Posts Tagged ‘Tristan und Isolde’

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, Royal Opera, October 2009

3 October, 2009


This was the second night of Christof Loy’s new production for the Royal Opera, and I found it worked very well. The orchestra performed with distinction under Antonio Pappano, and the Opera House had put together a superb cast, led by Nina Stemme as Isolde. She was terrific throughout, and in the Liebestod she rose effortlessly above the orchestra — it was a wonderful performance. Tristan was Ben Heppner, whom I once saw give a marvellous rendering of the same role at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, but here unfortunately he had trouble with his voice at some moments in Acts II and III. But he sang strongly, and his interaction with Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Act III was very powerful. Volle was superb, and as good a Kurwenal as I’ve ever seen. This was hardly surprising, given his excellent portrayal of Dr. Schön in Lulu this past summer, and his wonderful performance of John the Baptist in Salome in February 2008. Sophie Koch as Brangäne sang beautifully, and John Tomlinson’s King Marke was a peerless example of how well this part can be performed — his stage presence was riveting, as always, and we are lucky he was able to take over from Matti Salminen who will now appear only in the last three performances.

The fairly minimal designs by Johannes Leiacker, and lighting by Olaf Winter, featured dining tables and chairs at the rear of the stage, occasionally occupied by King Marke’s men in their black dinner jackets — Marke himself wore a white one. A dark heavy curtain in front of the tables was sometimes open, sometimes closed, and sometimes moved to reveal the diners in a freeze, and then to reveal empty tables. None of this got in the way of the singing though, and I found Loy’s direction very good, particularly in the interactions between Isolde and Brangäne, and between Tristan and Kurwenal. There was no comparison to the frightful Bayreuth production I saw this summer, and the singers here were far better too, particularly Nina Stemme who completely outclassed Iréne Theorin at Bayreuth.

On this second night of the production, the Opera House management had clearly realised that almost all the action was invisible from the left hand edge of the auditorium. The Balcony boxes and side seats were entirely empty at the start, though they later filled with people from similar positions higher up in the Amphi. The inattention to sight-lines is a failing of Christof Loy, who did a similar thing with some extreme stage-right action in Lulu, and the House management should have been on the case far earlier. First-night critics who couldn’t understand the booing should take note. From their fine seats it behoves them not to be rude, as one or two were, about the intelligence of audience members in less exalted seats who simply couldn’t see most of the action.

Tristan und Isolde, Glyndebourne, August 2009

19 August, 2009


This was Glyndebourne’s 2003 production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, revived in 2007, 2008, and again this year under revival director Daniel Dooner. It works terrifically well, with a set by Roland Aeschlimann featuring a broken vortex of huge curved girders. While the vortex alters only slightly from act to act, the main variation comes from the wonderful lighting by Robin Carter. There was no comparison with the cold and incoherent production I saw in Bayreuth three weeks ago, and musically it was better too, with Glyndebourne’s music director Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic with restraint and sensitivity. Unlike Bayreuth, this Glyndebourne production gives a focus to the opera by having essentially the same set throughout, so things can gradually build in intensity until the Liebestod, after which the audience remained silent for a few moments while a square opening surrounding Isolde slowly closed itself off.

The singers all did a fine job, with Ian Storey standing in at the last minute for Torsten Kerl as Tristan. Anja Kampe, whom I saw in February giving a fine performance of Senta in the Royal Opera’s production of Holländer, sang Isolde, but I felt she didn’t quite rise above the orchestra at the end. Her companion Brangäne was sympathetically portrayed by Sarah Connelly, and Tristan’s companion Kurwenal was sung by Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber, who came over very strongly in the last Act. Melot was Trevor Scheunemann, and German bass Georg Zeppenfeld sang a powerful and nuanced King Mark. His understanding and forgiveness of Tristan in the last act was beautifully done, and Ian Storey responded well as Tristan. This was fine acting with both body and voice, and Zeppenfeld gave a fitting lead-in to the final love-death of Isolde.

Three down and one to go. In 2008 the Metropolitan Opera’s cinema screening was excellent, this year Bayreuth was a great disappointment, but now Glyndebourne has made up for it. Let’s hope the new Royal Opera production compares to the two good ones, not the bad one. Oddly enough all four directors are German: Daniel Dorn for the Met, Christof Marthaler for Bayreuth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff for Glyndebourne, and Christof Loy for the Royal Opera. I am full of anticipation, but not optimistic, since Loy’s last two operas for Covent Garden have been disappointing. He inserted a middle-aged lesbian composer into Ariadne auf Naxos, making a nonsense of the interaction with Zerbinetta, which is a focal point of the opera, and he turned Lulu into an incredibly cold affair with stationary singers who might as well have been giving a concert performance. Will Tristan also be cold, like Marthaler’s awful Bayreuth production? I shall report again after the first night on September 29th.

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!