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.


Paris Opera/Jordan: Tristan und Isolde

Date: April 8, 2014
Location: Opéra Bastille, Paris.

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Violeta Urmana
Sailor’s Voice: Pavol Breslik
Brangäne: Janina Baechle
Kurwenal: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Melot: Raimund Nolte
King Marke: Franz-Josef Selig
Shepherd: Pavol Breslik
Steerman: Piotr Kumon

Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan, conductor
Peter Sellars, production

This Peter Sellars production, famous for its minimalist direction and extensive use of video projections, premiered in 2005 at the Opera under Gerard Mortier, then general director of the Opera. A champion of bold new works, Mortier exemplified a new generation of art administrators who sought to bring classical opera up-to-date with the times, whether in its embrace of new technology or adoption of multimedia as a narrative or coloring device. It was thus appropriate that, before the first note was played, the Opera allowed a minute of silence to pay tribute to Mortier, who passed away exactly a month ago.

This production does not please everyone but, perhaps by brutal force of visual identity, makes staunch impressions. Projected on a scrim at the back of the stage, Bill Viola’s video imagery materialized repetitively and at a slow pace. In Act I, during the scene retelling Tristan’s history and Morold’s fate, video projections showed two actors, in two tiles of slow motion video, doing a variety of mundane activities: undressing themselves, washing hands, and head-dipping into a basin of water. Taken alone, the video subjects could not look more prosaic – perhaps intently – so as to avoid taking unnecessary attention away from the main stage. It soon became clear that the mundane repetitions were ritualistic, perhaps alluding to the formality of paraphrasing the Cornwallian history before Tristan and Isolde could find each other’s love. By juxtaposing daily routine tasks closely with the later Acts’ metaphysical exploration of love and death, the video also seemed to serve as a contrasting harbinger of what was to come.

Peter Sellars’ stage was simple but efficacious: a dark box in the middle of the stage was used to signify the ship with which Tristan brought Isolde to King Marke. That same dark box doubled as Tristan’s death bed. In the beginning of Act II, Tristan and Isolde each stood inside a square of white lights beamed down from above. The light over Tristan would soon extinguish, and he would walk towards Isolde. Choreographed to perfection, Tristan would step into Isolde’s square just as the music leading to their monumental duet, “So Sterben wir”, began. Sellars’ directorial treatment here was exemplary: simple stage movements looked elegant, drove tension and focus towards the subject, and placed emphasis squarely at, no pun intended, the center of the vocal storyline.

To be sure, neither Robert Dean Smith nor Violeta Urmana could be labeled as gifted stage actors. With Sellars’ minimalist designs and direction, they often looked aimless and physically out of place. But that was not to say they had no stage presence, which they were able to muster through the force of their dramatic voice. After all, good Tristan und Isolde calls for tonal color and exceptional endurance, and here the duo offered a whole lot, and then some. Urmana’s upper notes emerged with care and clarity, while her middle registers, of which there were plenty in Isolde, shimmered with supple richness and intensity. Her “Als für ein fremdes Land” was, like a tamed horse cantering in free pastures, absolutely joyful to listen to. Her Liebestod was heart-achingly moving. One may not find a scintillating spectacle in Smith’s voice, but he sang with refined subtlety and seasoned restraint. Crucially, Smith paced himself well enough that his physical output was, like a piece of well-oiled machinery, consistent and elegant throughout, without sounding tired or labored deep into Act III. Jochen Schmeckenbecher, as Kurwenal, sang fearlessly. Franz-Josef Selig, as Marke, sang with a force of destiny. Piotr Kumon, as Steerman, belted jubilantly from one of the upper-level boxes, while choruses in Act I filled the house with resolute, almost ecclesiastical power just as the lights in the hall slowly illuminated, only to turn off simultaneously at the last note of the Act. If Wagnerian music is meant to build towards consummate moment of epic proportions, this instance is certainly it.

Under Philippe Jordan, ensembleship with fine legato phrasings took precedence over mastery of individual lines. The Opera’s orchestra sounded mellow, and mellower than one would typically find in a German orchestra. Nothing really stood out with a dazzle, but the entirety spoke as a coherent whole well worthy of Wagner.

Tristan und Isolde, at Paris Opera. Photo credit: Paris Opera.