as the Staatskapelle Dresden*. The Tokyo Philharmonic has done a very good job this evening, keeping up with the conductor continuous demand for forward movement and engagement in the drama, but the strings still lack a distinctive sound and there were some near problematic moments with the French horns, for instance. As in Rome, the highlight of this performance was act III, thanks to an exceptionally successful partnership with the tenor in the title role.

Replacing John MacMaster, Daniel Barenboim’s most recent discovery, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager has simply offered one of the most impressive renditions of this impossibly difficult role I have ever heard, in some ways revelatory. First, he sounds like a tenor, you know, trumpet-like brightness and that feeling of “please let me show you my next AMAZING high note”. Better, although the sound is leaner than, say, Ludwig Suthaus’s, it is beyond any doubt a heroic voice, with a positive low register and the ability of riding orchestral tutti almost effortlessly. Second, the man has solid technique. His method is very visible – you can see how he uses his body to propel his clarion Spitzentöne in a way that would probably be difficult (or not?) if he had to act moribundly in act III  – and he evidently knows exactly what he has to do to produce the precise effect he is looking for. Here, liquid, almost Italianate phrasing, even in the most unsingable passages (how about an almost Bellinian “Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fliesse!”?), aided by perfect diction and the ability of softening or coloring the tone. Third, this is a singer with intelligent and sensitive phrasing and sense of style. Given the tenor’s facility, the conductor felt free to let his orchestra loose and intensify the pace in climactic moments, for truly impressive effects. I definitely want to hear more from him.

This is the first time I see Irmgard Vilsmaier in a big role. It is indeed a big voice with a pleasant reedy quality, unusually young-sounding for a soprano in this repertoire. It is just a pity that her breath support is erratic to the extent of impairing her impressive natural vocal qualities. This evening, her whole method seemed to involve working exclusively from tension, as if her sole purpose was attacking the first note after her intake of air. After that, she seemed to have nowhere to develop too – long notes would acquire an impossible edge (they were often cut short for an extra breath soon afterwards) and phrases would often be chopped not because there was lack of breath, but because of lack of space to work with. As a result, she would fall back on even more tension, using her fists as a boxer and looking as if she would die on exposed high notes, which were often not only shorter but flatter than written. I have read that she intends to sing Elektra soon. She should think seriously about her technique before she compromises a voice still intact by abuse. This all sounded harder to overlook in comparison to Ekaterina Gubanova’s healthy, homogeneous and creamy singing as Brangäne. An exemplary performance.

Baritone Christopher Maltman seemed to find the part of Kurwenal a bit heavy and would sound a bit tired halfway in act III. That did not prevent him from offering a rich-toned, spirited performance, subtler than what one usually hears in this role. Although Mikhail Petrenko’s voice still tends to become unfocused, especially in its higher reaches, the part of King Mark is more congenial to his vocal nature than that of Hagen. I particularly liked his more energetic and emotional approach to the role, which here seemed a younger uncle to Tristan, rather paralyzed by than devoid of passion. Having Tetsuya Mochizuki (a Siegmund) as the Seamen and the Shepherd is an example a luxurious cast, which has paid off.

 

 

* Chung has been appointed its first Principal Guest Conductor since this year. I have the impression that Christian Thielemann will still get the A-team Wagner performances.

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Marek Janowski’s Wagner series with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is connected to recordings to be released by the label PentaTone, but the truth is that, until this evening, good as every performance has been, none of them has resulted a CD that has taken the discography by storm. Although it is impossible to predict how the recording made this evening is going to be, I cannot wait to buy it, for it is a Tristan und Isolde that I have always wanted to hear.

The very nature of Wagner’s most famous work calls for ponderousness, for an intensity cooked at low fire, for an approach to unending melody that almost invariably involves a very special tempo in which time seems to stand still. But the work is about passion – even at its most metaphysical – and passion is still the keynote here. And I like the way Maestro Janowski takes it at face value – I was tempted to write “in almost Verdian agitation”, but I have the impression that most Wagnerians would frown at it.  The feverish pulse, clearly articulated accompanying figures, the impacting accents, the brisk pace, the almost relentless forward movement – one would never mistake it for La Forza del Destino, but one could think of it at times. The first act benefited particularly from this concept – the drama developed without repose, as a single theatrical gesture wrapped in brilliant, angular, aptly raw orchestral playing. In act II, the conductor softened his orchestra for a more intimate perspective and one missed now and then the tonal focus in lower dynamics that only the top orchestras of the world have. It goes without saying that the level of clarity was short of sensational – I have discovered many novelties in this score (that I have last heard live only Saturday). Act III seemed entirely original to my ears – Tristan’s physical languor took second place to his spiritual turbulence and Janowski grew from intensity to downright frenzy in vortices of string playing that would have made it impossible for almost any tenor to survive the experience.

