Daniel Barenboim’s Wagnerian credentials are unanimously acknowledged, and his Wagner performances with the Staatskapelle Berlin are seen by many as reference in this repertoire. Even if I had my share of below-average performances with this Argentinian conductor in this repertoire, I have never heard a performance of Tristan und Isolde conducted by him that seemed less than excellent. This is the work by Wagner best served by his abilities as a conductor, and the fact that it sounds different every time I hear him conduct it makes the experience even more compelling. Today, in the Schiller-Theater, I have come to the conclusion that his understanding of this score’s structure is so complete that he is entirely at ease to test its limits: he can make it extremely slow, sometimes a little bit faster, usually very rich in orchestral sound, but sometimes chamber-like in lean sonoroties – it does not matter, it always sounds coherent, clear, meaningful… and usually very intense. Today’s performance started off with a dense, almost heavy prelude, yet transparent in a way that makes one particularly alert for Wagner’s shifts of instrumental color. After that, his main concern seemed to be helping his soloists out, turning around a very transparent yet rich sound that could instantly become more classically “Wagnerian” whenever his singers would benefit from being “drowned”. Also, the need for many extra breathing points involved a basically slow beat, with the many “col canto” episodes where singers were adapting their lines to get to the end of a phrase in truly adventurous manner. In any case, before I can speak of the overall impression of this performance, I have to speak of the singers in the title roles.
Waltraud Meier is something of Barenboim’s “official” Isolde for more than 20 years. When she shifted from mezzo and made it her parade role, she could indeed sing it better than some singers whose natural voice is indeed that of a soprano. But that did not last as long as she could have wished. Soon, she became notably variable in this part, in a good day still sounding her youthful best, until it has finally settled into a business of adaptation of the vocal lines as written by Wagner. At this point of her career, the audience is suppose to make a trade off between insight and faithfulness. I would say that, this evening, considering her real Fach and her age, she was in good voice: middle and low register sounded clean, firm and well focused, but high notes existed by means of various degrees of squeezing, many of which landing below true pitch. Then there were many notes shortened, hinted at, spoken or left unsung. She is an extraordinarily persuasive artist with illuminating ideas and most often than not got away with her make-do, but her interpretation now is so heavily underlined that it involves very little legato and a pecking-at-notes phrasing that could pass for Sprechgesang at moments. This had a very curious effect: the very lean vocal production, the avoidance of forte and fortissimo, the self-explanatory phrasing (and her miraculous young-looking appearance) made her Isolde believably adolescent in attitude. The fact that Barenboim gave her a lighter orchestra also had the effect of turning down the profoundness and ponderousness. Since her Tristan too is fond of an almost operetta-hero lyric style, portamento included, and can produce a boyish tonal quality, their act I sounded unusually matter-of-fact, both singers native speakers delivering quite provocatively their dialogues. Some might dislike the Pride and Prejudice approach, but I am increasingly convinced that this opera doesn’t need the extra servings of seriousness usually applied to it, which have only the dubious benefit of making it less believable and more obscure. In this atmosphere, act II had its splashes of Romeo and Juliet, when Isolde smilingly teases Brangäne for feeling guilty for using the love potion instead poison in the end of the previous act.
In the last twelve months I’ve seen Peter Seiffert twice – and in very good shape – as Florestan and Bacchus. This seems to confirm that Tristan is not really his role. To deal with the heavy vocal lines, he often resorts to an almost open-toned approach to high high f’s and g’s and pushes a lot. Before he got tired (some 10 minutes before O sink hernieder), one would say impetuosity or fervor instead of laboriousness and despair. Act III tested him sorely, Tristan’s predicament secondary to the fact that this was this tenor on stage making violence against his vocal folds.
Ekaterina Gubanova is, as always, a reliable Brangäne, today not in her best voice, though. Roman Trekel is a boorish Kurwenal, which is a valid approach, but he too gets tired in act III. Stephen Milling finds the role of King Marke a bit high and heavy, and yet he showed ability to create Innigkeit when necessary.
Harry Kupfer’s 2000 production is prone to generalization and can be challenging to singers not in their youthful prime. The tenor was visibly uncomfortable with it. Some moments, especially those who involve singers crawling, are particularly awkward.