Posts Tagged ‘Wagner’s Tristand und Isolde’

It is very easy to dismiss Katharina Wagner. After all, she owes her career to her family name and therefore she would not “deserve” it. Well, as always, the story is not that simple. First, Ms. Wagner is not the worst stage director in the world of opera. She is not the best either. I would not say that she is even a good one, but that does not mean that she has nothing to say about Richard Wagner. I actually believe that she has a lot to say about her great-grandfather’s work. Now that I have seen both her Meistersinger and Tristan, I could affirm that her knowledge of both Wagner’s music and text is above the level of the average opera director. However, staging a work goes beyond knowing it. As a matter of fact, it goes beyond having valid insights about it too. Ms. Wagner is an insightful Wagnerian, who sees these works from a very unusual perspective. The problem is the fact that she is not extraordinarily gifted as a stage director full stop. And I have the impression that she does not see it this way, the booing and bad reviews probably meaning to her a confirmation of the prejudice against her family connections.

Anyway, I like her angle to Tristan und Isolde. Romanticism usually involves the shock of real world and the characters’ Weltanschauung, and the reader or the audience is supposed to take the hero or the heroine’s point of view. But what if we took an objective point of view about those individuals, the “police report” account of the plot? So Tristan already knew Isolde before he suggests her as a bride to his uncle. More than that, they already had something going on back in Ireland (platonic, of course, and yet still something pretty intense), but, considering he had killed Morold, the king’s champion and Isolde’s fiancé, a relationship between them would be impossible. In Ireland. And that is the moment when we have the whole situation of her engagement to King Marke, under the suggestion of none other than Tristan himself, his nephew. Nobody explains convincingly Tristan’s intentions, the King himself says that he would have blessed their union if it had been mentioned to him in the first place. Yes, there are impediments – although they are aware of their own feelings, the young man benefited from her help while concealing from her that he was the assassin of her fiancé. Even if she herself yielded to her own feelings against her duties, her honor would be irrevocably lost if she tried to explain the whole affair to her parents (and everyone else in Ireland, I guess). So, this is a relationship that could only happen hidden from daylight, in secret. Exactly as in Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare, there is no magic potion – the whole thing is just a gimmick (that goes awfully awry, of course). And that is when Katharina Wagner’s staging starts.

In Ms. Wagner’s first act, there is no ship, but a labyrinth of staircases the only purpose of which seems to be keeping Tristan and Isolde apart. Both Kurwenal and Brangäne know exactly what is going on there and they are on their wits’ ends to make a safe delivery of the bride to her husband-to-be. This is not the first staging of Tristan in which the love potion is just an excuse, but here both lovers know it from the start. Their whole discussion about making amends and what is proper in their situation is only a teasing game. Now, in the ship, they are neither in Ireland nor in Cornwall and being in no man’s land is what makes their encounter possible. It is only possible in this transitory situation. As soon as they set foot somewhere, then it is the beginning of the end. But it had already started. And that takes us to act 2.

As the saying goes, the husband (or the wife) is the last one to know, but the assumption that the king did not notice anything seems dangerously close to wishful thinking. Brangäne herself says that, in the event of their arrival, all looked in wonder to the very suspicious situation. In the libretto, the royal hunt is just an excuse to surprise the lovers. In a certain way, letting them believe that they were safe only made them suffer more. One could argue that there was an element of psychological torture there. Well, in Ms. Wagner’s second act, the torture is two levels above “psychological”. The scene has place in what can be described as a torture chamber – both Tristan and Isolde know this. They even use the “equipment” to inflict injures  on themselves. And they know that the end has already begun. There has been more ending than beginning with them.

Act 3 is the end kurz und gut. Of course, Tristan was fatally stabbed and, in his dying moments, he sees Isolde everywhere. He is back to the transitory situation where he can love freely. In his dying, he can be entirely hers without any restriction. It is like a “second chance” for them. Isolde remains, however, in the real world. She tries to have a Liebestod – but that only happens in books. Here she is dragged from the presence of Tristan’s corpse by her increasingly abusive husband.

That is an approach to the story that, curiously, almost makes it even more Romantic, even if brutally so – and I would have enjoyed to see that staging. The way Ms. Wagner does it, however, the insight is rather a starting point than a realization. Even if the sets of act 1 are ugly in a inexplainable industrial way, the concept could have worked, if the Personenregie had informed the attitudes of the actors on stage more sharply. Realism does not mean prosaicness. And here everything was quite matter of fact, stage mechanism being almost the main source of interest. I understand that Ms. Wagner’s decision for act 2 is a bold one –  having the characters restrained in a dungeon makes it very difficult to provide scenic interest for a whole hour. But the way she decided to fill in the blanks proved to be the low point of this production. I don’t know if the humor was intentional, but it was there and it basically ruined the atmosphere. No one in the extreme situation those characters find themselves in would look for a comic relief. If done seriously and honestly, this could have been an extremely depressing second act, the very hopelessness of it all would have haunted the audiences for a while. As it is, it was just awkward. Act 3, surprisingly, is an example of how everything could be if Ms. Wagner showed more concentration. The images in the mind of the dying Tristan were done effectively in their unicity. When it comes to symbology, less is more. And that is an advice that would have benefited the whole production.

