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?