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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Tristand und Isolde’

Like Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken are singers taking the roles of Isolde and Tristan who happen to be married. This is not their first joint Wagnerian venture: they have, for instance, sung the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Frankfurt, New York etc. He has sung the role of Tristan before at least in Frankfurt in 2011; she has sung her first Isolde last September in La Coruña and it seems she is scheduled to sing it in Bayreuth in the near future. These performances in Dresden are their first together in this opera. As this production is 8 years old and the Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor Christian Thielemann did not find the opportunity to conduct it enticing enough, the Van Akens are supposed to be this revival’s selling feature.

I have to confess that I was not dying to see either of them. I had seen him only once as Siegmund in La Scala in a bad night and, since I first saw her as a compelling Cassandre in Amsterdam, I have found her less and less interesting. Maybe low expectation has done the trick this time, for this evening proved to be “educational”. I’ll start by saying that Isolde happens to be a good career decision for the Dutch soprano. Although there is a lot to be developed here, I found it far less univocal than her Sieglindes. Act I was actually surprising in how consistently she managed the dramatic vocalità: the voice was at once voluminous, rich, powerful in her acuti and more or less functional in the lower reaches. Also, she seemed readier to soften her tone and produced two or three soaring examples of mezza voce. Act II caught her a bit out of steam though. The voice sounded clearly smaller, she shortened some high notes and had her straight/strained moments. However, in the Liebesnacht, when her husband began to sound ill-at-ease with the lyrical writing, she regained her strength and was able to produce a feminine, sensuous tonal quality. Her final appearance was a bit rough, but – this may seem funny – she produced the best last phrase in the Liebestod I have ever heard in a theatre (it is curious how that last note usually sounds flat or thin or unsupported or a combination of all those).  All these problems could have been overlooked, if there had been a more noticeable interpretation going on here. As it was, her diction is not very clear, she is not very responsive to the text and she is often heavy-handed in what regards phrasing. In the end, she is a singer singing the notes Wagner wrote to the part of Isolde. She is sometimes convincing when she has to portray fury, but not much beyond that. Of course, experience will add depth to her performance, but experience needs a starting point to develop from.

Van Aken is far more engaged dramatically than his wife. Although his whole method turns around roughness, his voice is unmistakably heroic in its powerful and incisive high notes. He is a trouper and tries everything – even nuance, although this often challenged his ability to keep his voice focused and placed. Act II was his most problematic – legato is not his best friend and trying to rein in his voice often brought about flutter and some nasality. He is not a man who gives up – act III used up his last ounce of energy and, whenever you would think that he was helplessly tired, he would conjure everything he still got to produce some powerful notes over the orchestra. The whole thing was a bit exhausting to watch, but worked somehow as a dramatic point.

Christa Mayer was a commendable Brangäne. Her soft-centered, velvety mezzo is very pleasant and clean. If she could produce a little bit more “mystery” in her calls from the tower in act II, she would have left nothing to be desired in this role. Christoph Pohl is a very handy guy – whenever you need a last-minute replacement, he is there. This evening, he sang a very clean, firm-toned and stylish Kurwenal. As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld displayed rock-solid vocalism: his bass was thoroughly big, rich, firm and powerful. Although this was impressive enough, the lack of variety in his singing made it all sound grandiosely boring, I am afraid.

When you have the Staatskapelle Dresden and the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper, it is very difficult for a conductor to fail in Tristan and Isolda. The Wunderharfe’s unique blend of richness and flexibility makes it impossible for one to be indifferent to Wagner’s music – it has such presence and clarity that you almost feel that you don’t need anything else. And Maestro Ascher Fisch has a very clear musical mind, keeping this music as transparently organized as one could wish and showing great skill in knowing the right moment when it is more important to fill the hall with sound while not making his singers sound unnecessary. However, as much as everything this evening, the thrill was not really there. The feeling, the idea, the dramatic impulse behind a crescendo, behind a flexible beat, behind elastic sense of pause were not there, although you could hear all those effects in their most abstract manner. This was particularly bothersome when the conductor adopted a slower tempo for more verbose passages in which a singer was not doing much in terms of interpretation. Later on, the conductor seemed to have realized that this was not working and act III, for instance, had sometimes a let’s-move-on feeling.

As for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production, it goes with this performance’s character. It is decorative in a very abstract way. What you get is what you see – you don’t get much, but you don’t get very much bothered about that either.

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First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardor”, for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.

And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a  stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help in that department.  Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.

The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to describe the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes.  One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.

On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.

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