Opera

Deutsche Oper/Runnicles: Tristan und Isolde

Date: June 18, 2016
Location: Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Attilio Glaser
Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Kurwenal: Ryan McKinny
Melot: Jörg Schörner
King Marke: Matti Salminen
Shepherd: Peter Maus
Steerman: Seth Carico

Deutsche Oper
Donald Runnicles, conductor
Graham Vick, production

When Wagner conceptualized the music drama, he was heavily influenced by the works of Schopenhauer. The central theme of Schopenhauer –to achieve inner peace through renouncement of desires – seems most evident in Act 3, when Tristan longs for release from his tormented longing for Isolde, or in Act 2, when both Tristan and Isolde seem willing to obtain fulfilment through death. The metaphysical realms of these depictions are a boon to experimental theatrical directors, who to portray these realms use a variety of fantastical devices, whether color, as in Dieter Dorn’s production at the Met; or video, as in Peter Sellars’ production in Paris; or even geometric shapes, as in Katharina Wagner’s production at Bayreuth. Photo-realism is mostly avoided.

Paul Brown’s set in this Graham Vick production is contemporary, reminding us of a luxurious cabin in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. This photo-realism robs the audience of a chance to experience, perhaps through fantastical stagecraft or music, the unknowable reality. Tristan’s death is handled with the hero leaving the stage by going through a door and into a crowd of zombies. After Liebestod, Isolde likewise enters that door, signifying her rejoining with Tristan. In Acts 2 and 3, when the two lovers utter anything in the libretto that points to or sounds like death, stage extras would walk across the stage and scatter flowers on a casket, placed prominently in the middle of the stage. Or, before the first note is sounded, Tristan’s coffin is nailed. Or, in Act 1, the shepherd’s herd is reenacted by actors crawling in four limbs. Or, throughout the entire evening, a lamp the size of a SMART car is used to literally highlight a part of the stage relevant to the ongoing libretto. Even if light (and darkness) has symbolic meaning in the story, why does this have to be labored to such repetitious pathology? These depictions seem almost all too overt and pictorially descriptive, in stark contrast to an ambiguously (deceptively?) represented world or, to a false representation of what we believe as the physical world (?). The production here seems insensitive to the background history behind the piece.

But Tristan und Isolde shines or dies with the vocal cast and the orchestra. With that, the star that outshone all others was Stephen Gould, whose imposing voice, as Tristan, impressed immensely. His handling of the libretto’s words was deutlich, with the kind of regal clarity befitting the voice of a professorial Bundestag politician. Tristan’s fiendishly long phrasings and endings were handled with care. Unlike many North American heldentenors, Gould’s diction was natural and unforced. His top rang with the sort of metallic gloss one finds on a sports car freshly wheeled off from the factory. Compared with his Siegfried I heard in 2009, Gould seemed much more willing to control and pace his vocal output at the outset to avoid coarse shouting closer to the end. Significantly, he probably now owns one of the densest and most stentorian outputs at the lower end of Tristan’s tessitura, not just among his contemporaries but every recorded Tristan I have come across. By the midpoint of his great monologue in Act III, it was clear that he still had plenty of reserve power and did not sound tired at all. A high A-natural was ever-so-slightly mishandled in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben”, in his monologue lamenting his betrayal of Marke, but it neither disturbed the audience nor the singer himself.

Nina Stemme has perhaps the most reliable and steady Wagnerian voice today. She never shouts, and even if it sounds like shouting she does not look uncomfortable or overparted. One of her greatest gifts is a consistently perfect pitch, which allows more of the intricate chordal and chromatic interplay between Isolde’s voice and the orchestra’s to come through. Her legato passages, especially as the drama built up to the extinguishing of the light, oozed like warm cheese. The reliability of her voice could present a liability as well, as it lacks that tiny bit of fragility that, in my opinion, could be desirable in Isolde: after all, Isolde has to face loneliness, as well as a dying/dead Tristan all by herself. Her calm and steady “Mild und leise” at least added to, though not definitively, a proof of that theory. That being said, singing with reliability is miles better than singing with an undisciplined shrill.

In the Act 2 duet “O sink hernieder”, the vocal outputs were equally matched. Their melodic lines were handled with sincerity and aplomb, all the while navigating together with heart-melting unity. The overall musicianship of the rest of the cast was of the highest caliber. Ekaterina Gubanova’s Brangäne carried the day with vocal purity and dramatic persuasion. Ryan McKinny’s Kurwenal was rather invisible in Act 1 but warmed up enough to voice clearly and resolutely in Act 3. Jörg Schörner, as Melot, sounded properly angry and stole some luster from Tristan, as it should be. Matti Salminen starred triumphantly as Marke, portraying the king with regal composure in Act 1 and wretched devastation in Act 3. At curtain call, there was a short ceremony in which he was feasted with applause and flowers, as the evening’s performance turned out to be last stage performance.