If Janowski’s vibrant conducting were not reason enough to single this performance out, Stephen Gould would alone be worth the detour. It is not difficult to say that he has no rivals in this role these days, but I also tend to think that he stands comparison with the best Tristans in recordings too. His voice is naturally powerful, firm and unproblematic – and Janowski did not spare him even in his most difficult monologues, in which he had to provide very fast declamation over the passaggio with a really loud orchestra on stage. It is doubly amazing that he was able to do this almost entirely within the rules of cantabile: Gould phrased with unusual elegance, sang long phrases on the breath, interpreted with imagination and tonal variety, shifted to softer dynamics more often than most. I have to confess that I have barely recognized some passages, so cleanly and musicianly as they sounded. Naturally, the task is inhuman and there were (rare) moments of tension and tightness – I can only wonder that, in the studio, he would be, well, unrealistically perfect. Bravissimo.

I took almost the whole first act to get used to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. It is a voluminous, weighty voice but very short on cutting edge. If her smoky, velvety tonal quality makes her immediately unique among dramatic sopranos, it is also true that she is often overshadowed by the orchestra, except above a high g, when she produces a truly exciting sound, even more so for its roundness and firmness (the high c’s were truly amazing). It is only when you get to the second act that you understand why Stemme’s Isolde is so highly appreciated – her warm tonal quality, her floating mezza voce, her generous flow of velvety tone makes her an outstandingly sensuous Isolde. And her Liebestod is certified top-quality too. It is curious that she seemed somewhat nervous this evening, especially in the first act, when she made some false entries and other minor blunders.

Michelle Breedt was an interesting choice for Brangäne – her forceful, finely focused mezzo sounded lighter and more penetrating than her Isolde’s voice. She seemed to miss stage action and tried to infuse meaning in every little syllable. Sometimes the result could seem a bit fussy, but her intent was always clear and aptly conveyed. The gigantic orchestral proved to be challenging to Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), who had to work hard to be heard and often without success. As King Marke, Kwangchul Youn did not have to struggle – he sang generously and sensitively, but his bass was unfortunately not at its firmest this evening.

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Norway’s greatest contribution to the world of opera probably is Kirsten Flagstad, for many the ideal Isolde in her monumental warm dramatic soprano. It is only fitting then that the opera featured in my first visit to the National Opera in Oslo happened to be Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Even if only the baritone and the bass were born in Norway in this evening’s cast.

In the warm acoustics of the modern auditorium, the house orchestra played with an apt Wagnerian sound, rich, supple and expressive, and at moments suggested ensembles of far greater reputation. Conductor John Fiore never pushed his musicians beyond their limits and, within their zone of comfort, produced the right dramatic effects rather from accent and tone colouring. During the evening, there were moments in which one would wish for a more flexible beat or a more imaginative turn of phrase, but the overall impression was so consistently solid, coherent and atmospheric that in the end one couldn’t help finding it a very satisfying performance. It is only sad that a likewise consistent cast had not been found.

I had never previously heard or seen Karen Foster before, and I really cannot understand why. There aren’t many true Wagnerian sopranos around, and Ms. Foster is one such rare specimen. Her soprano is not rich-toned and ample as Flagstad’s – hers is a steely, bright-toned, laser-like voice that hits home in impressively secure and powerful acuti (I had never seen someone nail live the high c’s as effortlessly as this evening – and, yes, I am too young to have witnessed Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones). Although there is something of Caterina Ligendza’s icy, light but penetrating quality in her singing, the tonal quality is far more pleasant and young-sounding. She cannot really scale down to mezza voce, but is able to adopt a very clean and lyrical line when she needs to mellow. Sometimes, her vocal exuberance leads her to overkill and, in these moments, her voice may sound a bit hard or a bit sharp, but that’s a very small price to play for the pleasure of hearing a singer who can really withstand an orchestral fortissimo. She is a large woman, but that does not prevent her from moving with naturalness and I would say she is a very decent actress too. Her Brangaene was Finnish mezzo Tuija Knihtilae (no Umlaut in this computer), whose fruity, evenly produced mezzo is so charming that I easily forgive her inability to float her warnings in act II. Alas, tenor John Uhlenhopp does not master the art of breath support to sing a role like Tristan. Already in act I, everything above an e flat was unstable and bottled-up – a bad sign. In act II, what he sang and what Wagner wrote only occasionally coincided. Act III was truly embarrassing. I really wonder how a singer can volunteer to ruin his voice like this. In comparison, Ole Joergen Kristiansen’s couldn’t help sounding healthy in comparison, even if he does not really have the measure of the role. Magne Fremmerlid was big-voiced if woolly Marke.

Daniel Slater’s production is a collection of incomplete and unrelated ideas. Robert Innes Hopkins’s sets are beautiful and adapt themselves efficiently to each act, but the concept is too slack and one soon gives up before trying to make sense of the whole thing. In act I, it seems that we see a ship, but Brangaene is a nurse and there are three hospital beds, two patients are Adam and Eve figures whose blood in a syringe is the love’s potion.  The third is a boy, who would play with his toy during the Liebesnacht. In act II, there is a garden, Tristan, Isolde, Adam and Eve cuddle (this is a bit embarrassing), while Tristan’s sword is stuck to the last crate in a pile. In act III, Tristan is the patient in his hospital bed, and Eve is a pregnant lady who fondles him when he is exhausted in his effort to sing what Wagner wrote. Do I need to write further?

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I know Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde from DVD and was not really excited about seeing it live. Maybe low expectations have done the trick for me. I still dislike the production – it is so minimalistic than it is even difficult to hate it. If the director could have stripped the staging from every superfluous detail and concentrated on powerful symbols, maybe the emptiness could have meant something. As it is, we have a DDR-style building that goes one floor lower for each act. All effects are restricted to fluorescent lamps (actually neon lamps) that are turned on and off or twinkle or whatever a regular lamp can do, which is not much. Costumes end on having a very important role – other than chairs and then a quite fancy hospital bed, there is nothing on stage. In act I, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne are dressed like old people; in act II, they are dressed like middle-age people in the style of the 60’s; and in act III, they have younger people’s clothes in a quite contemporary taste. Kurwenal’s only “costume” involves a kilt and the King Marke has a suit and an overcoat. Why? It must be important, but I don’t feel like investigating. What I was curious to know is why the stage action is so awkward and why the director felt it important to have his cast often act in a way that evidently does not fit their personalities. With her attitude and voice, Irène Théorin looks often unintentionally funny in her coy manners, while Robert Dean Smith is not naturally heroic either in voice or in attitude.

In any case, veteran Peter Schneider proved that experience counts when you are conducting in Bayreuth. I won’t make a suspense – this was certainly one of the best performances I have listened to on the Green Hill and one of the best in my experience with this opera. Schneider is rather a Kapellmeister than a “creative” conductor, but today he has proved that faithfulness, if allied to virtuoso quality, does pay off. This evening Tristan sounded exactly as it should: the orchestral sound generously filled the hall without any loss in transparency and an extra serving of depth and beauty, truly deluxe sound; Schneider’s beat proved to be extremely flexible, taking its time when gravitas was required and flashing along where excitement was the keyword; and, to make things better, transitions were naturally and consequently handled. Although he did not spare his singers, Schneider knew the best way to balance stage and pit without ever damaging the building of climax. This was truly honest, efficient and truthful music-making.

