Peter Konwitschny’s yellow-sofa Tristan for the Bavarian State Opera is now almost 20 years old and has developed from the outrage of its premiere into some sort of museology of Regietheater, i.e., it has become “a classic”. I had only previously seen it on video and remember joining then a discussion about it on an Internet message board. It was my first “eurotrash” Tristan, but I have curiously enjoyed it from moment one. I remember having written about the yellow sofa and its meaning of homeliness in a inhospitable world and other seemingly clever ideas in order to make a case for its validity. Well, I have just seen it live for the first time and I stand by it. As always with Konwitschny, things could be more coherent, but it has been able to rekindle the thrill of an opera that has become shrouded in monumentality, profoundness and hermetism, while it has always essentially been a Romantic (and also romantic) opera.
At first Simone Young seemed to have understood the spirit of this production, offering an act I marked by an extremely flexible beat, deep theatrical understanding and almost Verdian sense of emotionality and vigor. In this approach, the youth and its sense of life and death intensity rescued Tristan and Isolda from the world of abstraction into palpable drama. Alas, as Tristan and Isolda themselves have noticed, some things are not meant to last in this world. A cast not in their best health pressed the conductor to a compromise. The string section has been kept under tight leash during the entire act II (a fancy for showing everything you are probably missing in the woodwind department must have something to do with that too) in order make it easier for soprano and tenor. That – and a tempo that increasinly tended to slowness – only had the dubious effect of exposing these singers’ shortcomings and drained the proceedings of any expressive content. Things would show some improvement in the last act – the conductor would now and then come to the obvious conclusion that it was better to screen her soloists behind orchestral sound and let it sing for singers who were obviously facing vocal troubles and could not do more than making do. In the end, a performance starting intelligently and brilliantly ended into being something about the mechanics of being an opera conductor under unideal circumstances.
As announced, this run of performances would feature Christiane Libor’s Isolde, whose youthful tone and sense of line would have made a lyrical, sensitive Irish princess at least on paper. However, she cancelled “for health issues” and was replaced by Petra Lang, a singer I had only seen as Ortrud and never a particularly subtle one. As heard this evening, Ms. Lang’s reinvention as a dramatic soprano does not involve the volume one usually finds in a Wagnerian singer. She does have truly amazing stamina and gets to produce forceful acuti tirelessly, even when things go wrongly. This adaptation, that is vaguely reminiscent of Martha Mödl’s method (I mean “vaguely”, for Mödl was far more adept in it, as her admirable recording in this role with Herbert von Karajan live from Bayreuth shows), has consequences: her middle register is unfocused to the point of inaudibility, her low notes are guttural, the hootiness is inevitable and intonation is dysfunctional. She is an alert actress and can surprise you with isolated phrases in which she sounds like an important singer, but in the end one just feels like listening to consistently unproblematic singing. The sheer size, beauty of tone and youthfulness of Okka von der Damerau’s mezzo soprano just exposed her Isolde’s inadequacy. Unfortunately, even her could not survive the prevailing vocal poor form that plagues this evening’s performance. In act II, her voice sounded thick and a difficulty with high notes would prevent her from floating her warning. She would recover for her short appearance in the end of the opera. To make things worse, Stephen Gould, a reliable and experient Tristan, was frankly ill. His big, warm and powerful tenor started to grate in his act I scene with Isolde. This is never a good sign, and one could see that high notes on “ee” and “ay” started to sound more and more constricted until they finally made him cough. After a while, excursions above a high f were more a matter of will than of possibility. The fact that he agreed to sing act III is a sign of perseverance. If one has in mind the illness that affliced his voice, he really deserve the applauses for recklessly forcing it into keeping “acting with the voice” and adaptations to the written notes as minimal as possible. Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) could not escape this evening’s vocal indisposition either: his baritone lacked steadiness and sounded a bit opaque. Only René Pape proved to be in infallibly good voice, singing the part of King Markly richly, expressively and beautifully. If the conductor had cushioned it in the rich sonorities the Bavarian State Orchestra is more than able to provide, it would have been this evening’s emotional highlight.