Monday, February 27, 2012

Runnicles rocks on a Huge Tristan Night in Berlin

Tristan und Isolde, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB), February 25 2012

Smashing performance by Petra Maria Schnitzer and Donald Runnicles

Graham Vick ..... director
Donald Runnicles ..... conductor

Peter Seiffert ..... Tristan
Liang Li ..... King Marke
Petra Maria Schnitzer ..... Isolde
Boaz Daniel ..... Kurwenal
Jörg Schörner ..... Melot
Jane Irwin ..... Brangäne
Peter Maus ..... Ein Hirt
Clemens Bieber ..... Seeman
Krzysztof Szumanski ..... Stauermann

Chorus and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

The main cultural purpose of my trip to Berlin was to see the Graham Vick production of Tristan und Isolde, that I actually saw last year during its first run at the DOB [and so I will send you to the corresponding blog entry]. This time I felt I really needed to listen to what I believe is the most beautifully composed piece of music, and I knew that Donald Runnicles and the DOB orchestra reached the level of mutual complicity that could make this Tristan a special musical experience.

Last year I said they had nothing to envy to Barenboim & his Staatskapelle. This year I can say they're up there -- it's the very top level of Tristan that you might imagine being performed. I've spotted only two tiny flaws during the first act when the horns got ahead of the conductor by a fraction of the second. The rest was just sensational. The strings were in exceptionally good form, especially in the first act around the part when T&I take the love potion. That part  had that impossible mixture of fragility/innocence, determination, devotion... all that with a surreal dramatic tension. That kind of orchestral performance I felt only once before -- only Barenboim was capable to build such a tension with the Berlin Staatskapelle.

Second Act was excellent too, but it was actually the third in which everything was simply sublime. I found myself constantly on the edge of tears [which really never happens to me]. An extra reason to get so totally soaked into the piece was the Graham Vick show that definitely gains in quality after you saw it more than once.
No, I did not change my view that the production would be a total winner if the symbols were more implicit, but I understand that this is ultimately a question of taste, and that a decision had to be taken. Graham Vick took this path and pictured many symbols in his cleverly organized --even if sometimes probably too busy-- a production.
With that reserve being expressed, I must stress again that I enjoyed the show immensely. The lights are superb, the stage is organized skillfully and the emotional intensity in the story-telling is matching the musical magic that comes from the pit. The theatrical narration floats between the explicit story about Tristan & Isolde, the references about their encounters, and the metaphors highlighting the toxic character of their love --> they literally and metaphorically are drug addicts, and so their love like their addiction are bound to be tragic. Against all reason and all circumstances their love comes back stronger and greater to defy life and eventually death too.

This time I particularly admired the third act. The Act opens with Tristan leaning against the glassy door with the rain falling outside -- clearly defining the melancholic atmosphere. Many years have passed and they are all old; Tristan moves heavily and Kurwenal helps. He wraps a blanket around Tristan's shoulders, and helps him like a very old friend would help his lifelong friend.
When he gets Tristan to sit in his armchair, he's free and sits at the nearby table, open a newspaper and enjoys that short moment of peace... It's an asylum or just a place where Tristan and Kurwenal spend their old days.

Tristan is progressively losing his senses, feels impending death and asks the fundamental existential question about his life. Was this life worth it? It's love that made it so wonderful. Love --no matter how toxic and how tragic-- made his life purposeful, and that realization eases his path to death: It's Isolde that he lived for and it's her that he hopes to join on the other side. Vick decided that each character who dies steps out of the room, reaches behind the glassy door that Tristan was leaning against at the beginning of this Act.
When he [Tristan] stepped out, Isolde arrives, old and tired, yet determined like in all previous encounters with Tristan. She now comes in company of her unhappy husband (old king Marke) to pay tribute to Tristan. And there she spots the table that she used to sit at during the intense moments with Tristan, and her love tide comes back to her. She places an empty chair --as if Tristan was going to join her again-- she sits on the opposite side and falls asleep. Soon after that Brangäne will come to give her an IV therapy but Isolde does not want it anymore. She is now ready to die, sings her gripping Mild un leise and steps out of the house too...

With such a toxic musical performance and the phenomenal Petra Maria Schnitzer this will remain one of the rare moments of total beauty and extraordinary emotion that I will cherish for years to come. This is the kind of total emotion that makes me love opera. I guess the size of the auditorium of the Deutsche Oper Berlin is just perfect for this opera to seize your guts and your heart, touch the finest thread in you. It is one of those moments when everything clicked: it took Runnicles and this orchestra, but it wouldn't be as huge if there was no Petra Maria Schnitzer, who was excellent last year too but now seemed to rise the level to both sing the role wonderfully and inhabited Isolde for all of the 5 hours of the duration of this show.
Vocally, Peter Seiffert is better as Tristan than he was a few years ago, but was visibly and audibly tired in the third Act. However, and that's where everything changes, Peter seemed totally devoted to the story he was living through the character he incarnated with such a disarming fragility and defiance.

With respect to the cast we've had last year, this year's most significant differences were Kurwenal and the King Marke. Liang Li is a superb bass. His voice has no broadness of that of Franz Josef Selig, nor the heart-bleeding impact on public such as that of René Pape, but it is gripping in its own way -- he does not imitate any other singer, he incarnates King Marke with what he's got and the result is positively different and utterly moving. True artist! Boaz Daniel was courageous to sing Kurwenal. I don't believe his voice suits the role, and singing it on the longer run would made him suffer more than necessary. With that being said, his dramatically engaging performance was his excellent response to the highly emotional performance that was happening on the stage and in the pit. 

What can I say in the end?! I went to Berlin especially for this Tristan, to find again that incomparable sensations and renew my love for opera. For that my huge Thank You to Donald Runnicles, to Petra Maria Schnitzer and Peter Seiffert, all the wonderful people who put their hearts and souls to make this show such a great experience for me. You never know if and when this can happen with Tristan! 

I posted the production photos & trailer a year ago, in my previous post about this Tristan. Here just several new photos I took after the show:

This is a left part of the stage in the third act

Phenomenal Petra Maria Schnitzer: who not only sang everything in full voice and wonderfully - but what an incarnation this was!

Brangäne and Kurwenal

King Marke - Liang Li (1st from the right)

Here is our dear dear Donald

After two rounds of salutes - several curtain calls

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