Tristan und Isolde

Franz Welser-Möst
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
13 June 2013
Staatsoper Wien
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanPeter Seiffert
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneJanina Baechle
KurwenalJochen Schmeckenbecher
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotEjiro Kai
Ein junger SeemannJinxu Xiahou
Ein HirtCarlos Osuna
SteuermannMarcus Pelz

Think of all the adjectives typically used to report on the best of female Wagner singing; add lyrical phrasing and imagine the absence of any shrillness, and you have come as close as possible to a description of the perfection that Nina Stemme achieved in her first Isolde for the Wiener Staatsoper. Her partner for the night was Peter Seiffert, who is at an age where one might typically expect vocal weaknesses, though judging from this performance Isolde not only had balms and a love potion for Tristan but a voice-rejuvenating elixir as well. There may have been wide vibrato on a couple of occasions, but what does that matter in a performance where you hear stupendous crescendos coming forth from long sustained mezzo-forte notes, Lieder-like tenderness in Act II, and vocal power soaring above a pit which held nothing back? We cannot know whether Seiffert gave 200% because he needn’t save his instrument for another 20 years on stage, but one was grateful for the rare experience of hearing a Tristan in full bloom and blast, whatever the reason for his no-holds-barred performance may have been.

The bad news is that without such strong lead casts, Sir David McVicar’s debut production for the Staatsoper isn’t one that will help opera newcomers see past the platitudes of Wagner’s proverbial wonderful moments and stultifying quarters of hours. Admittedly, this staging is neither ugly nor disrespectful to the text, but the black and blue set (Robert Jones), with its colour-changing moon, a shipwreck and a ruin, looks like a leftover from some obsolete and in no small part purely imagined era of opera staging. In terms of mise-en-scène, it is an unqualified disappointment. The notable absence of an interview with the director in the evening’s programme suggests that he hasn’t much to say about the work; or at least nothing that translated visually. At any rate McVicar seems to be more comfortable with operas that provide more action, as the Viennese could see in the Met’s broadcast of his brilliant Giulio Cesare. The minimum that can be expected from this director was however fulfilled in this Tristan: the sexual subtext materialized in what can count as a phallic symbol in Act II, a slender stone pillar centred in a big round wiry object in the air that could pass for an abstract maypole with an oversized wreath.

The other signature feature in McVicar productions is Andrew George’s choreography, and this one was no exception. A choreographic approach to opera can work very well, and I can indeed imagine it for Tristan, but you have to be committed to the idea and come up with a clear concept, instead of just occasional gymnastics – having sailors dance a bit around the ship that brings Isolde to Cornwall will almost inevitably make things look more Broadway than Wagner. Plaudits are in order, however, for the direction of the singers; it helps that there is good stage chemistry between Seiffert and Stemme, who aren’t newcomer to their roles, but the impeccable timing of action (as was particularly noticeable in the potion scene) is worth mentioning. Also, with the two leads singing meticulously attuned duets that speak for themselves, letting them sometimes just stand and perform a grey version of Gustav Klimt’s Kiss is not a bad idea, though it has to be said that more colours than fifteen shades of grey in kaftan-style costumes and armours would have been welcome. Had there not been Stemme’s blood-red velvet gown with a train for the finale, the award for the most spectacular sight of the night would have gone to the orchestra, playing without jackets and ties as a concession to the current oven-like temperatures in Austria.

Franz Welser-Möst, with his unspectacular, even economic style in conducting, as well as a fittingly detached countenance, elicited passionate and vibrant sound and only very occasionally too much volume from the orchestra. Tristan’s wavy motif was wonderfully gushing and sparkling, but ebullient playing was not so welcome where Wagner’s ideas of overcoming polarities climax and love and death merge into “Liebestod”. For this, the transfiguration of Isolde, I prefer the idea of an ecstatic but slow fading, whereas Welser-Möst read the score as Isolde drowning in a maelstrom, albeit impressively so. Another musical qualification has to be made about Act II: the love duet between the supernatural beings that are Tristan and Isolde was sublime, save for Janina Baechle’s contribution of earthy tone, where the warning song of other Brangänes can sound angelic. The rest of the cast gave fine performances, with Stephen Milling’s Marke standing out and Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Kurwenal making an impression in Act III.

21 Juni 2013

After Richard Wagner completed the composition of Tristan and Isolde in 1859, he thought Vienna would be a perfect place to mount the opera. But two years later the work was abandoned as unperformable.

In the hands of the great opera director David McVicar, it is hard to remember how problematic the love story seemed. With Nina Stemme, the reigning queen of Wagnerian sopranos, cast as Isolde on stage with superb supporting talent, the five hour evening flew by leaving the audience wanting more.

