Tristan! Isolde! in Munich!

This performance was a wonderful surprise. I went to see Nina Stemme’s Isolde, expecting not much more than the usual Festival mishmash out of the rest and worried about the prospects of Ben Heppner as Tristan. But we got a real, properly put together Tristan, and a damn good one at that.

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/27/2011. Production by Peter Konwitschny (revival), conducted by Kent Nagano with Nina Stemme (Isolde), Ben Heppner (Tristan), René Pape (König Marke), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Alan Held (Kurwenal).

Peter Konwitschny’s production presents an eclectic, ambiguous aesthetic. The costumes are a mix of modern and medieval garb while Act 1 takes place on a modern (or at least twentieth-century) ship, Act 2 in front of a painted fairy-tale backdrop and on a silly yellow floral couch, and Act 3 in a stark modern space with a slideshow of photos from happier times. But the larger point is crystal clear. The upper, upstage part of the stage is the characters’ “reality” while Tristan and Isolde step forward, off this platform onto the apron of the stage to enter their own fantasy world. To illuminate their night in Act 2, visible Brechtian lights descend from above. The staging aims to be plausible and spontaneous and dramatic, downplaying the love potion and Marke’s wrath in favor of human empathy. It’s not that much to look at, but the thing is, it works, drawing you in at every moment.

This is thanks to the greatest asset of any Konwitschny production, the meticulous Personenregie he coaxes out of his premiere casts. The movement traces the motion more of the music than the text, giving his work a wonderful fluid quality. These details often can’t be quickly reconstructed for revivals, and my expectations for this festival revival were low (it premiered in 1998). But from the start I noticed that there was something happening with the direction. Bless the Bayerische Staatsoper, they actually got Konwtischny to come and rehearse a bit with this cast (he even took a bow at the end), and you could tell. From Brangäne flipping the pages of a magazine as the sailor sang his song on, it was elegant and integrated with the score. It was not as fearlessly physical as his Traviata, but this is Wagner singing.

(different cast)

The staging’s most unusual moment is during the Liebestod, where Isolde steps to the front of the stage and is joined by a revived Tristan. They both wear black. While Isolde might die in the text, in the world of the music and night she lives united with Tristan, and that’s what we see. The image had been foreshadowed with two English horn players at the beginning of the act. Wordless musicians, they also exist beyond the confines of the upstage space.

Kent Nagano conducted the excellent orchestra with restraint, clarity and controlled volume, a fine reading but a somewhat self-effacing one. The cast was about as all-star as it is possible to get. Nina Stemme is an astonishingly good Isolde. Her huge, dark voice is weighted towards the middle, but her high notes also cut through, she sings with an unwavering sense of the text and meaning of the music, and is an excellent actress. I doubt there is a better all-around Isolde today.

Ben Heppner is surely past his best days of singing, but pulled together a credible performance. I wouldn’t call it the triumph that a few Tweeters seemed to hear–at a half dozen or so spots everything threatened to fall apart in gurgly cracks, and he somehow derailed a bit of the Act 2 duet (skipping a phrase, I think?), making Stemme miss her next entrance. But he managed to recover each time and made it through to the end. That’s a higher compliment than it sounds like.

The biggest applause of the evening actually went to René Pape’s generous, honey-toned König Marke, who due to the usual Nationaltheater sightline problems I couldn’t see at all but sang with the kind of resonant authority and majesty that threatens to steal the opera. Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne got off to a muffled start but warmed up to be excellent if extremely Slavic in tone. Alan Held was a very good Kurwenal as well. A class act, all around.

This production is available on DVD with a different cast.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper/Wilfred Hösl (showing the cast from the DVD)

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