Tristan und Isolde in Zürich: Neither mild nor leise

Claus Guth’s Opernhaus Zürich production of Tristan und Isolde is inspired by the events that inspired the opera: Wagner’s 1850s affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, which happened in, you guessed it, Zürich.  The result is a twisty journey through fantasy and memory, all wound up with 19th-century morality, and a worthy companion piece to Guth’s great Vienna Tannhäuser.  It’s totally fascinating, and a very different experience than your usual dreamy abstract Gesamtkunstwerk.

Bernard Haitink was also apparently inspired by Zürich for his conducting.  Apparently he took one walk around, decided it was too damn quiet, and what the city needed was a Tristan that was excellent and yet most notable for being tremendously loud.

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde.  Opernhaus Zürich, 10/10/10.  Production by Claus Guth (revival), sets and costumes by Christian Schmidt, lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann.  Conducted by Bernard Haitink with Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter (Isolde), Peter Seiffert (Tristan), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne), Martin Gantner (Kurwenal), Matti Salminen (König Marke)

Claus Guth’s production is set in a seemingly concrete 19th-century bourgeois world, its elegant furnishings and garden modeled on those of Zürich’s Villa Wesendonck (today an art museum), its situation loosely analogous to that of Mathilde Wesendonck’s affair with Wagner with her banker husband Otto in the König Marke role.  But Guth doesn’t push this parallel too far (and the premiere cast, pictured above, bears a much closer resemblance to the historical figures than the current one, pictured elsewhere in this post–though no photos involving Isolde have surfaced), and besides, he has other things on his mind as well.

It becomes apparent that this tidy world is not as literally realistic as it appears.  Brangäne and Isolde are visual doubles, with Brangäne seeming to represent the socially acceptable half of Isolde’s self, while the soprano half escapes into another world with Tristan.  In Act 1, as Isolde describes healing Tristan, Brangäne physically relives it, in the second act Brangäne wears a black dress to Isolde’s identical white one, and at the very end of the opera, Marke slowly takes Brangäne’s hand, as if Isolde had not just expired in front of them.  The characters wander through mirror-image and double rooms on a relatively simple turntable set used to effectively dizzying effect.

As Tristan and Isolde narrate Isolde’s earlier healing, Tristan relives it, lying bloody on Isolde’s bed, a position he will return to near the end of the opera.  Their dream life is recursive and ill-defined, an attempt to leave reality that inevitably fails.  The second act explores further alternate and parallel realities, as Tristan and Isolde chase each other through Isolde’s house, seemingly in the midst of a dinner party.  They sweep the place settings off a formal dining table, to collapse on top of it.  It is unclear what really happens and what is imagined as they wander through crowded rooms, unconscious of others, but then something breaks, and they are exposed, and Tristan forces Melot to stab him.  In Act 3, Tristan languishes with Kurwenal in a desolate, deserted streetscape, eventually managing to return to the dream world with Isolde.

It’s an immensely interesting and remarkably exciting production.  “Exciting” as in you genuinely can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.  Suspenseful, even.  This isn’t really a concept you often associate with Tristan stagings, I know.  They are supposed to help you submerge yourself in the well of the music, to forget the boundaries of sound and vision.  This one doesn’t do that, or at least it didn’t for me.  It isn’t a Gesamtkunstwerk, it’s an intricate reading of a text we already know.  There is friction between the text and the production; you can’t get upset because Act 1 doesn’t take place on a boat.  But Guth makes you rethink things you’ve seen many times before, possibly a textbook example of Regietheater.  As a Tristan I don’t think it’s for everyone.  But that’s the beauty of Regietheater, isn’t it?  It doesn’t presume to be for everyone, or for all time.


