Arguably one of the most influential operas of the nineteenth century, Tristan und Isolde changed the course of art, literature, and philosophy as well as music. Its challenges to performers were enormous, but the novel dissonances and melodic shapes of the musical language were eventually assimilated, while its popularity brought forth voices that could ride over the unprecedented large orchestra.
Although this opera requires two phenomenal singers, the outcome of the performance ultimately rests on the conductor’s shoulders. Zubin Mehta’s highly personal way with the score was instilled with strong forward motion and darkly coloured by lower strings and brass. The elasticity of tempo was smooth and unforced, the melodic lines were warmly inflected, the expressivity was always specific. Others may make certain passages more physically exciting, but few can match the broad arches in which Mehta builds to his climaxes: the first scene of Act II reached the extinction of the torch through several waves of tension and relaxation, achieving crushing force when the trombones enter at Isolde’s “dass hell sie dorten leuchte!” Mehta seems to bring to the score a modern, post-Stravinskian ear, favouring lean, linear textures, eschewing conventional richness and a low centre of tonal gravity. As a result, a passage such as the coda of the Love Duet (“O ew’ge Nacht”) acquires a light and dreamy eroticism. Throughout, whether in the precise rhetoric of orchestral interjections in Act I recitative dialogues, the flexibility of the cello melody in the Act II Prelude, or the bounding energy of Tristan’s final hysteria, the orchestral contribution was always expressively specific: not only were the score’s directions observed, their purposes have been clearly determined and vividly re-enacted. It was a reading that combined depths of erotic passion and Schopenhauerian pessimism without turning heavy, drab and leaden.The Maggio Musicale orchestra, its horns bearing a plangent “Mediterranean” tinge, was close to magnificent.
Often (particularly in past decades but it is not infrequent even today), the problem of endurance raised by the length of the work and its leading roles was dealt by cutting. The usual “big snip” removed a major swath of Act II (from Tristan’s “Dem Tage! dem Tage!” to Isolde’s “Doch es rächte sich der verscheuchte Tag”), badly warping the act’s dramatic and musical balance, while substantial tucks were often taken on the tenor’s behalf in Act III (Act I was rarely if ever touched). Without trying to minimize their contribution, legendary Wagnerians singers of the past had it easier, as most of them hardly ever sang the opera in its entirety. The Maggio Musicale could rely on two protagonists who, while not possessing extraordinary timbric qualities, offered admirable and at times superior renditions of their nearly impossible roles. Lioba Braun, who enjoyed a long and rewarding career as a mezzo-soprano and even contralto, has in the past few years moved into the dramatic soprano repertoire. Most German-speaking female singers with a sizable instrument or irrepressible dramatic instincts view the role of Isolde as the goal and the pinnacle of their careers, and Ms. Braun’s move is hardly unprecedented: from Martha Mödl to Helga Dernesch, and more recently Waltraud Meier (to name but a few of the most illustrious), many a mezzo has been tempted to make this role fetiche her own, some with more felicitous results than others. Ms. Braun does not sound like a pushed mezzo; her top has a definite freedom and does not sound constricted: only the high Cs in the Act II duet, while respectable, were cautious and thin. The core of her voice is firm and steady, all the more commendable if one considers that she has been active for almost three decades.
There was a gentleness and vulnerability in her singing (“Nicht Hörneschall” in Act II, “Ich bin’s, ich bin’s” after Tristan’s death, the start of the Verklärung), while the anger of the early phrases of Act I was regal, never shrewish.
While Torsten Kerl may not be an authentic heldentenor (but, who is these days?), he nevertheless was a marvel of tonal evenness, stamina and verbal force. He has impeccable musicianship: in fast, tricky music (e.g., the ship’s arrival in Act III) where many Tristans engage in a tug of war with the conductor, he never jumped beats, raced the tempo or resorted to parlando. The lyric nature of his voice led him to give his best in the elegiac moments, and Tristan’s vision in Act III (“Wie sie selig”) stood out for its sense of repose and respite from unfulfilled longing. In Act II it was wonderful to hear two singers actually sing the dissonant intervals in the two climaxes before Brangäne’s watch in perfect tuning.
The Kurwenal of Martin Gantner was sturdy, sympathetic and very well sung (particularly smooth and precise was his Act I song); Julia Rutigliano as Brangäne was correct albeit on the light side and with more than a hint of frailty on top. Stephen Milling sang König Marke with fine legato and intonation, a sure harmonic sense and broad phrasing, towering the already tall and husky Kerl with his gigantic height, and thus making Tristan’s self-abasement and mortification all the more believable. Kurt Azesberger sounded whiny and somewhat petulant, suggesting if not clarifying some novel complexity of character. Gregory Warren was a touching Shepherd (he also sang the Junger Seemann) and Italo Proferisce revealed a fine baritone as the Steuermann.
Visually arresting was Stefano Poda’s production. Poda, who took care of every aspect of the mise-en-scène (sets, costumes and even choreography), conceived one set for the three acts, with a large hanging platform that served as the deck of the ship (where Tristan and Kurwenal spend the whole Act I, while Isolde and Brangäne stood below, on the stage), or as an abstract space, and which kept slowly raising and lowering throughout the opera. From above a constant flow of sand poured through the platform onto to the stage to form a heap that kept getting bigger and taller, undoubtedly a symbol for the two lover’s relentless passion and for the inexorable passing of time. Earth in all its shades of brown dominated the production, until the very end, when white walls were lowered to cover the “old” dark sets, just as the platform raised Isolde singing her “Liebestod” in an apotheosis of blinding light. It was an enthralling, hypnotizing and exquisite production, where the only sign of déjà vu was the presence of the inevitable long black leather coats. Is it still possible to stage an opera without this long parodied cliché?
(Photos: Simone Donati/TerraProject/Contrasto)