Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde
Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 2016
Daniele Gatti, Pierre Audi, Torsten Kerl, Rachel Nicholls, Steven Humes, Brett Polegato, Andrew Rees, Michelle Breedt, Marc Larcher, Francis Dudziak
Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris - 15 May 2016
There wasn't much that was traditional about the setting of Pierre Audi's new production of Tristan und Isolde for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, but Wagner's groundbreaking opera works on a different plane from most and its internalised exploration of desire is given much better expression in its music than in its dramatic presentation. In that respect Daniele Gatti, conducting this Wagner opera for the first time, found the perfect measure of expression that complemented Audi's representation of the work's complex and sometimes contradictory themes.
In terms of its look and symbolism, the set doesn't appear particularly new or inspired. Instead of a ship in Act I we get large upright panels that vaguely give the impression of a ship's hull. The panels move around the stage to set up barriers, create divisions, opening up and closing down spaces. Instead of a tower, Act II features the huge curved ribs of a leviathan that rise out of the stage, creating wishbone-like formations around a framework that is covered to look like a black standing stone. For the island of Kareol in Act III, the wounded, dying Tristan agonises in a dark box with a mirrored background that opens up to let in the light during Isolde's transfiguration.
Principally however, the expression of the set reflects the work's play of darkness and light. The background is a Robert Wilson-like wall of gradiated light that is partially eclipsed at various points in each of the three acts by one or two large black squares. You can take these as representations of Tristan and Isolde, or view them in the abstract as black hole of all-consuming desire, but its bold symbolism is in accordance with the nature of the work and its themes. The more nuanced levels of the work and the contradictory clashes between life and death in Wagner's Romantic application of the Schopenhauer-influenced meditations are however also played out in more subtle lighting effects.
Mostly however, its the music that carries the weight of all these themes and whether it's Gatti's conducting, the playing of the orchestra or the acoustics of the venue (having encountered none of them together live in this theatre before), but the richness of sound in this performance was incredible. All the detail in the score was brought out with delicacy and precision, and with Wagner and this opera in particular there's a wealth of detail that can be coaxed out if it isn't allowed to be smothered in heavy orchestration. Gatti's pace was perfectly measured to draw every ounce of emotion out of the score, having a lightness of touch, but swelling up into great surges of pure overwhelming desire.
As important as this aspect is it needs to work with everything else around it, and there was a feeling that director, conductor and singers - not to mention lighting that was as important to the overall mood as anything else - were all working to a common purpose. The production, the singing, the measured delivery of the music all remained within that all-important space in Tristan und Isolde between emotionally-charged and overbearing. If one element threatened to take things too far, another would balance it out.
In particular the casting for the singing seemed well-judged for the size of the theatre as well as for the mood and tone that was being pitched. Torsten Kerl's heroic tenor is a little more hard-edged than the usual Romantic Tristan, his voice not a particularly large one either in Act I, but that's understandable at this stage as that voice has a long way to go yet. By Act II and Act III however, I found that I didn't even notice that it was Torsten Kerl, but just that it was Tristan in the throes of unbearable longing. Replacing the originally scheduled Emily Magee, Rachel Nicholls' wasn't a typical Isolde either, her voice softer and more lyrical, her passions more gently expressed, going more with the flow of the production rather than fighting to rise above it. In this case, that approach worked very well, and you can imagine how gorgeous their Nachtgesang was.
Steven Humes was similarly a more restrained King Marke than you more commonly find, his voice well suited to his more forgiving nature here. Less transported by their desires (although desire exists in some form in all of the characters) or perhaps struggling with them more since their master's have abandoned themselves to their sentiments, Michelle Breedt's Brangäne and Brett Polegato's Kurwenal were rather more emotionally driven, both singers making a great impression, balancing out the range of expression. At the conclusion Nicholls' Isolde delivered a Liebestod that accordingly felt like less of a mountain for the soprano to climb than a gentle submission and surrender to the extraordinary forces that had been generated, the music then gently dissipating and evaporating in pure sublimation into the aether.
Links: Théâtre des Champs-Elysées