Franz Welser-Möst, a first-rate conductor of Wagner, wove all the musical and dramatic pieces seamlessly together. He took the music from love repressed to an almost helpless, but at the same time completely controlled, height. Dissonances contributed to the instability of the lovers’ predicament and aptly reflected their longing and desire. Earthbound passion is finally transfigured in death.

On a warm Vienna evening, the orchestra members, given the stillness of the air, were clad in white shirts with open collars. In fact, the production itself is still, like a Willy Decker production, which placed all the focus on the music and the drama. Not only are music and text joined as one, but every detail of McVicar’s direction fed into the unity.

Stemme has a rich and textured voice, sometimes soaring with seeming ease over the orchestra yet, at other times, so quiet that your ear has to snap to attention to get all her subtle vocal caresses. From her initial fury at being brought to Cornwall to marry King Mark, to her ecstatic union with Tristan, Stemme conveys her spiritual accession to a union possible only in death. At a time when love and sexuality were bursting through normal conventions, Wagner took passionate union to a new level.

Andrew George’s choreography added a light touch to the drama. Dancing couples suggested fornication in the deep, dark background of the Vienna stage. It does not feel like “overstepping the powers of execution”, which Wagner wrote he had accomplished as he composed. Rather it is another mirror on music of extraordinary complexity and beauty.

The set featured a red moon, which changed to blue and white to match the moods. A puffy cloudlike arc midway on the horizon matched the moon in color, but not texture. Delineation between the earthly and the other earthly was softly articulated, perhaps because the action exists in a muffled sphere.

The boat carrying Tristan to Cornwall to deliver the bride Isolde to its King was the outline of ship, the construction of the hull revealing its ribcage of bent wood. A prominent prow entered at the beginning of the opera, carrying an angry Isolde off to her arranged marriage with the King.

A pile of ragged rocks is stage right. In the second act tryst, the garden is only suggested by a torch that is extinguished when a visit from Tristan is considered safe. Near the castle in Brittany to which Tristan has sailed after being betrayed and wounded by his friend Melot, the setting is particularly bleak and yet beautiful. Robert Jones has tended to every detail of the opera as he conceived the set. Its quiet beauty provides the perfect backdrop for the opera, which musically and dramatically consummates the greatest of all loves.

In this production, Stemme takes an unexpected step up, as David McVicar guides her gestures to enhance the drama. The extraordinary passion of the two lovers, expressed by their embraces is certainly among the most convincing ever staged in opera. You not only hear the passion in the second act duet,, but see it evoked by the singers. McVicar brings every expressive resource to the stage.

Even when the gestures are frozen in time they appear to be living. Seiffert standing behind Stemme in one duet, clasps her arms in an active grasping, hoping, wishing while Stemme holds her hands forward, fingers splayed in hope. Her clasped hands are a penitential plea. No props are needed for the audience to understand the singers, consumed by the music and emotion.

Seiffert warmed as the evening progressed. His voice does not blaze like some heldentenors, but his attention to expressive detail and his lyric lines created a satisfying performance.

Tristan dying sees a light which he imagines is Isolde. She arrives from nowhere to be with him in their shared fantasy. Tristan greets his own blood as though it were a sign of life. Isolde’s imaginary appearance in a blood red dress makes her real.

The staging evocatively captures the eerie zone between the real and the imagined. But there what we hear from Stemme is unquestionably real. Stemme’s Liebestod at the end of the opera, “to drown, to founder, unconscious – utmost joy” was to die for. Caught in the desire to live forever in their passion, they die to achieve their wish. The entire production transforms emotional turbulence to a fulfilling evening of opera.

Fused in love and death, the staging and orchestration provided a thrilling performance. McVicar, Stemme and Seiffert were among the many greatly gifted talents that made this tribute to Wagner so special.

Susan Hall | 24.10.2012

Der Standard

“Tristan und Isolde”: Orchesterwolke voller Rauschgesänge Nina Stemme vollführte als Isolde eine Glanzleistung. Regisseur David McVicar setzte auf szenische Statik, Dirigent Franz Welser-Möst auf fulminante Energie

Nicht dass gehofft wurde, Regisseur David McVicar würde für Tristan und Isolde ein Motelzimmer des 21. Jahrhunderts buchen, worin das Sehnsuchtspaar seine (über ein soziales Netzwerk angeheizte) Liaison im Handstand besingt. Das diskret in ferne Epochen weisende optische Konzept (Ausstattung: Robert Jones) wirkt ja durchaus brauchbar, wenngleich König Marke ein wenig aussah, als wäre er zu einem Drittel pelziger Yeti und zu zwei Dritteln Kardinal. Von aparter Abstraktheit auch das Ambiente: Feuerrot bezirzt der Mond beim Aufgehen der Liebe; bläulich bezeugt er den Austausch von Zärtlichkeit. Und graue Trauer befällt ihn, so sich die Außenwelt aggressiv in den Liebestraum drängt. