Monday, June 13, 2011

Second Tristan und Isolde in 2011

Tristan und Isolde, March 26 2011,  Deutsche Oper Berlin

Graham Vick ..... director
Donnald Runnicles ..... conductor

Peter Seiffert ..... Tristan
Kristinn Sigmundsson ..... King Marke
Petra Maria Schnitzer ..... Isolde
Eike Wilm Schulte ..... Kurwenal
Jörg Schörner ..... Melot
Jane Irwin ..... Brangäne
Peter Maus ..... Ein Hirt
Gregory Warren ..... Seeman
Jörg Schümann ..... Stauermann

Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

First Tristan I could see this year was the one in Weimar, that I still keep in my fond memories.  The second one, in Berlin, was an excellent production that I would wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.

Graham Vick proposes a lively, yet subtle and particularly intelligently constructed show, in which his experience and --dare I say-- his British competence for skilfully shaping the dramatic action has been exposed to extreme. The show should please you if you abide by this "westernized" (sorry for a lack of better word) understanding of the story: unearthly love between Tristan and Isolde can be rationalized and explained to eventually appear as plausible to the Westerners today. I am obviously uncomfortable with that approach as I am more on the side of those who see the irrational side of Tristan & Isolde so close to each and every one of us, only that in the legend they had a courage to let their love take over the ratio and take them to the romantic summits and of course ended tragically [how else would you imagine a romantic story to finish?! ;)] In saying that I of course simplified to underline the basic difference in the today's common approach to Tristan, i.e. I factored out the circumstances in which their love was progressing -- circumstances that the judgmental folks today would call a sex-scandal or Tristan-gate, first accusing Isolde to be a slut, and then Tristan for being the ungrateful back-stabbing SOB,...

I'll return below to the Vick's vision of this most romantic of all operas, but let me first dwell a bit on the singers-actors' performance. Peter Seiffert sang wonderfully, except maybe in the very last part of this tremendously difficult role. I was in fact more than glad to listen to him-good-self again, because last time I listened to him it was  a year ago in his famously bad Tristan, broadcast from Barcelona. Maybe he was more relaxed this time, more rested, or simply the auditorium of Liceu was too big to fill and sustain the power and intensity needed to sing the role throughout the show. Here he was completely different. Actually, only one small crack betrayed the fatigue of his voice towards the end of the show, but other than that he was truly remarkable. Even scenically --where he usually struggles to convince-- he was excellent. Maybe it's because Isolde in this show was his wife -- Petra Maria Schnitzer. She was actually my biggest surprise. She was never my preferred singer. I always appreciated her invested and honest singing but I never found anything extraordinary in her often stiff voice. And there, she sang Isolde BEAUTIFULLY; as if she's found her inner-self and the voice helped her to make that emotion bring on the surface. She lived the verses she sang -- she was telling a story and singing her heart out, while scenically being perfectly in synch with Vick's concept of the show. A huge BRAVO to her and I truly hope we'll get to experience more of her Isolde in the years to come.

To be perfectly honest, I wasn't particularly enthused over Brangäne, although Jane Irwin did her job honestly. Peter and Petra-Maria have maybe set a bar too high... dunno. Eike Wilm Schulte, on the other hand, never ceases to amaze me with his healthy voice -- the man is over 70 years old and his Kurwenal still sounds fantastic. The other singers and actors were good too (with a fantastic incarnation of King Marke by Kristinn Sigmundsson), but the winner of this show was definitely Donald Runnicles. He conducted his new orchestra marvelously. Even if they cannot match the level of brilliance in performing Tristan, defined by Berlin Staatskapelle and Barenboim (who can?!), they made a huge statement by this performance. Runnicles managed to accentuate the lyric moments of the score, while  almost analytically emphasizing the monumental network-structure of Leitmotifs in this masterpiece. That approach was particularly well fitting the one adopted by Graham Vick -- which is maybe why the show was working so well with the crowd. That's what you get when the stage and music director actually create a show together.

And so I come to the stage direction part. Graham Vick sees Tristan and Isolde as a doomed couple of two drug-addicts. Their inner-selves are imprisoned by the rules of socially acceptable behavior, rebel against that which is why they will resort to heroin in the first place. The stage is organized somewhat similarly to what we could see in the Amsterdam production of Der fliegende Holländer by Martin Kusej -- only better. There is a big glass door that separates the front part of the stage [where the real action takes place, smoothly 'invaded' by the irrational side too], from the back one -- behind those doors [in which their inner-selves are being depicted, the emotionally crippled individuals who refuse to live the life paved for them by the others].

While everything is apparently peaceful in front, behind the door we see the storm, and as this difference polarizes, Isolde (and Tristan) becomes more addicted to heroin. The front part of the large stage is also divided in two: on the right side we see Isolde in her living room (trying on her wedding dress...), and we see the doors leading to her room and her bathroom where she occasionally goes to compose her thoughts, to calm down, and find a way to handle the pressure and deal with her brain struggling to cope with her desire for Tristan [when in distress, don't we all feel 'safer' in our bathrooms?!]. On the other side of the front part of the stage you see a large coffin that represents her life of a young girl ready to be buried. Then comes one of the most fascinating scenes of the show to me: the pressure on Isolde is bigger, her heart rebels ever more and a little after she returned from her bathroom trip, there was a junky coming out from the shower -- all dressed up and visibly tired (in a junky way tired). He can be viewed as a drug-dealer, as someone who impersonates her incapability to cope with a heart & brain wrecking situation she's found herself in. He is also a help for her to bridge her two irreconcilable lives -- the only way for her to escape her actual life and find the inner peace [I loved that scene because it is not judgmental or moralizing, but simply set up for you to decide how to interpret its role in the whole story and the stage concept.] Indeed, that junky wanders around the stage and goes to the place where the coffin is and will eventually escape through the back door, thus bridging the two apparently irreconcilable sides of Isolde's life. The second Act is beautifully constructed too. Tristan and Isolde share their love and feel frustrated, and take the heroin shot together. That will boost them and give them courage to get their love to the next level: they actually move to the place where the coffin was (there is a large sofa there too) to physically live their passionate love, while on the other side of the stage we see two naked characters in a passionate choreography --showing the beginning of their love-- that ends by him digging a big hole, thus announcing an inexorable death of the young couple. Their love is socially and/or ethically unacceptable and they will of course die. Another intelligent thread is the one with Isolde's death: of course it remains ambiguous. Whether she OD-ed, or her true-self extinguished after Tristan's death, and she would go on with her sad loveless life of a stone-heart-woman... Or simply their love was impossible and they lived their lives apart from each other -- never being able to love again.  In any case they both died old, crying after the missed chance to live a happy love-filled life, and after she completed Mild und Leise, she slipped through the glassy doors and went to the world behind.
OK that part is ambiguous in any production of Tristan, but here --I thought-- was particularly well guided. 

As you could tell I actually loved the show.
Another dramatically interesting stage-detail was a big suspended light that stealthily wanders around the stage and descends to highlight a moment particularly unbearable to the protagonists.

What to say in the end? A brilliant production that should work particularly well on DVD, and here is a hoping that this show finds its way to our DVD stores. Or better, if you happen to be in Berlin when this show is on, do go to Deutsche Oper and see it!

Here is a bunch of  production pics (all ©DOB)

my own pics:
Peter Seiffert

Kristinn Sigmundsson, Petra Maria Schnitzer and Peter Seiffert

Donald Runnicles

and a very well done trailer:

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