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Seen and Heard International Opera Review

 

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Zubin Mehta, 19.11.2005 (JPr)

 

 

The National Theatre, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper is definitely a thing of beauty – five circles, all faux-marble columns and Grecian friezes, Angels, reds, blues and ivory, a huge central chandelier, electric candles, chairs with perfect sightlines rather than ‘seats’. Spotlessly clean – camp, glorious and very un- Germanic! Yet it seemed so very much smaller than my only previous visit in 1980 – memory as we know plays funny tricks – that time also for Tristan in I guess what could have been the previous production to the current one. All I remember from that was a seemingly endless field of poppies that Tristan negotiated on his way to Isolde at the start of Act II.

Back in Munich on 19 November it was to see an exceptionally well cast Tristan und Isolde in Peter Konwitschny’s 1998 production under the distinguished baton of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Musical Director Zubin Mehta. The opera began with a lingering and emotionally charged Prelude and it was a highlight of Act I that the high spots were the moments of passion rather than the more conversational ones. What we see is a stage within a stage on stage – you know what I mean? There was a false proscenium and a red curtain that mimicked the red National Theatre one except for some abstract geometric shapes. A revolving blue cyclorama gives the impression of travel, as well as sea and sky. The rest is seemingly a white cartoon cut-out of a ship and Isolde and Brangäne are on the sun deck on yellow striped loungers. The Young Sailor is serving drinks. Isolde (Waltraud Meier) is in her bridal gown with poppies on her sleeves and Brangäne (Petra Lang) is in a fetching blue gown with turquoise bodice and has long blond tresses. Sets and costumes are by Johannes Leiacker. The programme compares the sketches of the current costumes with those of the first performance of this opera in Munich in 1865 and an obvious attempt has been made to embrace the richness and opulence of that clothing.

When Tristan (Christian Franz) first becomes involved the set moves sideways to reveal his cabin; here he is seen tidying himself up before he is interrupted by Brangäne. Kurwenal (Wolfgang Brendel) has the usual gamekeeper look of a faithful retainer. Brangäne is then pawed at by the crew leering in through the windows to the cabin before escaping back to Isolde. What is novel in this Act is the scene when atonement is drunk. It is revealed that Isolde cannot wait to have Tristan in her arms and quickly strips off her outer bridal gown before removing Tristan’s robe and breastplate. Tristan is up against Isolde on the railings for ‘Tristan’s Ehre’ well before the drink has been drunk. Tristan has been showing heroic resistance to Isolde’s advances but then confusion reigns – everyone has the wrong clothes, cannot get the right one on and cannot be kept apart without force on the part of Kurwenal and Brangäne. It is at these moments that Zubin Mehta’s interpretation is at its best – Christian Franz is a forceful but intelligent singer, equally matched by Petra Lang’s Brangäne – one day to be Isolde herself no doubt. In this Act it is Waltraud Meier who disappoints – whilst still pure operatic Viagra as a stage animal – the edge seems to have been lost from the top of her voice (of course I know she is really a mezzo) and this made her Act I a little less exciting for me than I remember her in the past. Of course it might just have been an off-night.

There was an eclipse of sorts at the end of Act I which then continues symbolically at the start of Act II. The setting is a primitive, almost childlike, depiction of tree trunks, canopy, sky and eclipsed moon. There is something of a ‘torch’ on the side of the stage that Isolde throws aside to extinguish the light for Tristan to arrive. As the lights go out the mass of spotlights on their gantry is lowered towards the stage representing, I think, stars.  Mehta’s passionate throbbing impulse to the entry ensured the opening of the Act and later the ‘Love Duet’ often scales the peaks of the required ecstasy. Tristan arrives bringing his own love couch with him – yellow and flower patterned – the ‘lovers’ make use of this on and off during the Act. Petra Lang is now on imperious form as Brangäne and sings an impassioned ‘Einsam wachend in der Nacht’ on stage as she lights six small candles to accompany the two that Tristan and Isolde held. As the couple’s passion reaches a climax Christian Franz still has his heart in it more than Waltraud Meier as his cloak and her bridal dress are removed and left symbolically on their settee and they both come out of the proscenium on the stage dressed in black to the stage apron at the front. A richly beige robed King Marke, his retinue and Melot in green Bavarian garb enter. The King clearly cannot understand why he has been betrayed and this is most movingly portrayed by Jan-Hendrik Rootering who ends up a broken man clutching the hands of Tristan and Isolde to be returned to couch to sit impassively for the remainder of the Act. Tristan is torn between his love of Isolde and his duty to the King he has wronged. Realising the sacrifice he must make he impales himself on Melot’s dagger.

