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.


Bayerische Staatsoper/Nagano: Götterdämmerung

Date: July 10 – 15, 2012 (second of two Cycles)
Conductor: Kent Nagano
Production: Andreas Kriegenburg
Location: Bavarian State Opera, Munich.

If an honest attempt was made to find stylistic unity in the first three evenings, Götterdämmerung most certainly rendered that endeavor impossible. If the sets and mimes of the first three evenings provided plenty of figurative conduits, the realism in Götterdämmerung almost served to repudiate them. Here, stage actors no longer mimed anything. They simply became costumed stage hands or Gibichung subjects who loitered aimlessly in the Gibichung Palace. These folks inhabited the same space as our Wagnerian characters, but served no specific story-telling purpose other than being merely ornamental.

In Götterdämmerung, everything was real, wherein the depiction of capitalism’s excesses and perhaps its crisis-inducing inevitability was realistically displayed – a primly-styled, multi-leveled glass-cladded building was the Gibichung’s abode and the source of all excesses. Multiple glass cases displaying agricultural products revealed that the enterprise was possibly a biotech powerhouse in the mold of Monsanto, suggesting that the Gibichung’s rise to power most certainly had to do with monopolizing and profiting from the sales of some of these agricultural products. The quest for Nibelung gold and power was proxied by the quest for capitalist glory. Hagen and Gunther were two relentless owners who took pleasure physically and sexually abusing their staff. Gutrune was the Lindsay Lohan-type who in her free time rode with orgasmic joy on a rocking wooden horse in the shape of the Euro sign, as if her entire existence rested upon deriving material pleasures from money. Kriegenburg offered no serious solutions to the real-world Euro problem (but then, in the real world, who does), only that whoever rode the Euro to its last breath would derive, as Gutrune would attest, the greatest pleasures from it.

The extrapolation of a Gibichung-as-modern-business idea had many stage contemporaries, though this one only had circumferential relation with the setup of the prologue, which seemed to foretell a nuclear disaster in waiting as the Norns spun the inevitable. It was unclear whether this nuclear disaster would eventually cause or exacerbate the Euro’s demise. The most controversial bit of stage direction was Gutrune’s omnipresence during Immolation. Anna Gabler’s Gutrune oozed with an afflicted desolation, though why she would be so distraught, over a malady that she neither owned nor should be responsible for, was unclear. On the scale of superfluous excesses, this Götterdämmerung reigned supreme. Three mechanical bridges spanning the entire width of the proscenium moved up and down, but were severely underutilized either as part of the storytelling or as a sensational dramatic apparatus. If it was not the mechanical equivalent of burning millions of bailout money on stage, it most certainly was a poorly thought-out effort to impress the Company’s patrons. Several “doormen” were deployed at the various doors at which the bridges would connect to the Gibichung building structure either side of the proscenium. If these fine actors did not add to the story-telling (other than being proxies for excess), and if the Bavarian state government workers safety department did not mandate the Company to hire these doormen for safety, why add to the cost of production?

One unexpected advantage of engaging shared Brünnhilde duties was that the Götter Brünnhilde could start singing Act 1 without the long mileage of the previous evenings (Iréne Theorin and Catherine Naglestad sang the other two). Nina Stemme did just that, simultaneously being zealous, savory and fresh in her duet with Stephen Gould’s Siegfried. Stephen Gould had moments of helden brilliance sandwiching the occasional squeals in the upper registers. The trio of Rhinemaidens continued to shine, while the Norn trios of Jill Grove, Jamie Barton and Irmgard Vilsmaier swung between inspiring excellence and mere adequacy. The Waltraute of Michaela Schuster was visually and vocally animated as well as a joy to listen to.

As I have said here and here, no Ring is a bad Ring unless the production severely impedes the music or the singers who attempt it. Kriegenburg’s vision does not strictly speaking violate this rule, but as the abundance of non-singing actors moved about on stage, thereby creating noise and oft unnecessary distraction, Kriegenburg came dangerously close to the breach line. A case in point: as the actors were fleeing the collapsing Gibichung Palace after Zuruck vom Ring, their footsteps created a symphony of bewailing cacophony, at precisely the singular moment in the Ring when the audience should be drawn entirely to the efforts in the orchestra pit. What makes this production not a particularly memorable one was not because the human body concept was not in itself memorable, but because the execution did not provide ample interesting imagery to make it worth recollecting. The actors’ gyrations as the Rhine waves and Fafner’s dragon were notable exceptions, but the bulk of the effort seemed petty. The many superfluous concoctions mentioned in the reviews were not by default a perversion of Wagner’s intent, though in this age of dwindling art funds, the return on their investment seemed abysmal. Götterdämmerung remains stylistically detached, while the stage constructs in Walküre – the moving view finder concept in particular – were not fully exploited in the other evenings. This production could have been an unmitigated disaster elsewhere, if not for the uniformly top-notch singers and musicians in Munich this summer who lifted it.