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.