Irène Théorin is evidently not a vulnerable Isolde, but rather ranks along Birgit Nilsson among the imperious Irish princesses who are more comfortable giving vent to their fury than mellowing in tenderness. Unlike Nilsson’s, her middle range might be a bit grainy and tremulous, but is always ready to shift into mezza voce. Predictably, act I was her strongest, in spite of a lapse or two during her Narration. Act II showed her first quite unfocused, but then she sang her Liebesnacht entirely in demi-tintes and blending perfectly to her Tristan. Unfortunately, act III was not a development from that. I suspect this was not one of her good-voice days, but still lots of very impressive moments. Michelle Breedt is a light Brangäne with firm, bright top notes and tonal variety. Robert Dean Smith is a sui generis Tristan – rather jugendlich dramatisch than dramatic, 100% musicianly, subtly phrasing in pleasant legato in an almost bel canto manner. Although the role takes him to his limits, he never indulges in forcing his tone, but rather lets his voice spin and acquire momentum in the trickiest passages. Naturally, act III exposes his lightness, but one must never forget: he sang it to the end without ever showing fatigue or any ugliness. He won’t probably ever sing the role in a theatre like the Met, but he is certainly worth the detour if you want to hear a fresh-sounding tenor as Tristan. Jukka Rasilainen was a most solid Kurwenal, but Robert Holl – in spite of a beautiful voice and sensitive phrasing – had his rusty moments as King Marke. I must mention Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd too, truly beautifully sung.

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My six or seven readers know by now that I am not a fan of Simon Rattle and that I usually find his Wagner too bombastic and lacking depth, but I had never had the opportunity to hear Violeta Urmana’s Isolde live and decided to take my chance. I won’t keep you in suspense – it was more than worth the detour. Rattle’s Tristan (judging from his rendition of the second act alone) is still work-in-progress, but the “preview” made me curious for what is to come. I am tempted to say that the chemistry between the conductor and the Berliner Philharmoniker is not really positive for Wagner, but I would need a crystal ball to say that (moreover, it would be dishonest to do so, considering that my experience is reduced to one concert in the Philharmonie and one DVD from Aix), but the fact is that the presence of the Staatskapelle Berlin, an orchestra that has learned its Tristan to perfection with Daniel Barenboim, proved to have a very positive effect on Mr. Rattle. I would be lying if I said that the orchestral playing was less than ardent, passionate, inspired. It would be also a lie to say that the success is due to the orchestra’s quality alone, for Rattle’s approach to the score is very different from Barenboim’s.

Although the many facets of this evening’s performance do not really build into a coherent view of the score, they are really fascinating in themselves. First of all, Rattle’s choice of tempi belongs to a tradition (the absence of a tradition maybe?) entirely different from Furtwänglerian suppleness and gravitas. If it would be possible to say something like that of a Wagnerian performance, Rattle’s was quite a tempo, the sense of a continuous and consistent beat seemed to focus the whole scale of his performance. The choice of the word “focus” is not accidental – this predilection for forward-movement allied to very precise playing of the orchestra brought about a real sense of horizontal clarity to the proceedings. The care with highlighting the Hauptstimme, connecting the singer’s parts to the “singing” line in the instruments (for illuminating effects in the Liebesnacht) helped further more the sense of continuity. This alone made it a special evening.

If my six or seven readers are still reading this paragraph, they might be wondering where the drawbacks are. So here they come. First, I wonder how wise it was to choose, in the context of this a tempo approach, such a fast “basic beat”. While it kept the more meditative moments particularly taut, it made the more urgent moments frantic: I would not say awkward, for the orchestra did a splendid job out of it, but the effect was a bit mechanical, the sense of transparency suffered a bit and singers were having the worst time of their lives spitting out things like habichdichwiederdarfichdichfassen [gasp]anmeinerbrust. Second, dynamics. Karajan must be smiling in his grave, for the playing with dynamics would made his EMI Tonmeister in his recording with Helga Dernesch and Jon Vickers proud. I have just deleted the adjective “fussy”, for the score shows that Wagner has indeed written those dynamic markings and they do not sound so extreme in a less hectic pace. In that sense, a Furtwänglerian Luftpause now and then would have made miracles. Third, if Rattle could keep his audience in the edge of their seats with his faithful obedience of the many Sehr drängend in the score, the general atmosphere was already urgent enough and in the end nervousness had the edge on variety of expression. And Wagner wrote a lots of ausdrucksvoll in the score too. Finally, a true Wagnerian conductor knows that he cannot conduct against his singers, especially in the concert hall with the big orchestra just behind them. All this is only a matter of fine-tuning, and although it was a problematic evening (the audience, for instance, did not seem particularly enthusiastic* – I would guess that the problem with singers should be largely to blame), it was also an intriguing and ultimately refreshing performance.

