Tristan und Isolde

Sebastian Weigle
Cor i Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
27 January 2010
Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanPeter Seiffert
IsoldeDeborah Voigt
BrangäneMichaela Schuster
KurwenalBo Skovhus
König MarkeKwangchul Youn
MelotNorbert Ernst
Ein junger SeemannFrancisco Vas
Ein HirtFrancisco Vas
SteuermannManel Esteve Madrid

Barcelona has a well deserved reputation for its long Wagner tradition, beginning with its the famous world premiere of Parsifal outside of Bayreuth. All opera lovers recognize that Wagner is of paramount importance to the genre and that for many of them Tristan und Isolde is the most important Wagner work of all. When we consider that Tristan had its premiere at the Liceu in the 1899–1900 season and that in the 110 years since then, this opera has been performed there during 42 seasons (43 with the present one) it is clear that few other theatres – if any – outside of Germany, have such an impressive track record.

This time Tristan returns to Barcelona from Los Angeles in a surprising production by the American Thor Steingraber. It’s surprising because the Liceu has been presenting lots of modern and minimalist productions in recent years, while this one is quite the opposite. The production is 23 years old, having been offered several times in California during this period, the last of them about a year ago, and is certainly as ‘traditional’ a production as any. Its main attraction are the sets and costumes by the English designer David Hockney, who provides a classic and attractive staging with particularly good use of colour. Act I takes place in the boat – something almost ‘original’ these days – while Act II is set in an attractive forest, next to King Mark’s castle. Finally, act III takes place on a cliff top at Kareol. For any who has forgotten lately how to be faithful to the Tristan libretto this production is a good helpful reminder: there is no change of time, the action takes place in the middle ages with appropriate and attractive costumes and good lighting rounds off this classical production. Thor Steingraber’s stage directions is wholly appropriate to this classical and traditional conception, although oddly it does feel somehow short of passion.

The musical direction was in the hands of Liceu’s former music director, Sebastian Weigle, who was more than competent as always, but who offered a uneven reading overall. He was fine in the first Act, while the wonderful Act II felt short of inspiration and rather anodyne although matters did improve for ActIII. In general, I found this a perfectly correct and effective reading rather than a truly brilliant one, but it was also significantly better than the other Wagner operas in this theatre, conducted by Maestor Weigle in recent last years. Actually, the orchestra offered a much better performance than their average, as if they were fully aware of the importance of Wagner to this theatre.

American soprano Deborah Voigt has been one of most outstanding sopranos since the 90s of course having become

a Wagner voice of the first order and she still offers a compelling figure on stage, perfectly credible in a character as the Irish Princess. Her voice has changed a little and perhaps not entirely for the better. In the middle register the sound is still beautiful and well handled, albeit without some of the opulence from of a few years ago, but her upper range has lost some of its harmonics and today it is slightly tight and offers a less attractive sound. She was at her best in the “Liebestod”, sung with excellent taste and emotion and there is no doubt at all that she is still great artist, though not quite the exceptional soprano of some years ago.

German tenor Peter Seiffert made a Tristan of beautiful voice and is always a fine singer, despite some difficulties in the last act. As all Wagnerites will know, the difficulties in singing Tristan are not only about tessitura, but also of having to struggle against a big orchestra. The length of the role too is demanding, particularly in the third Act, where Wagner seems committed to postpone the arrival of Isolde to prolong the hero’s agony – both physical and vocal. So, as often happens when a good tenor sings rather than barks the role, Peter Seiffert was cautious in the second Act always singing with great taste and beauty. This does not necessarily overcome the last Act’s vocal challenges of course.

The Korean bass Kwangchul Youn was a good King Marke. He has a noble voice and an elegant line, but he lacks the power of his colleagues René Pape or Matti Salminen. The last time I saw him in this same character was more than three years ago and then I found his voice more powerful than now.

German mezzo soprano Michaela Schuster was an excellent Brangaene. She is a fine interpreter and her voice is quite nicely controlled in the middle, while at the top it offers an excessive vibrato. The character of course, as with Micaëla or Liù, is always a gift for any singer and Ms Schuster made the most of it.

Norwegian baritone Bo Skovhus was a very convincing Kurwenal in all aspects. His clear voice suits this noble character excellently and he was always a very compelling performer.

In the secondary roles we had the reliable Norbert Ernst as Melot, although I still prefer a baritone in the character and st his usual level of quality Francisco Vas was the Shepherd. Finally, Manel Esteve Madrid was a completely suitable Steurmann.

This was the first performance in a run of 11 and there was a full house. The final reception was very warm for all artists, who had cheers in large good doses and Sebastian Weigle and the orchestra were also applauded warmly. Finally, director Thor Steingraber was received without any booing at all, which today is real news.

José M Irurzun | Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona. 23. 1.2010

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 551 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (Catalunya Musica)
A production by Thor Steingraber