Das Licht — wann löscht es aus? Wann wird es Nacht im Haus? In Richard Wagner’s libretto, Tristan’s view of the world turns around an opposition roughly summarized as light-day/world/society and night/house/individuality, probably divided by an axis in which his mother, Isolde and death are the main poles. This is not me trying to be clever; a superficial reading of the libretto shows that; so it hardly qualifies as an “insight”. But director Graham Vick begs to differ and probably believes that this has to be really un-der-lined so that the audience un-der-stand it. So, away with the ship, the tower, Kareol and here comes… a house. At first, I thought we were watching the first mafia-wedding production of Tristan und Isolde – a tacky nouveau-riche house, a coffin, Tristan in a black suit, Kurwenal has an apron over his, there are lots of ill-behaved men with a wide job description who harass Isolde in a way only a Neapolitan would care to do and there are drugs – the love potion comes in syringes here. But then I realized it was a surrealistic mafia-wedding production, for there is a naked girl walking around unmolested by the testosterone-high henchmen and… a gigantic floating spotlight that could pass as the und in Tristan und Isolde, for whenever they are together, it comes closer to them. But then I realized it was not a mafia-wedding Tristan, but a house/light Tristan. In any case, the audience had a big laugh when, in act III, the spotlight comes nearer Tristan and he says Die Leuchte, ha! Act II shows the house on a different angle, inside and outside are blurred, crags grow from nowhere, a naked guy digs a grave, the naked girl watches him – love/death, house/world, light/darkness. Of course, it all looks awful. Act III almost hits an interesting idea – Tristan is shown as a somewhat senile old man, his questions of “where am I?” etc and his streams of consciousness surprisingly fit the concept. Everyone is old in the house, Kurwenal, the shepherd. Tristan does not die, only that Tristan died, I thought, goes into the world and is haunted by his lost self in the shape of Isolde; I could live with that. But no – Brangäne appears as an old woman and Marke should be something of a walking Titurel by then, but he only needs a walking-stick to make his entrance and, to make things worse, an elderly Isolde comes very realistically on stage, sings her Liebestod for the coffin (a part of the decoration since act I) and the centenary Brangäne and Marke.
Have I mentioned that it was amazingly poorly directed? Awkward love-potion scene (if you think that this evening’s Tristan and Isolde are actually a married couple, you start to wonder why they take so much time to seem intimate), ludicrous Melot-Tristan scene, various scenes in which singers remain on stage without anything to do, just watching the often dramatic or delicate situations depicted by the libretto. It is no wonder that, at the end, the audience almost unanimously booed the director (almost, there were probably 50 people – me included – who just did not applaud and the guy who incessantly bravo-ed everything, even the extras).
God must have thought that a poor musical performance would have made the audience tear the Deutsche Oper to pieces and granted the guinea-pigs in the opening night most solid conducting from Donald Runnicles. The prelude could be a little be more inspired, more organic, a stronger sense of arch could have been achieved, the increasing dynamic less deliberate, but other than this the Deutsche Oper’s musical director offered a structurally clean performance, very consequent in its phrasing, all elements (including soloists) perfectly balanced and the house orchestra responded with exemplary Wagnerian sounds throughout. If someone deserves bravo this evening, these should be the members of the orchestra. It is true that the performance lacked the profoundness of expression of Daniel Barenboim’s Tristans in the Staatsoper, but that is only a matter of difference of approach. Runnicles’s more cerebral transverse of the score is equally valid in its musical thoroughness and transparency.
Petra Maria Schnitzer is probably the lighter Isolde I have ever seen on stage. Margaret Price never sang the role live, but she proved to have had a far more positive middle register (and low notes) in her Verdian roles. The unsubstantial lower end of Schnitzer’s voice robbed many passages from their gravitas (the Liebesnacht, for example), but her ease with high notes (even dramatic high notes – quite full and forceful) could be counted as a compensation. She has a solid technique and never showed any sign of fatigue. For me, the young-sounding quality of her voice and its creaminess made her Isolde quite congenial, but after a while the lack of tonal and dynamic variety could be felt. It must also be said that she is a really accurate singer and her acting talents are not to be overlooked. She alone looked three-dimensional as a sensuous woman who would follow the man she loves in his own particular world without quite understanding it.
This was the first time I’ve seen Peter Seiffert as Tristan. His tonal quality is also a bit light for the role, but it is voluminous enough a voice with a bright sheen on it. In order to make for the tonal lightness, he pushes more often than he should and, as a result, his tenor sounds dangerously open-toned now and then, some notes oscillate in a René Kollo-esque manner and sometimes he sounds frankly strained. By now, he has learned where his strengths are in this role and saves when he can in order to give it all in act III, where he allows himself more legato than most tenors anyway.
At first, Jane Irwin’s light, yet incisive mezzo with a touch of Janet Baker seemed promising for Brangäne, but her calls from the tower were mostly flat and that is the moment when a Brangäne shows her skills. Eike Wilm Schulte is not my idea of a Kurwenal – his baritone is too high and he has neither the physique nor the attitude – and he was simply in a bad-voice day. In more outspoken moments, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s bass lacks the necessary nobility for the King Marke, but he knows how to scale down his spacious and dark voice, an important quality for his long monologue, which can sound monotone without proper tone colouring.