Although Violeta Urmana sang quite commendably, I would guess that maybe she was not in her absolutely best voice this evening. She could be just be heard over the orchestral fortissimi, but her voice often acquired a metallic harshness in those moments. The more difficult high notes posed her no problem (she should be proud of her flashing high c’s, for instance), but as soon as the orchestra’s voluminousness reached comfortable levels, the warmth of her voice could be felt and she would finally feel at ease to do what makes her a particularly welcome Isolde: singing those sensuous phrases with absolute femininity in  her round, full middle and low registers and her rich, vibrant top notes and lovely soft attacks that make all the difference of the world. There are far more intense and exciting Isoldes out there, but I have a soft spot for Urmana’s musicianly, seductive account of this role – even in an evening when the circumstances were not really congenial. With her dark, round and creamy mezzo-soprano, Lioba Braun has surprisingly clear diction and, thank God, can float her Habet acht! soaring phrases without any difficulty. Franz-Josef Selig’s voice is really beautiful and he handles the text with the care of a Lieder singer; his König Marke is indeed touchingly sung. He showed some instability in high notes when he had to sing fully and loud, but that is only a detail. The casting of Hanno Müller-Brachmann for just a couple of notes as Kurwenal and of veteran Reiner Goldberg as Melot is almost a show-off.

Although Robert Dean Smith was supposed to sing Tristan this evening, he fell ill and was replaced by Ian Storey, who is in town for his Énée at the Deutsche Oper. Considering how difficult his role in Berlioz’s Les Troyens is, it was quite generous of him. But these things have a price. Storey has some very big heroic top notes, but I have the impression that a bar fades out in his battery-level display for each one of them. While he still has the energy to tackle them, it is quite impressive, but when he reaches low-level, then one can feel how strenuous it all is. This evening, his battery leaked out very fast – and the conductor probably is to blame. If you are a tenor and already had to sing the first part of the love duet as loud and as fast as he had to this evening, your heart must be aching for him right now (and remember that the concert naturally offers the uncut version of the duet). Around Heil dem Tranke, his voice was completely gray, he had to duck some notes, sang others in falsetto, I have the impression he even had to clear his throat at some point. He must be a very persistent man and deserves all my admiration, for, although he had to use all the tricks in his sleeves to keep singing, he never really gave up and never lost sight of interpretation, shading his tone when required and singing full out when maybe someone wiser would have thought about that twice.

*At least compared with the standing ovation reserved to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Barenboim as soloist. To my own shame, I have to confess that I’ve had such a busy day that I could not really concentrate to hear it and refrained from writing anything for that matter.

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Das Licht — wann löscht es aus? Wann wird es Nacht im Haus? In Richard Wagner’s libretto, Tristan’s view of the world turns around an opposition roughly summarized as light-day/world/society and night/house/individuality, probably divided by an axis in which his mother, Isolde and death are the main poles. This is not me trying to be clever; a superficial reading of the libretto shows that; so it hardly qualifies as an “insight”. But director Graham Vick begs to differ and probably believes that this has to be really un-der-lined so that the audience un-der-stand it. So, away with the ship, the tower, Kareol and here comes… a house. At first, I thought we were watching the first mafia-wedding production of Tristan und Isolde – a tacky nouveau-riche house, a coffin, Tristan in a black suit, Kurwenal has an apron over his, there are lots of ill-behaved men with a wide job description who harass Isolde in a way only a Neapolitan would care to do and there are drugs – the love potion comes in syringes here. But then I realized it was a surrealistic mafia-wedding production, for there is a naked girl walking around unmolested by the testosterone-high henchmen and… a gigantic floating spotlight that could pass as the und in Tristan und Isolde, for whenever they are together, it comes closer to them. But then I realized it was not a mafia-wedding Tristan, but a house/light Tristan. In any case, the audience had a big laugh when, in act III, the spotlight comes nearer Tristan and he says Die Leuchte, ha! Act II shows the house on a different angle, inside and outside are blurred, crags grow from nowhere, a naked guy digs a grave, the naked girl watches him – love/death, house/world, light/darkness. Of course, it all looks awful. Act III almost hits an interesting idea – Tristan is shown as a somewhat senile old man, his questions of “where am I?” etc and his streams of consciousness surprisingly fit the concept. Everyone is old in the house, Kurwenal, the shepherd. Tristan does not die, only that Tristan died, I thought, goes into the world and is haunted by his lost self in the shape of Isolde; I could live with that. But no – Brangäne appears as an old woman and Marke should be something of a walking Titurel by then, but he only needs a walking-stick to make his entrance and, to make things worse, an elderly Isolde comes very realistically on stage, sings her Liebestod for the coffin (a part of the decoration since act I) and the centenary Brangäne and Marke.

