Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

First Night of the BBC Proms : Elgar The Kingdom

The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.

Le nozze di Figaro, Munich

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.

James Gilchrist at Wigmore Hall

Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.

Music for a While: Improvisations on Henry Purcell

‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.

Nabucco at Orange

The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.

Richard Strauss: Notturno

Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.

Saint Louis: A Hit is a Hit is a Hit

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.

La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte)
at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

Lucy Crowe, Wigmore Hall

The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.

The Turn of the Screw, Holland Park

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.

Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford

It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?

La finta giardiniera, Glyndebourne

‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’

Sophie Karthäuser, Wigmore Hall

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera

‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.

Leoš Janáček : The Cunning Little Vixen, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.

La Traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

Luca Francesconi : Quartett, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.

Puccini Manon Lescaut, Royal Opera House, London

Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
22 Sep 2006

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

I should probably preface my reaction to this release by confessing to the heretical belief, at least from a Wagnerian perspective, that Tristan und Isolde is not really a stageworthy opera.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

John Treleaven, Deborah Polaski, Erik Halfvarson, Falk Struckmann, Lioba Braun, Wolfgang Rauch, Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Bertrand de Billy (cond.), Alfred Kirchner (stage dir.).

Opus Arte OA 0935 D [3DVDs]

$44.99  Click to buy

Of course it’s wonderful to hear it performed live (if performed at all well). But I have yet to be persuaded that the work really benefits much from a dramatic staging, or at least, I have yet to see a really convincing staging. The recent semi-staged, semi-concert production directed by Peter Sellars with video installations by Bill Viola seen in Los Angeles, Paris, and elsewhere seems like maybe the best compromise with the unreasonable dramatic demands of the piece, if not a perfect solution in every respect. The opera should also be susceptible to the hyper-stylized slow-motion idiom of Robert Wilson. But in most respects it simply defies anything like naturalistic acting, and most sets –– whether traditionally representational, modernly abstract, or postmodernly deconstructive –– end up feeling oppressively inert in the face of the passionate, internalized musical-psychological “inaction” of the drama. So much is happening in the music, even in the text (after a fashion), but how to show it?

All the same, one can do better by Tristan on stage than this Barcelona production directed by Alfred Kirchner with sets by Annette Murschetz (first staged in Holland by De Nederlanse Opera). Three of the performances are top-flight: Deborah Polaski’s Isolde, Falk Struckmann’s Kurwenal, and Erik Halfvarson’s King Mark. Lioba Braun is also a vocally well-equipped and dramatically engaged as Brangäne, whereas John Treleavan struggles in both regards –– a noble struggle, but a struggle all the same. Conductor Betrand de Billy coaxes a more than creditable performance from the orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, forceful and nuanced in all the right places, and displays sensitivity to the vocalists in terms of balance and dramatic gesture. But a better than average, even good, performance with well engineered sound does not necessarily constitute a selling point for DVD format (granted, I was not able to sample the DTS surround-sound audio option).

I look forward to the day when opera directors will finally get over the idea that dingy modern-industrial spaces lend a special new relevance to “stuffy old” operas. This time Isolde has more than usual reason to sulk and fume in Act 1, having been confined to a prison-like berth somewhere in the hold of a hulking freighter. It does convey well enough a sense of her helpless, indeed immobilized condition as a captive on the ship that bears her to Cornwall, and the glimpses of the ocean surface occasionally projected above and behind this space offer an appropriate foil. At the moment Tristan and Isolde imbibe the love/death potion several blackbirds are seen, in silhouetted profile, winging their way over the waves. Not only a welcome contrast to the dismal, static quality of most of the act, it is also a nicely poetic touch, suggesting the freedom both characters believe to have won in death, and at the same time the baleful quality of the love that has suddenly been released.

