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Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde’

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, which 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 she 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 experienced 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 afflicted 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 Marke 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.

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This current run of performances of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (a new production later to be reprised in Rome) in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées did not seen to be unmissable in a first look: no big names in the cast (Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne being too ubiquitous to be regarded as such), which also happens to be a tad exotic and a conductor who has a difficult relationship with the Parisian public (a long difficult relationship, since he has been the musical director of the Orchestre Nationale de France for eight years).

Actually, the whole venture is more adventurous than I hinted at: this is the first time Daniele Gatti conducts Tristan. Considering my experience with him, I braced myself for “loud and slow “. Gatti, however, states that he has been preparing himself for that for a long time – and I cannot say he has not. The first impression I had from the prelude was how structurally clean and musically organized it was, even when the articulation in his string section could be more clear. It was the work of someone who really took the pains of determining how to present every layer in the texture and, most importantly, and which one is the Hauptstimme. The rest of act 1 confirmed my first opinion: accompanying figures propelled the performance in almost Verdian manner and “a tempo” (not slow neither fast – let’s say “natural”) seemed to be the rule, volume rather restrained to allow clarity.

My enthusiasm would be tested in the second act: the opening scene straight jacketed in the rigid beat suggested the mechanical rather than the energetic, and once Wagner’s concept begins to become more  fluid, Mr. Gatti’s weapons of choice too began to miss the mark. Act III is even more elusive and requires something that would gradually prove to be missing this evening: a vision. In his masterpiece, Wagner does not accept solutions “from the outside”: one really has to understand in his or her heart was this music is about before one sets his mind at work to discover how this “emotional truth” allows itself to become “music “. I don’t mean that Daniele Gatti is incapable of having this vision; it is just his first experience and the “infrastructure ” is already mostly there.

I saw Rachel Nicholls in 2008 in Kobe, singing Bach with Masaaki Suzuki. Then I wrote that it was pleasant to hear a big-voiced Bach soprano (although she was too loud for the orchestra and the venue). One or two years later I read an interview where she declared she was training to sing Wagner. As I couldn’t recall a precedent, I eagerly read her explanation of how there is only a difference in intensity but not in procedure: the Wagner sound being a development from her Bach sound, both beginning from the same core. This is a very good piece of advice (provided you really have the natural volume and stamina) – and I wanted to see if she was true to her explanation. However, her dramatic soprano career seemed restricted to regional opera houses and festivals. Until Emily Magee cancelled her participation in these performances.

After what I heard this evening, I must understand that this is the inevitable beginning of her international career. To put it simply, I had only heard a soprano sing Wagner’s dramatic roles with absolute legato and the same kind of “cantabile” one would expect in Verdi in recordings with Frida Leider or Florence Austral. Although Rachel Nicholls’s voice is not as imposing and big as these formidable ladies, it is absolutely natural, cleanly and easily produced as theirs were. She sings PHRASES, not groups of notes, her high c’s perfectly integrated to what happened before and after, all exposed acuti seamlessly and effortlessly connected. It is rather a high than a low voice, but the low register is natural and hearable. Furthermore, it is a young-sounding voice, almost too sweet for this role. But no – I have thoroughly enjoyed this feminine take on it. All that said, Ms. Nicholls’s Wagner, enticing as it is, is still work in progress. She has a very tame nature and, while she seems to be aware of that and evidently works hard for attitude, this is something she still has to discover. Also, her German, acceptable as it is, is still a bit cautious. And she has to figure out why her “a” often sounds like “ä” when things get high and loud.

Torsten Kerl too is a young sounding Tristan who produces unmistakably tenor-ish tones throughout. His voice has fine projection, but when Wagner demands truly heroic singing from him, he seems to shift to one invariable “Heldentenor”-gear, where the voice has a hint of a snarl. In any case, he sang with animation, clear diction, rhythmic alertness and got to the end of the opera almost as freshly as he started. Maybe if he too had more of a vision, his Tristan would have been a little bit more than getting to the end without fatigue, an “athletic” accomplishment not to be snobbed anyway.

At first, Michelle Breedt sounded a bit too smoky, but she settled into a compelling performance, with beautifully floated mezza voce in act II. Brett Polegato was a firm-toned, congenial Kurwenal, probably the all-round most interesting musical/dramatic accomplishment this evening. I cannot unfortunately say something similar of Steven Humes’s King Marke, nasal in tone, erratic in pitch and dramatically dull.