Have I mentioned that it was amazingly poorly directed? Awkward love-potion scene (if you think that this evening’s Tristan and Isolde are actually a married couple, you start to wonder why they take so much time to seem intimate), ludicrous Melot-Tristan scene, various scenes in which singers remain on stage without anything to do, just watching the often dramatic or delicate situations depicted by the libretto. It is no wonder that, at the end, the audience almost unanimously booed the director (almost, there were probably 50 people – me included – who just did not applaud and the guy who incessantly bravo-ed everything, even the extras).

God must have thought that a poor musical performance would have made the audience tear the Deutsche Oper to pieces and granted the guinea-pigs in the opening night most solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. The prelude could be a little be more inspired, more organic, a stronger sense of arch could have been achieved, the increasing dynamic less deliberate, but other than this the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered a structurally clean performance, very consequent in its phrasing, all elements (including soloists) perfectly balanced and the house orchestra responded with exemplary Wagnerian sounds throughout. If someone deserves bravo this evening, these should be the members of the orchestra. It is true that the performance lacked the profoundness of expression of Daniel Barenboim’s Tristans in the Staatsoper, but that is only a matter of difference of approach. Runnicles’s more cerebral transverse of the score is equally valid in its musical thoroughness and transparency.

Petra Maria Schnitzer is probably the lighter Isolde I have ever seen on stage. Margaret Price never sang the role live, but she proved to have had a far more positive middle register (and low notes) in her Verdian roles. The unsubstantial lower end of Schnitzer’s voice robbed many passages from their gravitas (the Liebesnacht, for example), but her ease with high notes (even dramatic high notes – quite full and forceful) could be counted as a compensation. She has a solid technique and never showed any sign of fatigue. For me, the young-sounding quality of her voice and its creaminess made her Isolde quite congenial, but after a while the lack of tonal and dynamic variety could be felt. It must also be said that she is a really accurate singer and her acting talents are not to be overlooked. She alone looked three-dimensional as a sensuous woman who would follow the man she loves in his own particular world without quite understanding it.

This was the first time I’ve seen Peter Seiffert as Tristan. His tonal quality is also a bit light for the role, but it is voluminous enough a voice with a bright sheen on it. In order to make for the tonal lightness, he pushes more often than he should and, as a result, his tenor sounds dangerously open-toned now and then, some notes oscillate in a René Kollo-esque manner and sometimes he sounds frankly strained. By now, he has learned where his strengths are in this role and saves when he can in order to give it all in act III, where he allows himself more legato than most tenors anyway.

At first, Jane Irwin’s light, yet incisive mezzo with a touch of Janet Baker seemed promising for Brangäne, but her calls from the tower were mostly flat and that is the moment when a Brangäne shows her skills. Eike Wilm Schulte is not my idea of a Kurwenal – his baritone is too high and he has neither the physique nor the attitude – and he was simply in a bad-voice day. In more outspoken moments, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass lacks the necessary nobility for the King Marke, but he knows how to scale down his spacious and dark voice, an important quality for his long monologue, which can sound monotone without proper tone colouring.


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The Staatsoper unter den Linden’s prima does not have the glamour associated to La Scala’s season opening performance, but the event does involve the presence of the Bundespräsident and simultaneous broadcast to thousands of people at the adjoining Bebelplatz. For the 2009/2010 season, an old production has been chosen, Harry Kupfer’s Tristan und Isolde, first seen in 2000.

