26 Jan 2015

Tristan und Isolde at the Wiener Staatsoper

David McVicar’s production of Wagner’s seminal music drama runs aground on the Cornish coast.

In 1862 the Imperial Hofoper orchestra in Vienna spent nearly 18 months and over 70 rehearsals trying to work out how to play the score of Tristan und Isolde before finally giving up and declaring the opera un-performable. Fortunately in the intervening years, what is arguably the finest opera orchestra in the world has overcome its initial trepidation and since 1883 under such great conductors as Gustav Mahler, Herbert von Karajan, Karl Böhm and Carlos Kleiber, the orchester der Wiener Staasoper has become almost the definitive interpreter of this extraordinary, ground-breaking, kaleidoscopic, indescribably complex and fathomless partitura.

Taking over from the ignominiously departed former Generalmusikdirektor Franz Welser-Möst, maestro Peter Schneider (who first conducted the opera in Vienna some 25 years ago and has been the regular Tristan dirigent in Bayreuth since 2008) is certainly no stranger to the score. Rather like other dependable Staatsoper routiniers of the past such as Horst Stein or Berislav Klobučar, there were generally no nasty surprises in tempo or tonal balance and the Vienna orchestra was able to display its prodigious skills to the utmost. Whilst the incandescent, almost manic passion of Bernstein or Kleiber is definitely not part of Schneider’s conducting persona, from the sublime cello ‘ blickmotiv’ at measure 18 in the Einleitung to themusically orgasmic soaring first-violin crescendo passages begining at Hellend, schallend during Isolde’s monumental Verklärung, the Vienna strings demonstrated their unique honey-toned quality which is justifiably legendary. The brass and wind sections were no less impressive and even the maudlin and slightly loopy cor anglais solo starting at measure 9 in Act III Sc. 1 was played with meticulous attention to the endless minutae of the score. It is hard to think of an operaticpartitura (especially one lasting more than 4 hours) which is so suffused with varying shades of crescendo-diminuendo/sff/spp markings , finelynuanced rubati and ceaseless subtle tempo changes and the Vienna orchestra seemed to strive to perfect each one in proving that their predecessors 160 years ago were wrong.

Albert Dohmen as King Mark and Gabriel Bermúdez as Melot.pngAlbert Dohmen as King Mark and Gabriel Bermúdez as Melot

Sadly perfection is not the word which springs to mind when considering David McVicar’s production which was first staged here in 2013 with Peter Seiffert and Nina Stemme in the titles roles. The stage design by Robert Jones got off to a good start with Tristan’s ship looking rather ominous and skeleton-like but also practical as it rotated on the stage to accomodate the small scene changes in Act I. A large moon which rises during the Einleitung changed colour according to shifts in the drama and created a suitably spooky atmosphere. Energetic choreography for sailors by Andrew George was also effective. But then things started to run aground. Isolde’s apartment in King Marke’s castle in Act II was hardly a Cornish Schloss Neuschwanstein. Wagner’s description of a garden with high trees (Garten mit hohen Bäumen) was replaced with a rather Spartan stepped-terrace dominated by an enormous phallic obelisk penetrating a wooden nest-cum-wicker doughnut. No prizes for guessing the symbolism here. There was so little direction in the immensely long duet in Act II Sc. 2 which ends with the rapturous Ohne Nennen, ohne Trennen, the performance could have been in concert version. Continuing the downhill slide, by Act III Tristan’s ancestral castle in Brittany was nothing more than a pile of rocks - quite a difference frommerely untended and overgrown (schadhaft und bewachsen)as stated in the libretto - and his bed of recuperation was a cross between a wooden deck-chair from Anything Goes and an uncomfortable chaise-longue with a crucifix-contoured back. Isolde’s ecstatic concluding Verklärung was sung to an empty stage (if one ignores the dead bodies of Tristan, Melot and Kurwenal laying around) despite her singing Seht ihr’s, Freunde at measure 5. At the end of the scena, instead of collapsing insensate over Tristan’s body as Wagner required and the union, even in death, of the two illicit lovers being graciously blessed by König Marke (Isolde sinkt, wie verklärt…sanft auf Tristans Leiche. Marke segnet die Leichen), Isolde just walks away - presumably to find more höchste Lust back in Ireland.

Of the singers, only the Tristan of reliable war-horse Peter Seiffert (his debut in Vienna was in 1984) remained from the original cast of two years ago. Herr Seiffert still has all the notes and the tortuous high tessitura of the role held no terrors whatsoever. His lengthy scena with Kurwenal in Act III Sc. 1 was powerfully sung with a true Heldentenorklang (especially the top ff Ab and A natural on Sehnsucht nicht) whilethe more lyrical mezzavoce passages in Dünkt dich das were elegantly phrased. Unfortunately there is something inescapably unconvincing about Kammersänger Seiffert’s extremely large stage appearance. There was none of the emotional intensity of Jon Vickers or the sheer sexiness of Peter Hofmann. Belonging more to the older ‘stand up and sing’ school, this interpretation was a long way from the all-conquering hero (dem Helden ohne Gleiche) and even further from the personification of Schopenhaurian Die Welt als Wille philosophy which had such a profound influence on Wagner in the conception of this tradition-shattering Handlung.