I have always found Pierre Audi’s productions on the decorative side – and not even to my taste. The rusty iron naval structures in act I did help to create some atmosphere, but the set of act II looked like the carcass of a whale and I could not see the point of the night-club decoration of Tristan’s “room” in Kareol. The costumes too were idiosyncratic, but the main problem was the fact that the director overlooked his cast’s acting limitations and just pretended this would sort itself out. It had not: these singers diligently followed gestures and attitudes they did not seem comfortable with and the point of which seemed to elude them entirely.

 

 

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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.

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Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde is an opera often described as metaphysical, profound, transcendental and musicians and members of the audience often approach it with extreme reverence, often trying to frame their experience of the opera itself by a priori concepts rather than by the experience itself. Not today – my neighbours this evening behaved as if they were watching an adventure film in the movie theatre. A couple next to me seemed to have found it highly entertaining – they even laughed of the Liebestod. When I was going to get angry, I realized that the fact that they were watching it under a completely different light (even if bothersome and disrespectful one) made me realize that someone else – and a very important one – seemed to be seeing the whole thing with fresh eyes and ears. And this was veteran conductor Peter Schneider.

I had seen Maestro Schneider conduct this work in Bayreuth and praised his flexible beat and the beauty of the orchestral sound. On reading what I wrote then, I cannot help noticing that it has nothing to do with this evening, when the conductor seemed to have taken everything at face value: there was no concerns of producing important sounds, of manipulating tempo to produce gravitas or of adding any kind of profoundness. On the contrary, he kept a very regular beat that could give the impression that he could relax more either in exciting or meditative moments, his orchestra produced distinctively bright sounds in the string section and never overshadowed the other sections, his approach was built towards very clean, singing lines of accompanying figures that shared with the soloists the same degree of importance. Since we are talking about Wagner, the accompanying figures – although played with nearly Donizetti-ian flavor – are almost invariably Leitmotive and their variation. That made this evening revelatory in terms of structural clarity. Also, the house orchestra’s playing had an urgency that sometimes tampered with polish, but kept you in the edge of your seat in a Marth Argerich-ian way, especially in passages where the violins were able to showcase outstanding flexibility. As a result, the performance – in its lack of austerity – often seemed blunt in its obstinate forward-movement, its Verdian glittery passageworks, its almost bombastic succession of chords attacked straight-to-the-matter. As the soloists too seemed determined to avoid venerability and had almost all of them very clear diction, many scenes sounded quite new to me shorn of their dignified grandeur. This evening, Isolde’s indignation in act I had more than a splash of whim and Brangäne’s selflessness something of meddling for her own amusement; Tristan’s obscure musings in act II sound less philosophical than testosterone-ridden. If I give the impression that this made the story more superficial, do not mistake my words: I’ve found it quite refreshing to see these characters more realistic in their motivations in a storyline almost devoid of action.

This is the first time I could see Violeta Urmana in a complete performance as Isolde. I’ve heard a broadcast from Rome long ago and saw her sing act II in a concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker and have found her one of the most interesting singers in this role these days. She was announced indisposed and took almost the entire first act to warm up and, even after that, had to carefully negotiate some high-and-loud passages, but she hasn’t disappointed me. First, there is some almost Italianate vocal glamour in her performance: the low and medium registers are warm and fruity, she is capable of legato and soft attack in lyric passages and the edge on her acuti (which can be bothersome in recordings) do help her to pierce through when the orchestra is really loud. Second, although she is not a terrific actress, she has studied this role with unusual attentiveness – she clearly knows her words, has an opinion about her character and portrays all that with both the verbal specificity of a Lieder singer and the attitude of someone who has sung roles like Norma or Aida. Third, she is bien deans sa peau in this role, which she portrays with sensuousness and femininity. This is really more than we can say about most Isoldas.

Her Tristan was Robert Dean Smith, whom I had seen in this part in Bayreuth, also with Peter Schneider. There, the acoustics helped him a lot. This evening, the lack of squillo in his high register sometimes made him inaudible amidst an unleashed Vienna State Orchestra. The role is still very distant to his personality, but this production makes his work harder to see to this problem. The results are not entirely convincing, but – in the context of this performance – this vulnerable, young-sounding Tristan makes particular sense. Especially when he sings so musically and with absolute technical security (his breath is impressively long, to start with).

