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S & H International Opera Review
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
, soloists, Nationaltheater Mannheim, March 14th, 2004 (SM)

Conductor: Adam Fischer
Director: Ulrich Schwab
Sets: Claus Bury
Costumes: Marie-Luise Strandt
Tristan: Richard Decker
King Mark: Tomasz Konieczny
Isolde: Kathleen Broderick
Kurwenal: Thomas de Vries
Melot: Peter Parsch
Brangaene: Gabriele May
A shepherd: Xavier Moreno
A steersman: Michael Nagy
Voice of a young sailor: Stanley Jackson

For Tristan und Isolde, Richard Wagner slashed through Gottfried von
Strassburg's sprawling 13th-century epic of love and chivalry in the Middle Ages, distilling nearly 20,000 lines of Middle High German verse into a three-act music drama with just five main characters.

At nearly five hours, the opera still can't really be called concise, but on one level, it nevertheless remains a "chamber play", tracing the tangled web of love and deceit between Tristan, Isolde, Brangaene, Kurwenal, King Mark and Melot, even if Wagner wouldn't be Wagner if he didn't impose a higher meaning on this bared-boned construct, this time the metaphysical pessimism of German 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.

One of the best and most striking aspects of Ulrich Schwab's new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Nationaltheater Mannheim is the simplicity of its pared-down staging. Designer Claus Bury, working for the stage for the very first time, gives us the skeleton of a ship's hull for the first act, which is then turned upside down to act as some sort of arbour for the lovers' night-time tryst in the second act; and finally turned on its end to be transformed into the tower of Kareol castle in the third. All very simple and elegant and -- bathed in Bonnie Beecher's evocative blue and black lighting -- visually satisfying.

Schwab, too, pares the stage action down to a minimum, with neither Tristan nor Isolde ever seeming to set a foot off the central construct, as if caught inextricably in the spider's web of their passion. Brangaene, King Mark and Kurwenal never stray far either, attracted like moths to the flame of their love for Isolde and Tristan respectively.

Schwab's telling of the story is almost old-fashioned in its straightforwardness. There's none of the gimmickry or excess that so often mars modern "Regietheater" productions of Wagner's operas in Germany. There are swords, a ship and a love potion. And in the first act, at least, the back-to-basics approach feels quite refreshing. The minimalism falls flat, however, in the second act, when Tristan and Isolde's lovemaking turns out to be wholly lacking in passion. In fact, Kathleen Broderick and Richard Decker never touch, repeatedly passing each other by without so much as a glance, before they sit down chastely side-by-side to sing "O sink hernieder Nacht der Liebe".

Similarly, the rude arrival of "spiteful day" when Melot and Mark ambush the lovers lacks any element of shock. And in the third act, by placing the commotion of the final arrival of Mark, Melot and Brangaene entirely offstage while Tristan lies dead and Isolde unconscious onstage, Schwab effectively leaves the audience high and dry for an uncomfortable stretch of time.

Musically, too, the production has its hits and misses. American tenor Richard Decker as Tristan was standing in for the Mannheim's own Stefan Vinke at the last minute. And while he started promisingly, agreeably warm-voiced in the lower register and with a pleasant gleam higher up, there was always a feeling his intonation was about to veer out of control. One hoped his lacklustre vocal performance in the second act was simply because he was saving himself for the final act. But by then he was clearly overtaxed, his tone thin, intonation wayward and his acting wooden.

Thomas de Vries as Kurwenal was also a stand-in, replacing Mannheim's Thomas Jesatko. He surprised with a strong, powerful baritone in the first two acts, but quickly overspent himself, developing an unpleasant rapid vibrato high up in the final act. Another in-house ensemble member, bass Tomasz Konieczny was a larmoyant King Mark, but lacked the real nobility needed for the part. Gabriele May was a rich-voiced Brangaene, even if she became a little stressed high up.

Vocally, it was Kathleen Broderick who stole the show, making her role debut as Isolde. So driven and powerful was she in the first act that one seriously feared for her vocal health during the rest of the evening. But by carefully husbanding her strength in Act II, when she demonstrated beautifully that she could also sing softly and gently, she was able to carry on gloriously right until the final notes of the Liebestod.

Musically, however, the evening really belonged to Mannheim's Generalmusikdirektor Adam Fischer, who has quite rightly earned his Wagnerian spurs by conducting Juergen Flimm's Ring at Bayreuth for the past three years. And the house orchestra excelled under his expert direction.

Simon Morgan






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