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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

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