This conclusion to Act II was as moving as I can ever remember mainly because of Christian Franz’s tireless, clarion-like (yet surprisingly sensitive at times) Tristan and the generally fine dramatic ensemble (whether singing or just reacting) all underpinned by that expressive conducting of Mehta as well as the excellent playing (even the horns were all power yet delicate as well) of the Bayerische Staatsorchester.

Act III surprised me as I expected to find Tristan reclining on that same chaise longue from Act II. But no, in fact what we had was Tristan’s room at a sanatorium where he is ‘recovering’ from wounds, both mental and physical. Random images are projected as intermittent slides on one wall, there is a light, a radiator beneath a window, and a chair and a door. Tristan’s rants are treated as just the ravings of a mind in disarray and Christian Franz, splendid enough already, comes into his own ably supported by a more youthful and eloquently sung than usual Kurwenal of Wolfgang Brendel. The breastplate is still there as it has been with Tristan throughout and shaving seems to as important to him as in Act I, here he tries to make himself presentable for Isolde’s arrival whether imaginary or real. What is still noticeable is how much the tenor still needs a drink to get through this Act and there were shades again of these similar antics in his recent concert Tristan at the Edinburgh Festival I reviewed for this website. Incorporated into the production to illustrate ‘der furchtbarer Trank’ he was actually just lubricating his throat.

Most effective was the ‘performance’ of ‘Die alte Wiese’ Tristan’s cor anglais tune by two players on the front apron of the stage. Kurwenal carries Isolde in as Tristan expires from his delirium. From this point on Waltraud Meier’s Isolde can begin to be forgiven for pacing herself earlier as from her entry in Act III she is magnificent and so moving in both her acting and singing as she dies from a broken heart. Before Tristan and Isolde unite in spirit, Melot, Marke and his entourage batter their way into the room to meet resistance from Kurwenal and his men – there is a wholesale slaughter and bodies litter the stage for the King’s very sad ‘Todt denn Alles!’ Brangäne forces her way in through the window and her confession confirms Petra Lang as possibly more than just a Brangäne.

Tristan resurrects and removes Isolde’s gown and in black both stand before the false proscenium as the second curtain closes on Marke and Brangäne. Meier’s Liebestod is committed, experienced and every word in every phrase nuanced to wring maximum emotion from the music. This just about sums up the whole evening in the company of this exceptional cast, orchestra and conductor. It was totally unsubtle in its subtleties but none the worst for that. Only then did the producer have a brainstorm as he pandered to those in the corporate seats in the National Theatre in Munich (yes they have them there as well) as in a final tableaux the curtains open to show King Marke and Brangäne in mourning beside two coffins. Only those who were overheard reading each other the libretto before each Act began may have been among those who did not realise Tristan and Isolde were both dead and by this point only the most hard-hearted would not already have had a tear in their eye. As the proper curtain finally closed the silence was deafening until the audience stabilised their wrought emotions and gave all those involved in this performance the prolonged ovation that was still going on as I made my way out after several minutes into the chilly Munich air.

2005 is the 25th anniversary of my first Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden with Berit Lindholm and Jon Vickers (who I never ever warmed to) … the conductor then as for this unmissable event was Zubin Mehta. Fog at Stansted and snow in Munich had been overcome and this Wagner will stay in my memory for at least another 25 years if I am spared.

 

 

© Jim Pritchard

 

 

 

 

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