Donald Runnicles, usually a reliable Wagnerian, conducted an orchestra who, for the most part, lingered without much to say. Passages that are supposed to sound ruhig came out lifeless. Heftig passages appeared grotesque. Solo violins and violas had no problem pumping out the right phrases but sounded coarse and tired. The star of the evening, crucially, was Chloe Payot, whose handling of the cor anglais passages was magnificently klipp und klar. In the orchestra’s defense, the general lack of a cohesive soul in the playing could be due to an exhausted orchestra having done evenings of Mozart (Abduction), Verdi (Trovatore) and Puccini (Tosca) on consecutive days prior to this Tristan performance.

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin. Photo copyright: Bettina Stöß.

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Opera

Royal Opera/Pappano: Manon Lescaut

Date: June 28, 2014
Location: Covent Garden, London.

Manon Lescaut: Kristīne Opolais
Lescaut: Christopher Maltman
Chevalier des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann
Geronte de Ravoir: Maurizio Muraro
Edmondo: Benjamin Hulett
Dancing Master: Robert Burt
Singer: Nadezhda Karyazina
Lamplighter: Luis Gomes
Naval Captain: Jeremy White
Act III Sergeant: Jihoon Kim
Innkeeper: Nigel Cliffe
Chorus: Royal Opera Chorus

Royal Opera
Antonio Pappano, conductor
Jonathan Kent, director

Manon Lescaut, written by Puccini perhaps at a time of the composer’s greatest personal and financial misery, provides a breathing room of idealistic escapism for the composer. In Manon, Puccini found a heroine who couldn’t fail to win the hearts of all, and in Des Grieux, a hero who would follow his love to the end of the Earth. In real life, however, Puccini could barely afford his rent in Milan, and his relationship with the married Elvira was met with fierce opposition from all corners and, in any case, not going well. In other words, Manon Lescaut the operatic output was the unwavering stability yearned for but not (yet) achieved in Puccini’s life.

In Jonathan Kent’s vision, most of that sentiment remains intact, though not without some questionable designs. Act I has all the proper trappings required by Puccini’s libretto – a motel, a staircase, a balcony and a casino, but the set, designed by Paul Brown, looks more like a trucker’s stop along the section of Route 66 closest to Las Vegas, than some casino-land, as suggested in the programme notes, in Baden-Baden. Geronte’s house is a stage within a stage where Manon gyrates feverishly in a peep show to attract the salivating glances of customers. By doing away with the musicians in the traditional dance scene and making Manon a total object of desire, Kent seems willing to assert the point that Manon couldn’t resist winning the hearts of all, even if in a customer-performer relationship — yet in doing so, seems willing to rob the audience of a good dance scene that is to be expected in the opera. Dressed in a pink Lolita nightwear, Lady-Gaga thigh-high white stockings and trashy blonde wig, Kristine Opolais’ Manon was there to demolish any notion of faux elegance, focusing squarely instead on the exploits of visual voyeurism. It was hard to believe that in Puccini’s original vision, this girl was actually about to go to a convent. The stage within a stage is boxed by a prison-like Teflon-made dollhouse, as if Manon is an object unwillingly trapped in the status quo. But she is not, as she seems happy to please her peeping onlookers and happier when she lingers on to fetch her jewelry even as Des Grieux is anxious to drag her out of the malice.

Jonas Kaufmann’s Des Grieux was noncommittal at first, with a weakly sung L’amor that was barely audible on top of the orchestra. The German tenor recovered enough to deliver a fine but not particularly inspiring Donna non vidi mai. His condition would stay sub-par (by Kaufmann’s typically high standards anyway), until Act II, when he blossomed in the face of Kristine Opolais’ formidable voice. Opolais had a sizzling top, seemingly limitless output in the glorious passages, and a sweet legato in the subtler passages. Though questionable in aesthetic taste, the dollhouse box turned out to be an acoustic aid that effectively helped to project the singers’ voice, especially in the Act II duet. Maurizio Muraro had an off-night as Geronte, as his output came with very little detail and support. In the thankless role of Lescaut, Christopher Maltman turned out just fine, with firm support and plenty of firepower to raise above Pappano’s orchestra.

There is rather something quite remarkable about Pappano’s conducting. The orchestra sounded resolute and dramatic, especially towards the end of Acts II and IV. A sense of drama was clearly evident, accomplished by measured, if in slightly slower tempi, build-up of layers upon layers of sonic goodness. The cello intermezzo in Act III was particularly devastating and melancholic. Towards the end, the orchestra came about in one voice, fully armed, committed as one, but never vulgar or drawing attention to itself. With this sort of fine casting and outstanding orchestral performance, no flaws in the production could dampen the spirit of the night.

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act II: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

Act IV: Kristīne Opolais as Manon Lescaut and Jonas Kaufmann as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut, The Royal Opera © ROH / Bill Cooper 2014

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