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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde
, Stuttgart State Opera, 18th July, 2004 (SM)

Conductor: Lothar Zagrosek
Director: Luk Perceval
Sets: Annette Kurz
Costumes: Ursula Renzenbrink
Tristan: Gabriel Sade
King Marke: Attila Jun
Isolde: Lisa Gasteen
Kurwenal: Wolfgang Schoene
Brangaene: Michaela Schuster
Shepherd: Roderic Keating
Steersman: Michael Nagy
A young sailor: Daniel Ohlmann

German opera is hitting the headlines this summer like never before. Shock Catalan director Calixto Bieito is pulling in the crowds at Berlin's Komische Oper with his sex-and-splatter version of Mozart's "Entfuehrung aus dem Serail". Bieito's reading, which turns the Seraglio into a whorehouse where pimps force prostitutes to drink piss, then slice off their nipples and cut their throats, even made it to the front page of the mass-circulation daily Bild, Germany's answer to the Sun.

And Christoph Schlingensief's media circus is currently working at full pelt to ensure that his new staging of "Parsifal" will be a showdown of one sort or another at this year's Bayreuth Festival. The self-styled enfant-terrible of German theatre is doling out interviews by the dozen to any high, middle or low-brow publication that will print him.

But down in Stuttgart, Belgian theatre auteur Luk Perceval is quietly proving that modern operatic stagings can be intellectually provocative and visually arresting without all the excess trappings of sado-masochistic sex, violence, nudity or different bodily secretions and/or excretions to shock and scandalise the audience and the tabloids. In fact, Perceval's staging at the Stuttgart State Opera could possibly be the best "Tristan" I've seen.

Perceval, actor, director and auteur, is a newcomer to music theatre. But his love of, and long experience with working with the spoken word, gives us a performance in which Wagner's own text -- quite literally -- takes centre stage. In his programme notes, Perceval complains that the words often get lost in opera. His solution is breathtakingly simple. He places the singers at the very front of the stage and allows them to face the audience directly when they sing.

He demands no exhausting, ungainly acrobatics to twist and cut off the column of air that a singer so vitally needs. And Perceval projects extracts of the text directly onto the minimal sets, clearly readible and accessible to the audience, who don't have to crick their nicks trying to catch surtitles.

Stuttgart isn't a huge theatre, anyway, so the chances that the words can be heard are greater than in other cavernous houses. But Perceval makes sure that almost every word is audible in this sparse, intellectually rigorous "Tristan", a paradigm of "Textverstaendlichkeit". (It was all the more ironic, then, that Lisa Gasteen's Isolde and Gabriel Sade's Tristan needed such audible prompting during the first two acts in the performance I saw.)

Annette Kurz's stripped-down sets only enhance our concentration. A gigantic cube dominates the right of the stage in Act I. A black wall stands centre stage in Act II, with the singers moving around behind and in front of it. And in Act III, the same wall is then lifted and tilted at angle to become a sky filled the stars. That's it. There's no ship, no magic potion, no Castle Kareol to distract us. Perceval believes that by refusing to place the action in any identifiable time, by refusing to provide any illustrative, or narrative clues, he won't detract from the authenticity of Wagner's music.

The costumes by Ursula Renzenbrink, are equally minimalistic -- timeless black for everyone except Brangaene (Michaela Schuster) in blood red and King Marke in linen beige. That's because Perceval views Brangaene and Marke as the more interesting characters in the plot. "They're the ones who move me most deeply, because they have to continue living and bearing the unbearable lightness of being. They can't sing out their deepest secrets in death arias," the director writes.

This zen-like treatment of one of Wagner's most zen-like operas certainly works, if you're prepared to let it. Musically, you have no choice anyway. Lothar Zagrosek's reading of the score is vital and alive, tripping almost lightly through the Vorspiel, to plunge us all the more deeply into the dark depths of Act III, with the Stuttgart orchestra in stunning form.

Lisa Gasteen was a whirlwind of an Isolde, every inch up to the taxing part, wild, passionate, and then vulnerable and delicate in turn. Gabriel Sade was an autumnally hued, almost baritonal Tristan, but he overspent himself in Act II, so that his voice cracked altogether in Act III. Atilla Jun's booming bass gave us an impressive, if rather rigid King Marke, while Wolfgang Schoene was a characterful Kurwenal. The star of the evening was Michaela Schuster's Brangaene, with her gloriously rich mezzo, so secure and rounded in tone. And she can act, too. More please.




Simon Morgan

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