Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Wiener Staatsoper, 2015 - Webcast)

Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Wiener Staatsoper, 2015

Peter Schneider, David McVicar, Iréne Theorin, Peter Seiffert, Albert Dohmen, Tomasz Konieczny, Petra Lang, Gabriel Bermúdez, Carlos Osuna, Il Hong, Jason Bridges

Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 18 January 2015

If due attention is paid to the music itself, Tristan und Isolde is a work that can withstand just about any kind of stage production. Even in the case of a particularly outlandish concept - Marthaler's Bayreuth production being one of the strangest I've seen, but Bill Viola's is also unique - the nature of Wagner's music and its thematic core cannot be steered off its course. There's not a whole lot of room for re-interpretation here, but it still needs performers of considerable ability to get across the full impact of a work that was once deemed impossible to play. Musically and in terms of stage direction, the Vienna State Opera's revival of David McVicar's production, plays it closely by the book, giving full consideration to the actual beauty of the composition as an expression of its themes.

Primarily, I find with David McVicar that mood is the most important consideration. He always strives to establish that right from the outset, even if that means straying a little from the period or tradition. That's of vital importance in a work like Tristan und Isolde. Without adding unnecessary layers or jarring anachronisms, McVicar's production of Tristan und Isolde is fairly simple, stripped back and notionally representational, but it recognises the use and the strength of symbolism in the work and finds a way to convey that according to the libretto, the stage directions and the music itself.

Act I is fairly straightforward, the journey clearly on a ship and at sea, even if the ship is skeletal and of a reduced size for a crossing of the Irish Sea. There would appear to be some contradiction between the silver moonlit scene and the blood red moon, but that's not inappropriate in a work that lies well outside the laws of nature and where symbolism is prevalent. The moon with its gravitational forces as a symbol of passion of the flame of love that burns brightly between Tristan and Isolde, is clearly indicated by the ebb and flow of their encounters and their transcendence interruptus, the fire almost extinguishing at Tristan's lowest moment during the false sighting of Isolde's ship on Kareol. It inevitably burns brightest, glowing red, expanding to almost fill the sky, during the Liebestod.

Elsewhere, the predominant mood established by the production is that of darkness, Night being the other expression of the inverted nature of Tristan and Isolde's forbidden love, forbidden in that its fire is too all-consuming. Their love calls out for darkness, for the extinguishing of the day, for the extinguishing of life even. All three acts take place in near-darkness, lit only by the moon and by fires. It's Act II, where Tristan and Isolde attempt to express the nature of their condition and find that the meaning of words is unable to encompass the contradictory nature of that love, that McVicar turns a little more to abstraction, with a pointed tower on a stage of broken steps, crowned by a weaved circle of thorned wire. Whether you read religious significance into this, spirituality or transcendence, it at least represents the beauty and the terrible nature of their forbidden journey.

The simple abstractions and colours of the stage production reflect the majestic beauty and mystery of the score itself. Peter Schneider's handling of the score and direction of the orchestra could hardly be faulted. It was a rousing performance, measured and stirring, finding and presenting the extraordinary romantic surges in the score, holding back and letting the music assert its own power. Occasionally it's a little too cautious, the beginning of the Liebestod for example slowed down to let Irène Theorin take a gradual build-up that doesn't explode into soaring rapture as much as rest on soft and sweetly acceptance. It matches McVicar's directions for this scene, which has the moon swell and fall below the horizon, the rest of the world vanishing as Isolde calmly exits the stage without succumbing/transcending herself in the traditional manner. While he makes a mark there, and in Tristan pulling himself onto Melot's sword, elsewhere the stage directions are very closely followed.

The ideals that Isolde and Tristan represent are almost impossible to embody in flesh-and-blood singers. One of the greatest Isoldes of recent times is the incomparable Waltraud Meier, but since her retirement from that role Irène Theorin is one of only a few serious contenders, and she made a good case for Isolde here in Vienna. It's a stronger or perhaps more controlled performance than the previous Bayreuth one I've seen. Naturalism is not a consideration here, Isolde swinging between being alternately enraged and quickly composed, and Theorin glides between the ebb and flow of these two states with ease, vocally as well as dramatically. It's perhaps not as enraptured and soaring an Isolde as one might like, but that's fitted to the tone of the production here, and having seen her Elektra, she could well be capable of taking the passions in this role to other places.

Peter Seiffert is, alongside Robert Dean Smith, in demand as a Tristan when singers with the capability to sing such a role are thin on the ground in any generation. Neither of those heldentenors is perfect, but the ideal is close to impossible in any case. There are a few slight wobbles from Seiffert, much as when I saw him sing the role in Berlin a few months ago, but not many. It's a fine, committed performance here overall, working well with Theorin in the duets of Act II, strong, firm and expressive in the demanding and exhausting third act. Albert Dohmen's King Marke was smooth with a sorrowful gravity; Tomasz Konieczny's Kurwenal not always perfect but he was enthusiastically warmly received at the curtain call by the Vienna audience; Petra Lang a little stretched as Brangäne, but the ensemble overall was good for this production, fully getting across the necessary impact of this Wagner masterpiece on the screen, and all the more so I imagine in the house itself.

The Wiener Staatsoper's Live at Home in HD season continues in January with productions of SALOME on 23 Jan and THE QUEEN OF SPADES on 28 Jan. February broadcasts include SIMON BOCCANEGRA, TOSCA, ANDREA CHÉNIER and an EDITA GRUBEROVA gala concert. There are details of how to view these productions in the links below.

Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programmeStaatsoper Live at Home video