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Ian Storey as Tristan and Jayne Casselman as Isolde [Photo by Patrizia Lanna courtesy of Teatro Carlo Felice]
15 May 2010

Tristan und Isolde in Genoa

Tristan has been a fairly frequent visitor in Genoa over the past sixty years (post WW II). Tullio Serafin conducted the Isolde of Maria Callas there in 1948.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Ian Storey; König Marke: Frode Olsen (Apr. 13, 16, 18) / Andrzej Saciuk (Apr. 28, 30 0; Isolde: Jayne Casselman (Apr. 13, 16, 18 ) / Elaine McKrill (Apr. 28, 30); Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Roberto Accurso; Brangäne: Hermine May (Apr. 18) / Monika Waeckerle (Apr. 28); A sailor: Antonio Poli; A steersman: Alessandro Battiato. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Gianluigi Gelmetti. Stage Director: Gianluigi Gelmetti. Set Design: Maurizio Balò. Assistant Director: Eleonora Paterniti. Moviment: Daniela Biava. Lighting: Luciano Novelli.

Above: Ian Storey as Tristan and Jayne Casselman as Isolde

All photos by Patrizia Lanna courtesy of Teatro Carlo Felice


But not in La Superba’s famed old, bombed out Teatro Carlo Felice but in its post-war movie palace turned verismo temple, the famed Teatro Grattacielo. Since then Wagner’s love story has found its way into the Genovese repertory once each decade (except the ‘70‘s) and always in the hands of Viennese schooled conductors.

Until now, and barely in time for its once in-a-decade appearance, Genoa’s latest Tristan und Isolde is back in the hands of an Italian maestro, Gianluca Gelmetti, and back in the now bizarre post-modern decor of the reconstructed Carlo Felice.

Maestro Gelmetti’s Tristan (April 18) elevated Wagnerian music drama to pure melodramma, amplifying Wagner’s subtle, insidious musical continuum into a powerful voice that roared and whispered, grunted and snorted and joyously sang out this tale of love. The Wagnerian complexities were turned into pure emotional punch, bringing us forever to the edge, never of resolution but always of explosion. And like in real verismo there was a sudden, earth shattering blow, and release — the death of Tristan!

For this Italian maestro the northern shores of Cornwall (Cornovaglia in the supertitles) and the hull a Nordic ship were Tristan’s Isle of Circe where love seduces and ultimately destroys men. The maestro’s third act English horn (prominently seated just out of sight on the side of the stage apron) urgently sang out the Siren’s call, and a young boy stirred in the early morning light already magically drawn to her call. In the midst of Tristan’s delirium a Siren (a beautiful young woman in a white art nouveau gown) materialized in the upstage darkness, mimicking the now outrightly delirious English horn, bringing Tristan to climax and death. At Tristan’s release was the sudden coup de theatre — muscular, semi-nude young men materialized in the surreal shadow of the upstage black miming battle, the primal male force sacrificed to love by Tristan!

Fantastic music, fantastic theater and yes, great opera.

And yes, you have probably got it by now, this Tristan was staged by the maestro himself. But if ever a Tristan, Welsh tenor Ian Storey, and an Isolde, American soprano Jayne Casselmann, needed a stage director these were they. Neither artist, and they indeed are, are innate actors, or intuitive comedians. Left to their own devices neither could embody a Wagnerian hero (were Tristan’s hands actually in his pockets during the first act love delirium?), but they could sing.

Mme. Casselmann and Mr. Storey offered a gorgeously sung second act love duet, standing side by side downstage facing the maestro (actually holding hands), Wagner’s music fortunately dissolved into a vision in the black void beyond the stage of a semi-nude young male and female in rapturous embraces. Well it was glorious until Isolde was required to move above the staff, perhaps a domain once well within Mme. Casselmann’s reach but no longer.

Mr. Storey possesses a youthful voice of great strength and beauty that he used with considerable artistry throughout this daunting tenorial escapade. In this Tristan the third act delirium was more than contemplation or exposition of pain — it was at times chilling emotional outburst. And finally the maestro gave his soprano the unique opportunity of delivering the Liebestod not as a prayer but as a grand lament! Alas Mme. Casselmann does not have the means to exploit the Wagnerian line or the Gelmetti passion.

