Tristan und Isolde

Jesús López Cobos
Coro y Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid
27 January 2008
Teatro Real Madrid
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanRobert Dean Smith
IsoldeWaltraud Meier
BrangäneMihoko Fujimura
KurwenalAlan Titus
König MarkeRené Pape
MelotAlexander Marco-Burmester
Ein junger SeemannÁngel Rodríguez
Ein HirtÁngel Rodríguez
SteuermannDavid Rubiera

It is clear that times in Spain are changing for the better in the field of opera. For many years, Wagner operas in general and Tristan in particular were mostly confined to Barcelona’s Liceu but lately we have had performances of this masterwork in Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao and Oviedo. It is a topic in itself to speak about the great difficulties of programming Tristan due to the scarcity of suitable voices for the main roles, to which should be added a good orchestra and a first rate conductor. In these performances however, Madrid’s Teatro Real has offered two alternative casts and the final result is more than satisfactory, although some shades of quality exist.

The production comes from Naples and has stage direction by Luis Pasqual. The real thread of this production is the sea, which is clearly very appropriate: there’s a large ship’s stern in the first act, a garden full of trees on the seaboard in the second, and a room with huge windows facing the ocean once again in the Kareol act. The attractive sets, even the almost bare stage in the last act, remind us much of Marthaller’s concept at Bayreuth. Mr. Pasqual’s “originality” consists in presenting the work in three different times: the Middle Ages for the journey, Romantic times for Act II and modern times for Kareol. It’s not too convincing, but in fact it does not disturb much, which is something worth noting nowadays. The costumes are always beautiful, although I couldn’t stop thinking in Octavian and the Marschallin during the love duet in the second act. There is good work with the lighting, especially with the ever present ocean at the back of the stage.

I had hoped that the fact that Pasqual transferred the action of the second act to Romantic times might have served to remind Jesús López Cobos that Tristan – and particularly its second act – is the summit of romantic music. López Cobos is a very cerebral conductor and in this kind of music you need heart and passion, besides brains. His reading of this great second act was if he had turned his back to stage and there was no emotion at all in his interpretation. He was much improved on the last act, but that seemed to me too late. The orchestra played very well, better than their normal quality, although still a long way from what one can enjoy with their colleagues in Valencia. López Cobos received some sonorous booing after Act II on the first night. Two days later however, he seemed more relaxed and confident and the musical result was better, although still lacking passion and inspiration.

Waltraud Meier has been one of the great Wagnerians of the last 20 years and I will not be discussing her artistic heights. She was not at her best due to a throat problem during rehearsals though I must recognize that it is almost impossible to attend to a more intense and convincing interpretation of Isolde on stage than hers. From a strictly vocal point of view her high register seemed more problematic than it used to be: the high Bs were very laborious and high Cs simply didn’t exist or were shouted. I confess that I suffered somewhat during the beginning of her great duet with Tristan in the second act. I would rather forget all this though and remember here for her Liebestod. Never mind whether she is ill or in good health, she is a real icon in Madrid.

The alternative Isolde was American Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, a soprano with a long track record in the heavier Wagnerian repertoire. Her interpretation was full of good intentions and but short on true quality. She is a good interpreter, but the vocal problems are too many. Almost all of the high notes were problematic, when not impossible, and she has an annoying and uncontrolled vibrato, which in fact is uncontrollable at times.

Robert Dean Smith was a musical Tristan blessed with a beautiful voice, but he does not have enough vocal power for rge character in a large house like the Teatro Real. He is one of the most important Wagnerian lyric tenors of the present time however, well able to face up to – like very few others – parts such as Lohengrin, Walther, Parsifal and Siegmund, but he is certainly not a held. In his favour, is his intelligence which makes him not to try to sing above his real abilities, always maintaining vocal elegance and outstanding phrasing. Nevertheless, on more than an occasion, his voice did not project over the orchestra. This was particularly evident during the second act, which was well sung, but short on volume. Surprisingly he was at his best in the horrific last act, despite all the problems described. Robert Dean Smith seems to me to be a Tristan with great qualities and serious deficiencies, who may shine more brightly at Bayreuth, due to its special acoustics.

Another American, Jon Fredric West, was the second Tristan and it is fair to say that by combining the vocal beauty and musicality of Robert Dean Smith and the vocal power of West we would get a Tristan of reference standard. West is without a doubt the most suitable voices for Tristan nowadays, if not the only one, but he works best in the last act of the opera, where he provides an outstanding display of power and vocal resource, truly spectacular and unequalled by and other tenor at the present time. A different matter though is how he deals with the rest of the opera, and especially the second act. There is neither passion nor controlled singing in what he does, but only decibels. If he were able to sing as as well as he does through the second act and could also add passion, he would then be the Tristan of reference. As things stand, it best to remember his n the last act.

Of René Pape I can only say that he really is Koenig Marke. “God save the King” was never was better deserved than when dedicated to this extraordinary artist. Voice, diction, elegance, feeling, phrasing, extraordinary deep notes and all – round excellence add up to make him an immense singer. With Mr. Pape on stage, this opera should really be retitled Tristan, Isolde und Marke. I have the impression too that he is developing into a deep bass more than the bass baritone, that he has been formerly.

Japanese Mihoko Fujimura was a good Brangaene with a very well structured voice, although with less weight in the low register than in the past. Russian Elena Zhidkova made a lighter Brangaene than we are used to. Young and beautiful, she is not the traditional Isolde’s maid but is a convincing interpreter with an attractive voice and sensitivity, even though her voice is not too big.

Alan Titus was not convincing as Kurwenal, often singing too loudly at and without much evidence of his character’s faithfulness to Tristan. Alexander Marco-Buhrmester was generally lighter-voiced in the same part, but more credible and convincing than Titus.

Alexandre Marco-Buhrmester was a luxurious Melot in the first cast while Lauri Vasar was a suitable enough but tighter voiced. There as a good performance by Angel Rodriguez as Shepherd and David Rubiera completed the cast as the Steuermann.

As usual in Madrid, there was a packed house for both casts although with some desertions from the expensive seats before the last. The loudest popular successes were for Waltraud Meier, René Pape and Jon Fredric West. Maestro Lopez Cobos received applause mixed with boos at the first night, while in the second he had a much better reception. Luis Pasqual was applauded too, which is always good, despite the fact that nowadays it seems that Directorial success is often directly related to the boos received at the premiere.

Jose M. Irurzun | Teatro Real de Madrid. 15 and 17. 1.2008

User Rating
Media Type/Label
HO 14172
Technical Specifications
320 kBit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 525 MByte (MP3)
Sound quality is not great but acceptable.
A production by Luis Pasqual