Such freedom is exchanged for a peculiar enclosure (contrary to Wagner’s notion of a deep, enveloping night) in Act 2. Isolde awaits Tristan inside a dark, deconstructed shed of some sort, looking through a door to the outside. A large steel ladder leads up to Brangäne’s lookout, and at the front of the stage there sits (vaguely Walküre-like) an overturned tree with burning branches and a large rectangular slab of sod, or Astroturf. The fallen tree (shades also of the Ring’s “world ash-tree”?) with its several gas-jets, in place of the signal-torch, is merely a distraction throughout the opening scene. (Why is it there? Why is it sideways? How do the branches burn if the tree is otherwise living? How will Isolde put out the fires? – Quite effortlessly, in the event.) Part way through the lyric apotheosis of “Sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe” the upper reaches of this dark room do yield to a starry night sky –– indeed rather like the effect of Hunding’s hut opening up to the spring night for the love-duet of Siegmund and Sieglinde –– and the front stage lights dim to a silvery blue. One wishes that lighting designer Jean Kalman had made better use of the opportunities for dramatic and symbolic lighting effects in Tristan, one of the few areas in which it is theatrically generous. Still, this central scene is the one of the most effectively realized episodes, as Tristan and Isolde lie blissfully suspended below the stars on their slice of Astroturf. Vocally it is a different matter, since Treleaven has some truly awful moments (pretty much any time he sustains a note in the top fifth of his range). As if truly remorseful, he partially redeems himself in the following scene when expressing his sorrow to King Marke in some phrases of genuinely beautiful pianissimo, full of melancholy pathos and delicacy (for example, at “das kannst du nie erfahren”).

Act 3 is set in an empty observation tower with low ceiling and expressionistic angles, sparely and effectively enough conceived. (When the camera looks through the long vertical apertures facing out to the left, however, the lighting scheme becomes confused: is it light or dark out there? Otherwise Toni Bargallò’s camera work is thoughtful, varied, and well paced.) This act offers a welcome chance to hear Struckmann, as Kurwenal, in a more lyrical, expressive mode, in contrast to the bluff heartiness of the part in Act 1. Treleaven fares somewhat better as the stressed, delirious Tristan of Act 3 than as the ecstatic lover of Act 2. Both the young tenor shepherd and his English horn are capably performed, and unlike Brangäne’s watch-song in Act 2, the shepherd’s “pipe” is placed close enough to the stage (or microphones?) that we can appreciate the sound. On the whole, like Tristan, we spend most of this Act waiting for Isolde to arrive so that Tristan can die and she can sing her Liebestod. The actual moment of Tristan’s death is nicely realized, as he reaches out to Isolde, standing in the windowsill, but passes by her and sinks to his knees, overcome by a strange terminal ecstasy. (De Billy paces the episode beautifully, as well). Polaski delivers a splendid Liebestod, and what’s more, she knows how to “act” Wagner’s stylized poetic rhetoric with appropriate movements and facial expressions. Kalman’s simple lighting of this last sequence, gradually spotlighting her head and hands before fading to dark purple shadows, is another visual high point in a mostly lackluster staging.

The major assets of this production, then, are Polaski and Struckmann, as well as a fine performance by the Liceu orchestra under De Billy. Erik Halfvarson has a deep and sonorous bass adequate to Marke’s role, but I found his diction somewhat wooly. The singers are costumed in more or less shapeless robes or long jackets which once and a while seem to hamper their movements. Among recent versions available on DVD, the Bayreische Staatsoper performance (1999) of Peter Konwitschny’s production offers a somewhat better matched leading pair (Jon Frederic West and Waltraud Meier), though only Meier’s Isolde and Kurt Moll’s King Marke offer significant competition. Konwitschny direction is more imaginative, even somewhat jokey in the first act, though his final act resembles Kirchner’s in a number of details. If the Sellars/Viola video-concert staging were to come out on DVD with a suitable cast (like Christine Brewer, who sang Isolde in Los Angeles), that would by my first choice among newer productions.

Thomas S. Grey
Stanford University

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):