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Seen and Heard International Opera Review


WAGNER, Tristan und Isolde: Vienna State Opera, Vienna, 21.4.2006 (JPr)

Conductor: Peter Schneider
Director: Günter Krämer
Sets: Gisbert Jäkel
Costumes: Falk Bauer
Chorus director: Ernst Dunshirn


Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
König Marke: Matti Salminen
Isolde: Deborah Polaski
Kurwenal: Peter Weber
Melot: Clemens Unterreiner
Brangäne: Daniela Denschlag
Shepherd: Peter Jelosits

The Austrian conductor Peter Schneider has had a career in music extending from his time as a member of the Vienna Boys Choir. Despite a spell as music director in Munich he is the type of consistent journeyman conductor always, and often, relied upon to fill in for the absence of a more stellar colleague in opera houses from Bayreuth to The Met. This is not meant as a criticism and here in his home town he is highly respected having accreted a wealth of knowledge at the Staatsoper since first conducting there in 1984. Having replaced Donald Runnicles for Parsifal here, in his own right, he picked up the baton for Tristan und Isolde and conducted an expressive performance, languid, eloquent and dramatic by turns.

Act I opens and we are on an ocean liner (sets by Gisbert Jäkel), not of the Hollywood Titanic variety but in the spare designs of EuroWagnerland with chairs and a table. To stage right, and at the back, it hints at the pump room. The stage is divided vertically and a screen rises to reveal Kurwenal and Tristan presumably on the deck above. Kurwenal climbs down a ladder to Isolde. Brangäne seems much more servile than she is often portrayed. Her best moment comes in her desire to knock over Isolde’s death-inducing drink so that she can share the love potion instead with Tristan.


The period it is set in is unclear, possibly early twentieth century but definitely post-industrial revolution. This seems clear from the costumes (by Falk Bauer) of Isolde’s bonneted maidservant Brangäne, the faithful retainer Kurwenal and Tristan himself. It is a case in point about these revivals, with a number of performance and different casts during a Vienna season, that Tristan in his rather formal looking naval overcoat is dressed totally differently from Thomas Moser in the pictures of the 2003 premiere. This was now the 21st performance of this production and even Isolde seemed ‘glammed-up’ compared to those early photos.

At the start of Act II the suit of armour is alight centre-stage. There is red, violet and blue light as Brangäne cautions about Melot’s duplicity ‘vor Melot seid gewarnt’ (of Melot now beware) and Isolde now with red pashmina is seen being escorted by him around the stage. For the Love Duet a scrim descends and cardboard cut-out trees rise from below stage and they sing as if in a red mist. This is essentially a rather static event but the side-by-side lovers replace physical fervour with the vocal kind. We know (or we should) that in their mood of self-absorption they will fail to heed Brangäne’s warning (‘Einsam wachend’) and at Kurwenal’s ‘Rette dich, Tristan’ (Save yourself, Tristan) a crack of light appears at the back of the stage as King Marke and his retinue enter. Tristan does his duty and falls on his own sword brandished by Melot.

For Act III I was not certain where we were supposed to be. Diagonally across the stage are cross beams and with all the visible railings we could still have been on board a ship for all three acts, as in the current Bayreuth production. Tristan is at the front sitting at a table clutching the red shawl. The shepherd is staring out of one of the gaping windows at the back of the stage. For the confrontation of Kurwenal and Melot’s men, and Marke and Brangäne’s entrances, the singers were often visible only from the waist up. Isolde enters and seems almost oblivious to Tristan (now sitting in a chair with his back to the audience) as she comes to the footlights for the Liebestod. As usual the audience is left wondering whether she ever arrives at all. Significantly, a drop curtain had come down briefly after Tristan fell to the stage before ‘he’ (or a sit in?) was revealed in the chair.

For this performance this Austrian (yet fairly cosmopolitan) audience were hearing the Vienna State Opera Orchestra conducted by their own Peter Schneider (the current Bayreuth Tristan conductor) with two Americans in the leading roles. Indeed, the centre of gravity for potential Wagner singing talent seems to have shifted significantly westwards across the Atlantic. Robert Dean Smith, the current Bayreuth Tristan, was making his role debut in Vienna. He has a fairly meek stage persona and his Tristan is occasionally indistinguishable from his Lohengrin, Siegmund or Walther I have heard elsewhere. He is not one to push his voice more than necessary and this will hopefully signal a long career in these heavier Wagner roles for this essentially lyric tenor with his Italianate timbre and likeable personality. His final cry of ‘Isolde!’ was heartachingly poignant. More importantly, it sounds effortless.

Again, this was an excellent ensemble performance with the minor roles competently sung. Brangäne was well sung by the up-and-coming young German mezzo Daniela Denschlag. I prefer this part portrayed more feistily, as almost Isolde’s equal. The converse was that Peter Weber’s Kurwenal was younger and more virile than usually is the case. Matti Salminen returned after his Gurnemanz to reproduce his peerless and very human(e) King Marke.

Last – but definitely not least – I come to Deborah Polaski’s superb Isolde. She looked stunning and was vocally secure throughout the range; she may not have risked singing all her top notes – but why should she? There was a genuine, classy refinement to her performance that only comes from experience. Ms Polaski is a consummate artist and I read recently in a review from Berlin this Easter - where she sung the same role (stepping in to save the performance) - that she sang ‘from her soul’. That she certainly does and I cannot express her performance better. There was never an ugly sound and of how many of today’s dramatic sopranos can you say that?

Jim Pritchard

Picture ©Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Axel Zeininger



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