Although the local press calls it legendary, it is actually quite unexceptional. The only set for the three acts shows a giant sculpture of an angel (inspired by a photo by Isolde Ohlbaum of a statue found in Rome) that doubles as a rocky landscape, which turns around to create different perspectives. On the background, some piece of furniture and people in XIXth century clothes (supposed to represent “society”) or a stylized sea landscape. Although the word “angel” does not appear at all in the libretto, if we are to believe that the composer’s feelings for  Mathilde Wesendonck were the early sparkles of inspiration for the opera, then we should remember that the first of her poems set to music by Wagner is… Der Engel. In any case, I really do not see any added insight to the understanding of the story or its interpretation. What one could clearly see was that walking on it was rather difficult and all singers had to watch their steps while trying to sing difficult music. I have not previously seen this staging, but I have the impression that the director’s original ideas might have faded since 2000. In many scenes, singers seemed a bit at a loss with their blocked gestures and tried to milk meaning from generalized stage attitudes. Even the charismatic Waltraud Meier had her clueless moments. If I had to single out someone, this would be Ian Storey, who knows how to scenically pull out act III better than almost anyone I have seen – live or on videos – in this role.

When it comes to the musical direction, Daniel Barenboim has no weak links in his monumental yet supple approach to the score. On his DVD from La Scala, a beautifully crafted act 1 would open the proceedings in the grand manner only to settle in less intense remaining acts. Not this evening. After a deep Furtwänglerian prelude when absolute structural clarity was paradoxically achieved in the context of sophisticated agogics, the first act took a while to take off – probably because the conductor had to accommodate his cast’s needs. From act II on, the performance gained in strength. The Staatskapelle Berlin was at its resplendent best, offering thick Wagnerian sound and breathtaking flexibility throughout. That meant that singers would now and then find themselves drowned in orchestral sound, but the trade-off paid itself – sometimes during the Liebesnacht one would feel that time stood still in sheer beauty of sound and clarity and dramatic purpose. But act III surpassed even these paramount levels. Never in my experience had it sounded as flowing as it did this evening – as it had been produced in one perfectly integrated arch from the first bars of the introduction to the Liebestod’s last chord.

Waltraud Meier has had an up-and-down experience with the role of Isolde. So far I’ve had bad luck live, but I cannot make my mind whether this evening was a lost opportunity. I would not say she was in bad voice, only that her voice was not willing to sing Isolde. It sounded lean and lyrical and resented the least dramatic turn of phrasing. A less experienced singer would have horribly failed. Not Waltraud, who husbanded her present resources with such shrewdness and imagination that she finally convinced me that she was experimenting with a Margaret Price-like approach to the role. On one hand, the lightness helped to create a more youthful and legato-ish sound that certainly brought about a more immediately romantic tonal palette to the role; on the other hand, she had many moments of inaudibility, pecked at high notes in an almost operetta-ish way and simply did not sing her act II high c’s. Later on, she would warm a bit and gather her strength to produce some loud Spitzentöne, some of them below true pitch. Some of these problems afflicted her Liebestod, but there she and Barenboim achieved such unity of phrasing that no-one could help but surrendering. In any case, that final scene was vastly superior to their studio recording in every sense.

As for Ian Storey, first of all, I must apologize for my opinion on his Tristan as heard at the Deutsche Oper a couple of months ago. Except from an extremely unfocused frenzy on hearing the news of Isolde’s arrival on act III, he sounded this time relatively comfortable with what he had to sing. His dark-toned tenor has a certain disconnected quality around the passaggio that brings about a marked flutter and loss of tonal quality, and his procedure to make his top notes incisive lets itself being noticed. But I don’t want to seem picky – his voice is big, warm and ductile and he has imagination, good taste and his general attitude fits the part. His Tristan finds the right balance between heroic and vulnerable, which is quite rare with Heldentenöre.

In spite of the soprano and the tenor’s achievements, the outstanding vocal performance this evening is beyond any doubt René Pape’s. This great bass sang with such richness, authority, sensitivity and sheer vocal glamour that one for once could feel that the act II monologue could be a bit longer!  In the performance booklet, Harry Kupfer suggests that King Marke and Tristan’s relationship goes beyond nephew/uncle and reaches an almost incestuous level. In this production, the similarity of age, the violence of feelings and the heartbreak in Pape’s voice almost make this bold assumption work.

Although Michelle DeYoung is not the subtlest Brangäne around, she was in very healthy voice and managed to pierce through the occasional thick and/or lound orchestral moment without forcing. I cannot say the same of Roman Trekel – the role of Kurwenal is on the heavy side for him and he sounded invariably rough and hard-pressed. He is an intelligent artist, however, and found space to add a discrete sense of humor to his lines.