To make things a little bit worse, the singers in the title roles did not help much both in terms of theatre and music. In different levels, truth be said. After having seen Petra Lang as Isolde in the Bayerische Staatsoper, I dreaded the perspective of having to hear her again as the Irish princess. To be honest, she was in good voice today, but that does not mean that she sang well. In her adaptation to become a dramatic soprano, Ms. Lang’s voice was crafted to produce acuti, what she does forcefully, even if they are sometimes sharp. Her middle voice, however, has very little color and projects poorly. Intonation is also hazardous. In order to help her being heard in the auditorium during more conversational passages (i.e., 70% of her part), the conductor had to refrain his luxuriant orchestra, something particularly harmful to the lyric section of the Liebesnacht. She is not a cypher in terms of acting, but her acting involves striking poses and showing tautological facial expressions that make everything look very insincere. I don’t know if a more rigorous director could have integrated her to the concept, but that would have been worth the try. Stefan Vinke too hardly has an expressive stage presence and seemed ill at ease with Ms. Wagner’s really sombre take on the story. He fulfilled his acting tasks quite bureaucratically. I wish I could say that his singing offered the expression missing in his acting. Mr. Vinke’s main quality is his endurance – the man is tireless and got to the end of the opera untouched by the famous difficulties of the part, a feat in itself, but phrasing itself was rough-edged and emphatic and tonal variety was not included in the package. His act 3 monologues lacked spiritual quality and pathos. His tenor is not appealing per se – the powerful high notes a bit tight (yet rock-solid) and low notes pronouncedly nasal.

Fortunately, the remaining members of the cast only added strength to the performance. Christa Mayer offered an ideal Brangäne, who sang creamily throughout and floated her mezza voce in act 2 to the manner born. Greer Grimsley has more than a splash of wooliness in his bas-baritone but the voice is big enough to allow the conductor to give free rein to his orchestra. To make things better, Georg Zeppenfeld sang richly and could even find the right nasty touch to this bad-guy version of King Marke.

This is my first live Tristan conducted by Christian Thielemann and, even faced with a problematic Isolde, he proved his absolute mastery of this score. The prelude itself was worth the price of the tickets – here the ideal balance between clarity, depth, richness and flexibility has been achieved. During the first act, the orchestral playing was a paragon of transparency and fullness. In the second act, Mr. Thielemann wisely turned down orchestral volume to let the audience hear the words and notes written by Richard Wagner, but that only increased the demand of expression on soloists whose singing was rather concerned with the mechanics. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that both soprano and tenor have extremely clear diction, though. Act 3 proved to be more challenging. The conductor opted for an extremely subtle prelude that ultimately gave an impression of detachment. The softer touch made Tristan’s predicament sound a bit cold and the Liebestod was hardly a culmination. The intention of building an extremely gradual crescendo meant a beginning with very light orchestral playing around flawed solo singing and the climax finally exploded out of nowhere, with no sense of resolution out of absence of building tension.

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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.

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First seen at the Opéra Bastille in 2005, Peter Sellars’s staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde has become famous for the projection of videos by Bill Viola, while the action takes place in a dark setting with no props or other pieces of scenery. It is true that the videos might be an efficient tool to create atmosphere, on showing exquisite images of the ocean or woods etc, but the fact is that they can also be distracting while depicting actors lighting candles, walking or just getting naked. They can also be unnecessary as showing images of fire when the libretto has words like “ardor”, for example. In any case, I did not feel that they highlight the action itself, which is poorly lit and in the end most people are just following the video presentation.

And the truth is that the performance seriously needed atmosphere. The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris is not truly noble-sounding – wind instruments are not very distinctive and the sound of its string is not full, rich and supple as one would like to hear in a Wagner opera. It does not spoil the fun, but a  stronger-willed conductor than Semyon Bychkov would be of great help in that department.  Most people point out the fact that he tends to opt for slow tempi, but in his defense I would say that he knows when some animation is needed and more or less knows how to make such transitions work. The problem, however, is the absence of a structural backbone. Act I, for example, seemed incoherent and rather loose – even the dramatic tension seemed to escape through the cracks of a poorly structured reading. In act II, truth be said, Bychkov’s justifiable main concern was to help his soloists through the difficult writing – only the final act would benefit from a palpable sense of development, although the Liebestod would prove to be quite tame.

The reader might be asking him or herself if I am not going to describe the positive effect Waltraud Meier had on the proceedings. Those who have seen her video from La Scala know how she can electrify a performance, but, alas, that would not be the case here. Probably because she might be still recovering from the illness that troubled her during the first evening in this run of performances, this admirable German mezzo-soprano seemed overcareful in the first act. She still seemed mistress of the situation then, pouring forth gleaming tone and hitting firm if somewhat clipped top notes.  One may remember more gripping accounts of the narration and curse by this singer, but she still has no rivals in her know-how of mood-shifting through tone colouring and perfect diction. Unfortunately, act II and III were mostly a matter of surviving to the end. There were long stretches of inaudibility, imprecise pitch and other needs for adaptation, requiring a lot of help from the conductor, to the loss of orchestral tonal refulgence.

On the other hand, Clifton Forbis was in extremely healthy voice. Although his tenor is basically throaty, he effortlessly produces powerful notes at the top of this role’s range. His act III monologues were not necessarily subtle, but particularly intense and, it is never enough to say that, reliable. Ekaterina Gubanova could be a refreshing Brangäne – she has a young-sounding yet rich and velvety mezzo and is at ease with Wagnerian style, but the very velvetiness which made her act II calls from the watchtower ethereal did not help her to pierce through heavy orchestration. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was a particularly sensitive Kurwenal, exploring softer dynamics than most exponents of this role, but Franz-Josef Selig must be singled out for his King Marke – he used his chocolate-coloured bass with Lieder-singing expressiveness and good taste.

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