Tristan und Isolde

Kent Nagano
Chor und Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper München
11 November 2007
Nationaltheater München
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJohn Treleaven
IsoldeWaltraud Meier
BrangäneDaniela Sindram
KurwenalMichael Volle
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotFrancesco Petrozzi
Ein junger SeemannUlrich Reß
Ein HirtKevin Conners
SteuermannChristian Rieger
Mostly Opera

Tristan in Munich: Breathtaking

In brief, this Konwitschny staging of Tristan and Isolde at the Bavarian State Opera was one of the most overwhelming and moving operatic experiences in memory.To start with Waltraud Meier and René Pape , whom words simply do not do justice in the parts, which they have truly redefined.Waltraud Meier´s identification with Isolde is almost legendary. Today she furthermore was vocally on top, effortlessly throwing out the high C´s as well as presenting her entirely compelling Isolde, detailed beyond description. As the only truly compelling female stage presence in the Wagner repertoire on stage today, I am only happy that it would seem she may perform this part for quite some time yet. She was deservedly greeted with standing ovations.What Waltraud Meier did with Kundry in the 1090´s, René Pape has done with King Marke over the past 10 years: Entirely redefined the part and moving it onto center-stage in a very dignified portrait of the not-so-old-King who, for once, is not a whimp. Needless to say, he can also sing all the notes. A King Marke at this level, I don´t expect to see from anyone else in my lifetime.Even John Treleaven (contrary to my expectations based on his dismal Siegfried in London 10 days ago) managed to get reasonably through the Tristan. While he did not approach the level of the others, he was more than passable. And in very fine voice too. I suppose the lower range of singing for Tristan suits his voice better than Siegfried, and who would not be inspired to act his best next to Waltraud Meier?Michael Volle was just excellent as Kurwenal, both in voice and in acting (he still had that aged rock star look from the Eugene Onegin of the day before). Daniela Sindram was a fine Brangäne, although a bit characterless, but that seems to suit the character well.Lastly Kent Nagano, whom I usually find too constrained and passive in Wagner was excellent. The orchestral flow moved continuously throughout, with all the dynamic tempo shifts his Onegin lacked. And light years better than his Parsifal earlier this year. Deservedly ovations to him as well.Not to forget Konwitschny´s immensely moving staging. It is released on DVD with Waltraud Meier, which doesn´t entirely do it justice. In the theater you are completely blown away:The first act takes place on a ship within a quadrangular section of the stage. Isolde and Brangäne are sipping cocktails and a geometrically shaped fish is seen in the background. You almost sense, that this is not real. The same applies to the act two lovers placed on a yellow sofa in front of red trees. The black steps seen on the photo below are present throughout the opera and this is where Tristan and Isolde descend (to death) and change into all-black outfits when discovered by Melot. In the third act, Tristan is alone in a stark concrete room lit by a single light bulb (the reality?), while images (from his youth?) are projected on a screen. When Isolde arrives, they both descend in front of the set, where the liebestod is sung. The opera ends with a backdrop of Marke and Brangäne in front of two white coffins. Immensely moving.One of the finest stagings of any opera I have been so privileged to see.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

When I saw Peter Konwitschny’s Tristan und Isolde at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, together with his Parsifal, it proved the epiphany that I needed to properly develop a love, admiration, and understanding for and of Wagner’s Musikdrama. The cast then included the incomparable Waltraud Meier and Kurt Moll and the still-great-but-waning Marjana Lipovšek and Bernd Weikl. (The Tristan of Jon Frederic West was more a peripheral figure.)

I have been searching for years to find an opera production that has quite the effect on me as the Munich Tristan and a few productions have gotten close (Konwitschny’s Dutchman – when well executed, David Fielding’s Ägyptische Helena, David Alden’s La Calisto, to name three) – but none have quite matched it.

Fortunately there is a DVD of the Munich Tristan with the above mentioned cast – conducted amiably by Zubin Mehta. But the chance to reexamine live what had left such an indelible impression on me then is better than any ‘canned’ experience might be able to provide – and I was given that chance during a short run of four performances of that Tristan at the Staatsoper.

It is not only to Wagner’s popularity in this town that all four productions were sold out to the last seat, with throngs of ticket-seekers lingering around the opera house, but it also demonstrates the widely appreciated excellence and intelligence of Konwitschny’s Wagner productions. Additionally attractive was the allure of Waltraud Meier revisiting her supreme mezzo-Isolde – sharing the role with Linda Watson.

Catching the last of these four performances, I was scheduled to hear Watson – a prospect that promised a true soprano as Isolde, but also a singer who impresses me often and moves me rarely. As it turned out, Watson was who most people heard, anyway – as she jumped in for Mme. Meier who only managed one act on her second night.

Isolde was in good hands with Watson, though, and she did the expected: Impress but not move – that is: Until the last twenty minutes of Act III where her voice, the music, the production, and her slightly anemic acting combined for something truly wonderful. Maybe it was not so much that Watson shone but that she shined in the light of her ‘supporting’ cast. If there is no great Isolde on the horizon to follow Meier, Munich has certainly found keepers in Daniela Sindram’s unobtrusive Brangäne who had a marvelous way with the words – and used her graceful, clear, and distinctive voice to excellent effect.

Michael Volle, a permanent member of the Staatsoper, easily makes any memory of Bernd Weikl fade: His Eugene Onegin was wonderful and he gave his all in Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s “Ecclesiastic Action” at the first Academy Concerto of the Bavarian State Orchestra. Now his Kurnewal was so superbly sung and acted that Tristan’s usually one-dimensional, emotionally limpid buddy threatened to become more interesting than John Treleaven’s main character. A fantastic performance that portrayed compassion and a genuineness that made Kurnewal surprisingly sympathetic.

The same must be said about René Pape’s König Marke. He is the undisputed successor to Kurt Moll and Hans Hotter in this repertoire. Perfect in diction and pronunciation, subtle, careful, and convincing in his acting, magisterial, round, and resonating over the entire range of his voice.

It would be unfair to say that John Treleaven’s Tristan disappointed: The singer was not just singing his fourth Tristan in just over a week, he had also gotten ill the day of this performance. But with no replacement at hand, he saved the show by singing right through, anyway. The result was of expectedly variable quality with moments that showed wear, swaths of struggle, and moving peaks. The effort alone was admirable and truly heroic. Kent Nagano conducted his orchestra – in excellent shape for Wagner – in a fairly unsentimental and clear-cut performance.

The production, touched up slightly from when I last saw it, makes the stage more intimate with its theatre within the theatre setup. The briefest of summaries is: Ocean liner (Act I) – Flower-print couch (Act II) – Dilapidated room in castle with slide projector (Act III). Text and action are married to each other in the best of ways, the characters’ motivation always clear, and more than other productions, Konwitschny’s allows us to see Tristan and Isolde’s love not as induced by a potion but freed by casting off convention and fear when they both think that death is imminent.

The two white coffins that shine in spotlight over the last reverberating notes of the opera struck me as more tacky than I remembered. That the stage crew noisily swept broken glass from the floor behind a curtain in front of which Mme. Watson delivered a superb Liebestod was more than unfortunate. The ‘torch’ in Act II that Brangäne extinguishes looks as awful as ever. (And that in an opera house that admirably has no compunctions about using real torches, real glass, real water, and near-real explosions.) Tiny quibbles with what remains one of the very best opera productions I am familiar with.

Jens F. Laurson | Munich 30.11.2007

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 394 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BR Klassik)
A production by Peter Konwitschny