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The Deutsche Oper’s revival of the 1980 Götz Friedrich production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was plagued by the same Tristanlosigkeit that has afflicted the Metropolitan Opera House’s last attempt on Wagner’s masterpiece. The original cast featured Robert Gambill, but one week before the performance the name of Peter Seiffert appeared as a replacement, but it was Ian Storey who finally showed up on stage. He is a singer I had previously seen as Ägysth in São Paulo and his performance left me wondering how he could possibly sing this fearsome role in the famous opening night at La Scala in the Barenboim/Chéreau production. The broadcast showed that my doubts were not entirely misplaced – but then the press wrote he was afflicted by understandable nervousness in the event.

 But the event is now in the past – and the role is still impossible for him. The baritonal tonal quality is certainly welcome and he phrases with good taste, but I am afraid his voice is rather backward placed, lacking therefore the necessary metal to pierce through. When he has to sing out around the passaggio and above, one feels that he has to give his 100% – the problem is that he still had to sing act III. I have to confess it was very painful wondering whether he would survive or not – he voice cracked at one point, he was inaudible for long stretches and tonal quality was something that did not make it to the final act. In lower dynamics, his voice has an instable quality, giving him practically no leeway. One must still acknowledge that it was gracious of him to perform such a difficult role on such short notice, but for his own sake he should not keep the role in his repertoire. It must not be healthy to undergo such an ordeal in a regular basis. On a positive note, although he had very little opportunity to block this production’s stage movements, he seemed quite convincing throughout.

 The evening’s Isolde, Evelyn Herlitzius, is the typical German dramatic soprano who sings the Färberin in R. Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. The voice itself is not attractive, but healthy, big and solid and she is a compelling singer actress. A name that came to my mind during the performance was Christel Goltz’s. The overall impression is not very sensuous, in spite of a rich low register, but clear diction, powerful top notes and relatively accurate phrasing are always an asset. The absence of softer dynamics was a liability for act II and III. Her inspiration seemed to be Birgit Nilsson in the sense that indignation and rage suited her better than longing and passion. The sad truth is that act II taxed her a bit and her voice sounded a bit juiceless in the Liebestod. In any case, it is always good to hear a really big voice in this repertoire – especially in a singer with such dramatic imagination.

 Another last-minute replacement, Daniela Sindram left a very positive impression. Her mezzo soprano may be light for the role, but her voice is so beautiful, her floated mezza voce so beguiling and her musical and theatrical instincts so right that in the end she was one of the most congenial Brangänes I have recently seen (and heard). Tristan was also well served by his Kurwenal. Samuel Youn’s forceful, focused baritone made him a young-sounding faithful friend. The youthfulness made his act III behavior particularly believable. Although Hans-Peter König was not in his best shape – he seemed to be experiencing some sort of glitch that impaired his ascent to top notes (and he looked quite upset about that too) – it is an imposing, dark and big voice with touch of Kurt Moll in it.

 Pinchas Steinberg’s conducting had its on and off moments. Act I seemed to be his best moment – singers were still in fresh voice and he could unleash the orchestra now and then. Act II, however, found the orchestra wanting color and clarity (the brass section did not seem to be in a good day either). The conductor’s priority seemed to help an understandably underrehearsed tenor to make through the Liebesnacht. In one or two moments of the final act, one could see an authentic large and rich Wagnerian sound, but the need to help singers out or simply the lack of inspiration resulted in a very cold Liebestod.

 Götz Friedrich’s production (as restaged by Gerlinde Pelkowski) has some interesting ideas, especially a particularly physical approach to Tristan and Isolde, but the staging’s 28 years of age start to show in many examples of carelessness. For example, Günther Scheinder-Siemssen’s set for act I has no separation between cabin and deck, but wood platforms in different levels to show the ship’s different areas. At some points, there seem to be “imaginary” walls, what explains the fact that Isolde cannot hear what Tristan says to Brangäne three meters away, but in the next moment people can see, hear and even pass through them. Some backdrops look now drab, the lighting in act II and III do not reflect the dramatic action and at some point during one of Tristan’s monologues they simply gave out as if an eclipse had happened while Isolde’s ship followed its course.

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