Like Malvina and Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Frank van Aken are singers taking the roles of Isolde and Tristan who happen to be married. This is not their first joint Wagnerian venture: they have, for instance, sung the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Frankfurt, New York etc. He has sung the role of Tristan before at least in Frankfurt in 2011; she has sung her first Isolde last September in La Coruña and it seems she is scheduled to sing it in Bayreuth in the near future. These performances in Dresden are their first together in this opera. As this production is 8 years old and the Staatskapelle Dresden’s chief conductor Christian Thielemann did not find the opportunity to conduct it enticing enough, the Van Akens are supposed to be this revival’s selling feature.
I have to confess that I was not dying to see either of them. I had seen him only once as Siegmund in La Scala in a bad night and, since I first saw her as a compelling Cassandre in Amsterdam, I have found her less and less interesting. Maybe low expectation has done the trick this time, for this evening proved to be “educational”. I’ll start by saying that Isolde happens to be a good career decision for the Dutch soprano. Although there is a lot to be developed here, I found it far less univocal than her Sieglindes. Act I was actually surprising in how consistently she managed the dramatic vocalità: the voice was at once voluminous, rich, powerful in her acuti and more or less functional in the lower reaches. Also, she seemed readier to soften her tone and produced two or three soaring examples of mezza voce. Act II caught her a bit out of steam though. The voice sounded clearly smaller, she shortened some high notes and had her straight/strained moments. However, in the Liebesnacht, when her husband began to sound ill-at-ease with the lyrical writing, she regained her strength and was able to produce a feminine, sensuous tonal quality. Her final appearance was a bit rough, but – this may seem funny – she produced the best last phrase in the Liebestod I have ever heard in a theatre (it is curious how that last note usually sounds flat or thin or unsupported or a combination of all those). All these problems could have been overlooked, if there had been a more noticeable interpretation going on here. As it was, her diction is not very clear, she is not very responsive to the text and she is often heavy-handed in what regards phrasing. In the end, she is a singer singing the notes Wagner wrote to the part of Isolde. She is sometimes convincing when she has to portray fury, but not much beyond that. Of course, experience will add depth to her performance, but experience needs a starting point to develop from.
Van Aken is far more engaged dramatically than his wife. Although his whole method turns around roughness, his voice is unmistakably heroic in its powerful and incisive high notes. He is a trouper and tries everything – even nuance, although this often challenged his ability to keep his voice focused and placed. Act II was his most problematic – legato is not his best friend and trying to rein in his voice often brought about flutter and some nasality. He is not a man who gives up – act III used up his last ounce of energy and, whenever you would think that he was helplessly tired, he would conjure everything he still got to produce some powerful notes over the orchestra. The whole thing was a bit exhausting to watch, but worked somehow as a dramatic point.
Christa Mayer was a commendable Brangäne. Her soft-centered, velvety mezzo is very pleasant and clean. If she could produce a little bit more “mystery” in her calls from the tower in act II, she would have left nothing to be desired in this role. Christoph Pohl is a very handy guy – whenever you need a last-minute replacement, he is there. This evening, he sang a very clean, firm-toned and stylish Kurwenal. As King Marke, Georg Zeppenfeld displayed rock-solid vocalism: his bass was thoroughly big, rich, firm and powerful. Although this was impressive enough, the lack of variety in his singing made it all sound grandiosely boring, I am afraid.
When you have the Staatskapelle Dresden and the ideal acoustics of the Semperoper, it is very difficult for a conductor to fail in Tristan and Isolda. The Wunderharfe’s unique blend of richness and flexibility makes it impossible for one to be indifferent to Wagner’s music – it has such presence and clarity that you almost feel that you don’t need anything else. And Maestro Ascher Fisch has a very clear musical mind, keeping this music as transparently organized as one could wish and showing great skill in knowing the right moment when it is more important to fill the hall with sound while not making his singers sound unnecessary. However, as much as everything this evening, the thrill was not really there. The feeling, the idea, the dramatic impulse behind a crescendo, behind a flexible beat, behind elastic sense of pause were not there, although you could hear all those effects in their most abstract manner. This was particularly bothersome when the conductor adopted a slower tempo for more verbose passages in which a singer was not doing much in terms of interpretation. Later on, the conductor seemed to have realized that this was not working and act III, for instance, had sometimes a let’s-move-on feeling.
As for Marco Arturo Marelli’s production, it goes with this performance’s character. It is decorative in a very abstract way. What you get is what you see – you don’t get much, but you don’t get very much bothered about that either.