Following a long list of Swedish dramatic sopranos bringing distinction to the role of Isolde (eg. in Vienna alone Catarina Ligenza, Berit Lindholm and Nina Stemme — not to mention the incomparable Birgit Nilsson) Iréne Theorin had a lot of hard acts to follow. Having previously sung the role in Bayreuth in 2012 (again under Peter Schneider) and recently Brünnhilde (Götterdämmerung) at La Scala under Barenboim, Madame Theorin has impressive credentials. Prowling around the deck of Tristan’s ship in Act I like an exotic caged animal, she certainly looked convincing and her fury in Entartet Geschlecht…Zerschlag es dies trotzige Schiff was quite terrifying. At the outset there was a troubling wobble in the voice, especially in the middle register but as the opera progressed, a less woolly and better articulated sound prevailed. There were consistent problems with poor diction however which did not improve. This is a soprano who is also singing Venus in Vienna so her vocal range is formidable. The high B naturals on geb er es preis and mir lacht in Act I Sc. 3 had a true Nilsson-esque ping and the celebrated Mild und leise was as memorable for its restraint as the bravura top G sharps. The final pp F sharp on Lust was especially well taken.

Making her Staatsoper debut as Brangäne, Tanja Ariane Baumgarnter was under-voiced and dramatically far too passive for such a pivotal role. Considering this part has been performed in Vienna by such powerful singers as Ruth Hesse and Marjana Lipovšek (even Christa Ludwig), this was an unsatisfactory substitute for the production’s original Brangäne of Janina Baechle. König Marke was well sung by experienced bass (and regular Wotan) Albert Dohmen who looked like an Old Testament prophet in drag but showed exceptional dignity and real sadness when confronted with proof of Tristan’s treachery in Act II Sc. 3 (warum so sehrend, Unseliger, dort nun mich verwunden?) The smaller roles of Melot (young Spanish baritone Gabriel Bermúdez); Ein Hirt (Carlos Osuna); der Steuermann (Il Hong) and Stimme eines jungen Seemans (Jason Bridges) were all competently sung with some very credible acting from señor Bermúdez. The most impressive performance of the evening however came from Polish baritone Tomasz Konieczy as Kurwenal who seems to be making quite a career in Vienna, singing five roles in the 2014-15 season. Despite David McVicker’s odd direction of Kurwenal being drunk in Act I, he still managed to display an extremely impressive projection, a bright, forward placed warm timbre and a ringing top register (essential to the tessitura of the role) with an excellent stage presence. The extremities of range inDas sage sie in Act Iwere mastered with not only outstanding vocalization but delicious malice as he deliberately enflamed Isolde’s ire. His interaction with Tristan in Act III Sc. 1, especially at selig sollst gesunden was beautifully phrased, while the top F natural on Ehren Tristan mein Held had a real clarion quality. It would seem that Mariusz Kwiecień has a serious rival in the top Polish baritone stakes.

Apart from one brave booer, audience reaction to the performance was wildly enthusiastic. Epic Wagner evenings usually attract a different kind of opera goer and there was far less Prada and black-tie and much more parka and pullovers than is customary in this grandest of grand opera houses. An eclectic crowd ranging from incredibly serious Wagner-nerd types in the Stehplätzeto inscrutable Viennese in the loges mixed with a surprisingly large number of baffled, if not wretchedly bored-looking Asian tourists. Five hours of Wagner for any operatic neophyte is a big ask. It seems the Wiener Staatsoper has become just another 5-Star TripAdvisor attraction in the Austrian capital and ticket sales are over 99.6%. Whether a less discriminating audience is having an effect on the overall quality of performances is a contentious issue but certainly to maintain absolute excellence in a repertoire of 49 operas with 6 new productions over a 10 month period is an almost impossible task. Adequate rehearsal time, especially for revivals, is clearly a major logistical problem. Fortunately the orchester der Wiener Staasoper is more likely to rise to the occasion than many of the singers on the roster, even if it occasionally takes them 20 years to learn the score.

Jonathan Sutherland

Cast and production information:

Tristan: Peter Seiffert, König Marke: Albert Dohmen, Isolde: Iréne Theorin, Kurwenal: Tomasz Konieczy, Melot: Gabriel Bermúdez, Brangäne: Tanja Ariane Baumgarnter, Shepherd: Carlos Osuna, Steersman: Il Hon, Young sailor: Jason Bridges. Conductor: Peter Schneider, Director: David McVicar, Set Designer: Robert Jones, Lighting Designer: Paule Constable, Chorus Master: Martin Schebesta, Choreography: Andrew George. Wiener Staatsoper, 14th January 2015.