Friday, June 17, 2011

Third Tristan und Isolde in 2011: Third Time's a Charm

Tristan und Isolde, Opéra National de Lyon (ONL), June 13 2011

Alex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) ..... director
Kirill Petrenko ..... conductor

Clifton Forbis ..... Tristan
Ann Petersen ..... Isolde
Christof Fischesser ..... King Marke
Jochen Schmeckenbecher ..... Kurwenal
Stella Grigorian ..... Brangäne
Nabil Suliman ..... Melot
Viktor Antipenko ..... A shepherd
Laurent Laberdesque .....Steersman

Orchestra and Chorus of ONL

Compared to the new Tristan presented at the Deutsche Oper Berlin --discussed on this blog a few days ago-- this production might appear less elaborated at first, but certainly far more poetic, with some fine and subtle imagery that only gave enough ground for rational and irrational to interact  -- so proper to this opera. For this latter element and its apparent simplicity,  this production resonated much more with me than the one by Graham Vick -- although I should emphasize that both productions are excellent, each in its own way.

Simplicity of this production is of course misleading as Alex Ollé slowly manages to scratch beneath the surface and uncover subtle features of each of the characters in this opera. To be able to make that magic fully work with the audience he had to have good actors and here he was lucky: all cast members are truly splendid actors who combine their acting with cool singing to bring a new dimension to the show. This production is definitely one of the best we could see this year, and the one that makes you love opera. If you can possibly get to see it while it's on the program, run! ;)

Let me first say a few words about this opera house. Opéra National de Lyon looks wonderful from the outside: to be able to keep the look of the surrounding buildings intact --all in a very recognizable 19th century French style-- this modern building looks like put in a shell of an ancient building. They practically erected a modern building within the walls of the old one, and so the outside style reflects coexistence of history and modernity. When you enter the building it is all black, looks cool at first but as soon as you climb a flight of stairs you start seeing weaknesses of this construction: it all looks like a system of fancy-looking scaffolding surrounding a black-box that is actually auditorium. I am tempted to say "whoever got paid for such an architectural solution should be shot!", but I won't. Scaffolding fancy or not is a scaffolding and it cannot last very long time. Who in a world wants to raise money for rebuilding/repairing the opera house every 5-10 years!?

Auditorium is not very large but it is tall (5 levels of balconies). If you were nit-picky you could found more details not well done, but ultimately you're there to enjoy art and you better stick to good stuff (such as their atrium) that make your visit to ONL enjoyable. More importantly, the productions presented in this theater --run by excellent Serge Dorny-- are usually very good, and with much less money than the Paris Opera, they manage every year to line up a few shows that are much better than the stuff produced at the Paris Opera. This Tristan is an example to illustrate that statement and of another statement that one should often keep in mind: a group of operatic stars is not a guarantee for success of any production [remember the catastrophic production of La donna del lago last year at Opéra Garnier in Paris?]

I can only imagine all the headaches Dorny must have had before this production was up on its feet: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito were supposed to produce this show but they had to cancel because Jossi is taking over the intendancy at the Stuttgart Staatsoper. Dorny succeeded in convincing La Fura dels Baus to step in on short notice and the risk paid off: this is an outstanding production of Tristan!
Poor Dorny had to cope with another problem: Gary Lehman --who was scheduled to sing the title role-- canceled, and happily Clifton Forbis was free to replace him.  I only learned about this replacement 20mins before the show and was a bit disappointed. After the show, however, I was more than happy to have seen Forbis deliver his best Tristan ever.

Advantage of producing Tristan und Isolde in not so big a theater is that the subtleties of what's happening on the stage cannot your [in a huge theater we are too far for that and the scenic action is mostly reduced to big and often caricature gestures]. Another advantage is that many singers --who would suffer in large auditorium-- sing more relaxed and put more emphasis on subtleties, fine-tune their voices as to better suite dramatic action in a given production. A drawback may be that the orchestra should be constantly tamed not to drown the singers, avoid too intensive sounds that might reflect and interfere with the sound from the pit and result in noise. That's where the delicacy of the conductors becomes essential because the orchestra must not be too tamed: otherwise Tristan is boring. None of these traps were a problem for a sensationally talented --Komische Oper Berlin bred-- Kirill Petrenko. His conducting of Tristan is at the level of Daniel Barenboim's. He knows this orchestra quite well; they collaborated on many occasions [including the celebrated Pushkin cycle last year], the orchestra members obviously have huge respect for Maestro, and the chemistry between them shows. Russian romanticism is maybe a reason why Petrenko's interpretation of Tristan is so extraordinary. His Tristan is like a mosaic of fugues that flow from one another,  delicately overlapping from time to time producing a new color to this surgically precise conducting. It is like a musical monument being built for 5 hours making the whole experience unique for the spectators. One more thing that strikes you with Kirill's conducting is the quality --usually associated with J.Levine-- that he knows exactly when to let the orchestra turn on the forte and then to tone it down in what appears like a millisecond before the singing part begins. What can I say? The guy is just divinely talented and you cannot but admire that. He's in a league of his own...

