In his days in the Opéra de Paris, Myung-Whun Chung seemed to have made to the short list of conductors who get the best orchestra, soloists and recordings – I can remember the Samson et Dalila with Waltraud Meier and Plácido Domingo, the Otello with Cheryl Studer and Domingo, La Damnation de Faust with Anne Sofie von Otter and Bryn Terfel. He would later appear more often in Italy, where his appeal for the musical establishment has declined a bit (a Carmen with Andrea Boccelli sounds desperate to you?). However, the Italian years have revealed a most positively surprising facet of the Korean conductor – his Wagnerian credentials. I particularly remember a Tristan and Isolde from Rome with Violeta Urmana, which seemed then quite fresh-sounding and compelling. That is why I have decided not to let go the opportunity of seeing Maestro Chung conduct this very work here in Tokyo (only three hours after my arrival from Germany).
Chung is Honorary Conductor Laureate of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2001 and has decided to give the orchestra an opportunity to celebrate the Wagnerian jubilee in the grand manner – a concert performance of Wagner’s masterpiece with international soloists. As much as I admire Furtwänglerian depth, deluxe strings and stately tempi, I cannot help believing that this score is about passion and works particularly well when done urgently, intensely and dramatically. And that’s Maestro Chung’s point of view. From the overture on, this music runs inevitably and unbridedly to its Liebestod. Of course, this is also the sensible choice when you don’t have an orchestra the sound of which is alone an expressive tool such as the Staatskapelle Dresden*. The Tokyo Philharmonic has done a very good job this evening, keeping up with the conductor continuous demand for forward movement and engagement in the drama, but the strings still lack a distinctive sound and there were some near problematic moments with the French horns, for instance. As in Rome, the highlight of this performance was act III, thanks to an exceptionally successful partnership with the tenor in the title role.
Replacing John MacMaster, Daniel Barenboim’s most recent discovery, Austrian tenor Andreas Schager has simply offered one of the most impressive renditions of this impossibly difficult role I have ever heard, in some ways revelatory. First, he sounds like a tenor, you know, trumpet-like brightness and that feeling of “please let me show you my next AMAZING high note”. Better, although the sound is leaner than, say, Ludwig Suthaus’s, it is beyond any doubt a heroic voice, with a positive low register and the ability of riding orchestral tutti almost effortlessly. Second, the man has solid technique. His method is very visible – you can see how he uses his body to propel his clarion Spitzentöne in a way that would probably be difficult (or not?) if he had to act moribundly in act III – and he evidently knows exactly what he has to do to produce the precise effect he is looking for. Here, liquid, almost Italianate phrasing, even in the most unsingable passages (how about an almost Bellinian “Heia, mein Blut! Lustig nun fliesse!”?), aided by perfect diction and the ability of softening or coloring the tone. Third, this is a singer with intelligent and sensitive phrasing and sense of style. Given the tenor’s facility, the conductor felt free to let his orchestra loose and intensify the pace in climactic moments, for truly impressive effects. I definitely want to hear more from him.
This is the first time I see Irmgard Vilsmaier in a big role. It is indeed a big voice with a pleasant reedy quality, unusually young-sounding for a soprano in this repertoire. It is just a pity that her breath support is erratic to the extent of impairing her impressive natural vocal qualities. This evening, her whole method seemed to involve working exclusively from tension, as if her sole purpose was attacking the first note after her intake of air. After that, she seemed to have nowhere to develop too – long notes would acquire an impossible edge (they were often cut short for an extra breath soon afterwards) and phrases would often be chopped not because there was lack of breath, but because of lack of space to work with. As a result, she would fall back on even more tension, using her fists as a boxer and looking as if she would die on exposed high notes, which were often not only shorter but flatter than written. I have read that she intends to sing Elektra soon. She should think seriously about her technique before she compromises a voice still intact by abuse. This all sounded harder to overlook in comparison to Ekaterina Gubanova’s healthy, homogeneous and creamy singing as Brangäne. An exemplary performance.
Baritone Christopher Maltman seemed to find the part of Kurwenal a bit heavy and would sound a bit tired halfway in act III. That did not prevent him from offering a rich-toned, spirited performance, subtler than what one usually hears in this role. Although Mikhail Petrenko’s voice still tends to become unfocused, especially in its higher reaches, the part of King Mark is more congenial to his vocal nature than that of Hagen. I particularly liked his more energetic and emotional approach to the role, which here seemed a younger uncle to Tristan, rather paralyzed by than devoid of passion. Having Tetsuya Mochizuki (a Siegmund) as the Seamen and the Shepherd is an example a luxurious cast, which has paid off.
* Chung has been appointed its first Principal Guest Conductor since this year. I have the impression that Christian Thielemann will still get the A-team Wagner performances.