I[1]-1.Storey,-J.gifIan Storey as Tristan and Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal

The scenery and costumes came from the 1998 Carlo Felice production designed by Maurizio Balò. The primary image was the huge curving timbers of a timeless ship, the upper portions of which disappeared to create the second act garden and the horizon of the third act. The imposing celestial adornments of the 1998 production were left in the warehouse thereby exposing a heavenly void that would so effectively host Mo. Gelmetti’s apparitions.

The extreme cross-stage curve of the ship hull forced the always-forward-facing singers to stand with one foot higher than the other often resulting in distorted, crippled postures — an example of the hazards of recycling productions. As well this extreme curve forced a very restricted playing area down stage center, well serving the musical values of the production (singers’ gazes could only be directed onto Mo. Gelmetti) but limiting its dramatic perspectives.

Norwegian bass Frode Olsen rose to the occasion to make King Mark’s soliloquies far more passionate than eloquent. Romanian mezzo-soprano Hermine May was the most stage worthy of the afternoon’s artists in a beautifully drawn and sung Brangâne, eloquently proclaiming her guilt in creating this tragedy for which Mo. Gelmetti stopped just short of having Kurvenal, the rough voiced bass-baritone Finn Jukka Rasilainen, slit her throat. Italian tenor Roberto Accurso was the Melot, and more than any other of the artists suffered from poor costuming and lack of direction.

Conductor Gianluca Gelmetti delivered a unique reading of Wagner’s magnificent score that cried out for a production of equivalent daring. So let’s be daring — if we must recycle productions why not impose Pesaro’s super brilliant, critically reviled Zelmira of last summer onto the Gelmetti Tristan? Italian dramaturg and stage director Georgio Barberio Corsetti used a meshed floor, a sand covered under-stage, video projection and a giant mirror to move amongst real and irreale worlds, and confuse the confines between the pit and the stage. And Mr. Corsetti is a man of the theater who would have known how to stage those three incisive, shattering intrusions of King Mark into the psyches of Tristan and Isolde. One can dream.

ADDENDUM: April 28 performance

For some unpublicized reason Carlo Felice scheduled an hiatus of ten days after the third of its five Tristan performances. For the reprise on April 28 much of the cast had changed, most notably the Isolde, now English soprano Elaine McKrill. Mme. McKrill, a veteran of smaller roles in prestige Ring productions, is an accomplished and experienced artist who arrived in Genoa vocally and dramatically well prepared, and definitely rearing to give a fine performance. That she did.

While not a youngster Mme. McKrill is a youthful Isolde, her wiles more innocent than knowing, her musicality more urgent than considered. Thus she gave Mo. Gelmetti an Isolde more human than mythical — she was not the sorceress that Mo. Gelmetti might imagine if Wagner’s opera were only the Tristan tragedy. Mme. McKrill’s Liebestod was understood as a hymn to femininity, her tragedy felt as the impossibility of attaining the paramount feminine ideal. Both heroes of this Tristan were victims of love, Isolde learned that love was but a myth, Tristan understood that to love he would sacrifice his life.

Conductor Gelmetti again exploited the hair-trigger responsiveness of the Carlo Felice orchestra to give this Tristan an urgency that could only end in tragedy. But unlike most Tristans this Tristan was a deeply human experience and not just a grandiose celebration of Romantic love. The triumph of this production was its language, and that language was purely musical. Mo. Gelmetti’s means were a full-throated Italian orchestra as motor of this shattering tragedy, and in this performance a Tristan and Isolde who could voice its deeper meanings.

The scheduled tenor for this performance was replaced inexplicably by Ian Storey. The Kurwenal was again baritone Jukka Rasilainen. Mr. Rasilainen made an unobtrusive Kurwenal who structured perfectly the third act Tristan delirium without adding personal dimension. It was a superb and appreciated supportive performance. The balance of the cast seemed unconnected to the production. The Melot was an unforgivable black hole.

Michael Milenski

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