Posts Tagged ‘Jukka Rasilainen’

Tristan und Isolde, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Festival Hall, September 2010

4 September, 2010

This concert performance has intriguing extra features: lighting that can illuminate singers or plunge them into darkness, appearances of performers from off-stage positions, and remarkable video projections by Bill Viola. In the overture all was dark . . . until the voice of the young sailor emerged from the side of the auditorium, and the lights shone on Isolde and Brangäne on stage. Then the video projections started, showing water, fire, earth and sky.

Anyone who has seen David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia will know that wonderful moment at the beginning when a distant figure appears shimmering on the horizon. I was reminded of it in Act I when, after scenes of the sea, the video projections showed two windows through which we see two dots on the horizon. These two separate vanishing points turn into tiny figures walking towards us — a man and a woman. Act III later produces an even closer approximation to Lawrence of Arabia when Tristan lies dying. As he sings “Isolde lebt” a shimmering figure appears as if in a mirage, clothed in a long blue robe with a red headscarf covering her face. She vanishes and then reappears when he asks Kurwenal whether he can’t see the ship, “Kurwenal, siehst du es nicht?”, only to vanish and reappear again with “Das Schiff? Sähst du’s noch nicht?”. This vision, as if from the Arabian Nights, is never quite real, until the off-stage trumpet sounds, the trombones play, the tuba rumbles, and the screen is a mass of flames almost silhouetting the robed figure, before she falls into water. Isolde’s ship has arrived.

When staging this opera it is difficult to do anything that remotely assists Wagner’s extraordinary music, so in a sense one might as well have a concert performance, but I thought the video projections added to it in many places. In Act II we see a dark wood in which lamps move around searching for the lovers, and then we are looking straight up at the sky to see a full moon shining on the trees. A full moon is at its zenith at midnight. “Rette dich, Tristan!” is sung from a side balcony, and Melot calmly walks on stage. As Marke appears the lights go out on Melot, and during Marke’s monologue we see dawn slowly emerge, reminding me of Giselle when dawn breaks and the wilis’ power vanishes, just as the union of Tristan and Isolde disappears in the daylight. This opera is about the lovers’ desire for permanent night, well captured by Isolde when she sings, “dem Licht des Tages wollt’ ich entfliehn, dorthin in die Nacht dich mit mir ziehn”, showing her desire to flee from daylight to night with Tristan, but it is not yet to be.

In the early part of Act III the video projections show clouds looking almost extra-terrestrial, reminding me of Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus journeys to mysterious islands in the back of beyond. This was somehow an enchanted island removed from the normal world of daylight. But I have said nothing yet of the main feature — the music.

Esa-Pekka Salonen produced glorious sounds from the Philharmonia, giving us moments of explosive tension and of gentle lyricism. Gary Lehman sang a wonderful Tristan — what a marvellous find he is — and Jukka Rasilainen was a superb Kurwenal, recalling his excellent performance of the same role at Bayreuth last year. Matthew Best was a warm and strong King Marke, as I expected having heard his superb La Roche in Capriccio this summer, to say nothing of his excellent Ramfis in Aida two years ago. As Isolde, Violeta Urmana sang strongly, rising well above the orchestra when necessary, and Anne Sophie von Otter was arguably the best Brangäne I have ever seen. Her face and body language was superb, and her singing was warmly lyrical and perfectly suited to this Wagnerian mezzo role. The whole cast did a wonderful job, with Stephen Gadd as Melot and Joshua Ellicott brilliant as both the shepherd in Act III and the young sailor in Act I.

The conception for this staging is due to Peter Sellars who produced a more elaborate version for the Bastille Opera in Paris, collaborating with Bill Viola on the video projections. At the Festival Hall this was a dress rehearsal, and although the main performance on 26th September is already sold out you can still find a few seats available in Dortmund, Luzern, and Birmingham. It’s worth booking immediately and then finding a train or plane to get you there — the dates are: Luzern on September 10, Dortmund on September 17, Birmingham on September 22, and finally London on September 26.

Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuther Festspiele, July 2009

27 July, 2009


This opera starts with a death that turns into love, and ends with a love that turns into death. What happens in between is a passionate longing that cannot reach fulfilment in this world, hence the ending in a love-death, the Liebestod, which ought to be a wonderful climax but fell flat under the ineffective conducting of Peter Schneider in an intellectually silly production by Christoph Marthaler.

On this first night of the 2009 Bayreuth festival, under the new direction of Eva Wagner-Pasquier and Katharina Wagner, we had the singers for the parts, but not the parts for the singers in this wretched production. Tristan was Robert Dean Smith who sang with his usual restrained and beautiful tenor, and Isolde was Iréne Theorin, who sang strongly, but without any great beauty. The first act takes place in the large lounge of a drab ferry-boat, which works after a fashion, but suggests King Mark is somewhat less than a king, and indeed his and Melot’s costumes in the other two acts made him look more like the ruler of some small principality.

In Act II the set is raised and we are in a lower level, with fluorescent overhead lighting that gives a clinical coldness to the room and flashes in perplexing ways that seem to interest Isolde, as if it were a means of communication from her husband. There are just two seats in the centre of the room, which the lovers occupy for a while, sitting side by side, but when Mark and Melot arrive, hiding behind doorways, the king observes the lovers through powerful binoculars, but there is nothing to see — Tristan is on one side of the stage, and Isolde the other. The harsh lighting completely takes away the magic of the scene. Isolde is dressed in a very unflattering 1950s two-piece suit, and when Tristan, in his blue blazer with a badge, over a pullover, shirt and tie, responds to Mark’s perplexity by saying was du frägst, das kannst du nie erfahren it is sung as if he is simply a schoolboy answering a question in class.

In Act III the sets are raised yet again, revealing a lower level, rather like a dirty prison hospital, with the fluorescent lights from Act II lying around and flashing sporadically. Tristan lies in a bed, with Kurwenal shuffling slowly about like an old man. He is clearly incapable of killing Melot, and doesn’t try. The act ends with Tristan lying on the floor, and the rest of them standing facing walls. Isolde sings the Liebestod, slowly getting into the bed and pulling the sheets up over her face at the end — a limp conclusion to what should be a great opera, not helped by Peter Schneider as conductor, nor Iréne Theorin as Isolde.

Among the rest of the cast, Michelle Breedt in her frumpy costume was a supportive Brangäne, Jukka Rasilainen in his bargain basement kilt sang strongly and sympathetically as Kurwenal, Ralf Lukas was a strong Melot, and Robert Holl sang King Mark competently but with little conviction. Altogether a not very inspiring Tristan, in a grim production, but far worse was in store with Meistersinger on the following evening!