Ann Petersen sings beautifully when employing the higher register of her voice, while occasionally struggles with gravi. Her scenic engagement is 5-stars-worthy and this was one more in a string of excellent Isolde's I've listened to in recent years. Finding singers capable to sing as good Brangäne seem to be more difficult today.  Stella Grigorian sings nicely enough this role, although this remains far from the level of wonderful Ekaterina Gubanova.
Who the heck is Jochen Schmeckenbecher? Never heard of him, and there he was the most amazing Kurwenal there can be. Something in his voice reminds me of Alejandro Marco Buhrmester, that combined with his very expressive acting, and spontaneously looking gestures, and a warm look in his eyes, made his scenic presence extraordinary. One of the best Kurwenal's I've ever listened to! King Marke was very well sung by Christof Fischesser whose voice may sound too bright if you have F.J.Selig as a reference.

I've listened to Clifton Forbis' Tristan several times in Paris, but he was never this great. He successfully sings this role for many years; he found a good balance to spare his voice in the first and in a good part of the second act, letting Isolde take the limelight. But then he literally stuns you in the third. With his experience and his vocal investment into the role, his third act is heart throbbing -- I was on the edge to break into tears like never before.

As for the show: three acts = three scenes. In the opening act we are on a deck of the ship. The video-image of the sea in the dark background works very well well. The deck -- a platform slowly rotates and makes 180 degrees in the end of Act 1. It is dark, cold and goes well with Isolde's despair. A huge moon slowly descends from above the stage -- at the beginning almost invisible and by the end of the act almost half of it covers the upper half of the stage: the love potion did its work and the luminous moon brings hope to their love [Isn't that so notoriously romantic? Death as a salvation, and moon as a light of hope...]
In the second Act the moon is actually on the stage, but we see it from the inside: that's the place where the night will host Tristan and Isolde for their passionate night of love. Inside the moon is a platform on which the couple will consume their love; a few staircases brings the look to this shell as if taken from the Escher's drawings. Subtle and well toned video imagery helps highlighting the poetry -- it never inundates the stage, or becomes the essence of the whole production (that's what separates La Fura from Lepage!) The only detail I personally disliked happened when T&I sing they feel safe with the night watching over them: Alex Ollé decided to project --for 10 seconds or so-- a pair of blinking eyes on the top of the moon [puhlese!].
Finally, in the third act the moon is still on Earth but this time its convex side is turned towards the audience. We see a worried Kurwenal watching, and wounded Tristan laying. There is a hole on the moon through which the two worlds talk to one another. I won't  recount the ending of Tristan und Isolde but that Act was so masterfully directed -- there was no parasitic gesture by any actor, the light effects are perfect and a little smoke that gave a foggy look to the scene with Mild und Leise was fantastic. Scenically gripping, sung passionately, with the orchestra sounding like from another world.

A memorable show with a HUGE Kirill Petrenko, Forbis at his absolute best, Ann brilliant, and a formidable Kurwenal!

A big Thank You to everyone involved in this show!

Photos from Act-2:

Photo  from Act 3:

Curtain call pics:

Clifton Forbis and Ann Petersen
Jochen Schmeckenbecher

Kirill the Great Petrenko between Christof Fischesser and Ann Petersen

Edit: I just learned that France Musique audio-recorded the show of June 10th and will broadcast it on Saturday, June 25 2011 at 19:00 (cet) on this link. It will  then be available for free listening 7 days after the broadcast.


  1. This production was very poor. Sorry, but nothing was scratched at all, and the videos mostly ridiculous. This is definitely not modern staging. La Fura dels Baus are just an advertising company (see their biography in the programme: Pepsi, Peugeot and Olympic Games), they have strictly no ideas about opera, music or whatsoever. There is a huge gap between those guys and Wieler, Simons or Warlikowski!
    BTW, you were happy that Forbis recovered from the premiere, because he was awful then. And Lehman's replacement is not a last-minute thing: he was out for several months.

  2. I was in the parterre. I would suffer from altitude sickness in the top tier. Concept was clever but left little room. in the last act in every sense and you need more than just dry ice for the Liebestod.
    Forbis was above expectation and i have learned to be grateful to anyone who can complete the role. Will hear Petersen in Cardiff next year. Not too many problems with acuti but just would wish for more warmth.
    Have already booked for Parsifal next year. The house is too black but Lyon has its culinary benefits.

  3. Hey Rameau! Ça va?? Tu seras quand à Munich pour les Festspiele?

    I obviously disagree and I thought this show was very well constructed. Pretty much following the libretto and let the story go with a great musical quality of Petrenko and friends. Video imagery was judiciously used to change the atmosphere, without ever making video being the purpose of the show (which is what you get from Lepage in his shows).
    Sorry that Forbis was not in form on the night you've seen the show.

    John and I apparently were luckier. John, I agree the theater is too black... even looks creepy at times. Looks much better from the outside. BUT the culinary offer in Lyon definitely helps ;)

    I need time to make plans for my next operatic season, but will definitely go to see Parsifal in Lyon (Met preview).

    BTW, did you go to Glyndebourne to see the new Meistersinger?

  4. Sadly no chance to get tix for Meistersinger and I will miss live streaming.
    Pity they did not restore Lyon Opera like La Monnaie but oh dear Brussels is looking so run down and dirty. Only reason to go is opera.

  5. I hope to catch the stream - unless they don't block out the non-UK viewers.

    They are resurfacing the plaza in front of La Monanie; that's why it looks dirty from the outside. OTOH what they propose artistically every year is the very best of what you can find in Europe.

    Do pick a copy of their 2011-2012 program next time you go (to see the 1st cast of Les Huguenots), and try to read some of it... That's just an example of how good they are, and how seriously everything is done and with lots of passionate people involved in the process. Cheers and enjoy the Twilight ;)