The role of Brangäne is on the heavy side for Elisabeth Kulman, but she is a smart singer with solid technique and by unfailing focus, crystalline diction and dramatic imagination produced a compelling performance. Matthias Goerne too finds the role of Kurwenal heavy for his voice. However, differently from Ms. Kulman, his whole method is incompatible with Wagnerian singing. In the rare lyrical moments in the part, he provides beauty of tone and sensitive phrasing, but he is often hectoring and producing white-toned high notes. Last but not least, Albert Dohmen – in spite of a rusty tonal quality – produced a far more varied and touching performance as King Marke than I could have expected, considering the last times I saw him.

There is not much to speak of David McVicar’s highly stylized and very superficial staging. I dislike the choreographed seamen but find the rest quite harmless in their basic colors and unobtrusiveness. However, although the production dates from 2013, it seems that the Personenregie is sometimes already lost. There were moments when these singers had not much idea of why they were doing what they were supposed to do and felt therefore free to do their thing. Fortunately, their “thing” often worked well this evening

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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.

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Marek Janowski’s Wagner series with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin is connected to recordings to be released by the label PentaTone, but the truth is that, until this evening, good as every performance has been, none of them has resulted a CD that has taken the discography by storm. Although it is impossible to predict how the recording made this evening is going to be, I cannot wait to buy it, for it is a Tristan und Isolde that I have always wanted to hear.

The very nature of Wagner’s most famous work calls for ponderousness, for an intensity cooked at low fire, for an approach to unending melody that almost invariably involves a very special tempo in which time seems to stand still. But the work is about passion – even at its most metaphysical – and passion is still the keynote here. And I like the way Maestro Janowski takes it at face value – I was tempted to write “in almost Verdian agitation”, but I have the impression that most Wagnerians would frown at it.  The feverish pulse, clearly articulated accompanying figures, the impacting accents, the brisk pace, the almost relentless forward movement – one would never mistake it for La Forza del Destino, but one could think of it at times. The first act benefited particularly from this concept – the drama developed without repose, as a single theatrical gesture wrapped in brilliant, angular, aptly raw orchestral playing. In act II, the conductor softened his orchestra for a more intimate perspective and one missed now and then the tonal focus in lower dynamics that only the top orchestras of the world have. It goes without saying that the level of clarity was short of sensational – I have discovered many novelties in this score (that I have last heard live only Saturday). Act III seemed entirely original to my ears – Tristan’s physical languor took second place to his spiritual turbulence and Janowski grew from intensity to downright frenzy in vortices of string playing that would have made it impossible for almost any tenor to survive the experience.

If Janowski’s vibrant conducting were not reason enough to single this performance out, Stephen Gould would alone be worth the detour. It is not difficult to say that he has no rivals in this role these days, but I also tend to think that he stands comparison with the best Tristans in recordings too. His voice is naturally powerful, firm and unproblematic – and Janowski did not spare him even in his most difficult monologues, in which he had to provide very fast declamation over the passaggio with a really loud orchestra on stage. It is doubly amazing that he was able to do this almost entirely within the rules of cantabile: Gould phrased with unusual elegance, sang long phrases on the breath, interpreted with imagination and tonal variety, shifted to softer dynamics more often than most. I have to confess that I have barely recognized some passages, so cleanly and musicianly as they sounded. Naturally, the task is inhuman and there were (rare) moments of tension and tightness – I can only wonder that, in the studio, he would be, well, unrealistically perfect. Bravissimo.

I took almost the whole first act to get used to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. It is a voluminous, weighty voice but very short on cutting edge. If her smoky, velvety tonal quality makes her immediately unique among dramatic sopranos, it is also true that she is often overshadowed by the orchestra, except above a high g, when she produces a truly exciting sound, even more so for its roundness and firmness (the high c’s were truly amazing). It is only when you get to the second act that you understand why Stemme’s Isolde is so highly appreciated – her warm tonal quality, her floating mezza voce, her generous flow of velvety tone makes her an outstandingly sensuous Isolde. And her Liebestod is certified top-quality too. It is curious that she seemed somewhat nervous this evening, especially in the first act, when she made some false entries and other minor blunders.

Michelle Breedt was an interesting choice for Brangäne – her forceful, finely focused mezzo sounded lighter and more penetrating than her Isolde’s voice. She seemed to miss stage action and tried to infuse meaning in every little syllable. Sometimes the result could seem a bit fussy, but her intent was always clear and aptly conveyed. The gigantic orchestral proved to be challenging to Johan Reuter (Kurwenal), who had to work hard to be heard and often without success. As King Marke, Kwangchul Youn did not have to struggle – he sang generously and sensitively, but his bass was unfortunately not at its firmest this evening.

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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?

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