The focus of this performance was on an absence, that of erstwhile star Waltraud Meier, who walked out after a dispute with Bernard Haitink.  I can see why.  I thought that the tiny Zürich opera house would be a great place to hear an intimate account of the score (and excellent for Meier, whose voice is not of Nilssonian dimensions).  But I forgot to send the management an email about this and Haitink did just about the exact opposite, leading a very loud, exciting, yet fantastically detailed interpretation with this top-notch orchestra.  I’m not sure if he looked up at the stage once over the whole course of the evening.  He often drowned out the singers and was clearly more interested in making sure the viola arpeggios were sufficiently turbulent than anything to do with the dramatic action.  (Considering his number of vocal cues, I suspect the invisible prompter had a busy night.)  It sounded great, the orchestra did at least, but it isn’t my preferred style.

Barbara Hofstetter-Schneider was Meier’s short-notice replacement as Isolde, and a very good Isolde she was, too.*  She bravely took on Haitink’s super-orchestra and, most of the time, won, with an excellent dark-hued middle voice, somewhat less luxuriant top notes, and super diction at consistently high volume.  At the beginning of Act 1, I thought, she can’t do this all night.  But she did, with amazing stamina, right up to an on-pitch if short final note.  It was not subtle but that we wouldn’t have been able to hear that.  Her Isolde doesn’t have Meier’s charisma or heartbreaking intensity, but it was wonderfully sung and acted with honesty and dignity.  If this is what Wagner singing is like at regional German houses (her usual haunts), we’re missing out in the US.  (Zürich is a very small house, though, presenting different challenges.)

Peter Seiffert was announced as ill but sang anyways.  This was my second time around with his Tristan. The first, at the Met under Barenboim in 2008, was a shaky experience (I believe it was his role debut).  For the first act in Zürich, I thought he his interpretation had greatly grown.  While not the Heldentenor of one’s dreams his tone is alright, he fit into the production well enough and sang with confidence and expression, as much as he could under the orchestral circumstances.  In Act 2, his pitch and support began to falter and I began to dread Act 3.  With good reason, because sick or not, no one should be onstage sounding like that.  His vocal death preceded his character’s death by about 15 uncomfortable minutes and I hope he didn’t do any damage.

The supporting cast was uniformly strong.  Matti Salminen is as old as dirt and nothing needs to be said about his wise König Marke other than he sounded as amazing as ever.  Martin Gantner was almost unfair luxury casting as Kurwenal, terrifically sung and touchingly acted (during the opening of Act 3, he spent a long time despondently throwing beer caps into a boot).  Michelle Breedt was a lyrical but lovely Brangäne, sometimes covered by the mighty Haitink but floating her “Habet acht” perfectly.  The English horn player deserves specific mention here as well for a great solo, but the program did not identify him or her by name.

So not a definitive Tristan, but an awesome one, even without the reason I bought my ticket.  I do hope a tenor other than Seiffert will be singing the next time I see this opera, though.  And I think we should hope for a WWI Parsifal from Guth next.

All photos copyright Suzanne Schwiertz/Opernhaus Zürich

*Doesn’t the Isolde from this production premiere, Nina Stemme, currently have some time on her hands?  I know she does because I have a ticket for the Rusalka she canceled.  ‘Tis a shame we didn’t get her.  Not a spot on excellent Schneider-Hofstetter, but Stemme and Meier are together currently the last word in Isoldes as far as I’m concerned.

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  1. I saw it on Sunday, Oct 10.

    A superb performance by conductor and orchestra (despite some minor mistakes). The Prelude sounded very desolate, whereas the end was shining and reconciled. An amazing experience!

    Act I lasted for 90 minutes. Wow! I really liked it that Haitink made room for the music, without slowing down the pace. There stil was a lot of energy and agitation, as there should be.

    Peter Seiffert was really ill. We suffered with him in Act III! I can't believe he sang the role again on Wed, Oct 13. I am afraid for his voice (he is a wonderful singer).

    I just loved Brangäne.

    Isolde was excellent too.

    Matti Salminen was splendid.

  2. Anon–I haven't heard anything, but the Opernhaus Zürich comes out with more DVDs than almost any other house, so the chances are good that it will be taped at some point.

    Mats–yep, sounds right to me, but personally I wish the singers had been more integral to Haitink's vision of the opera…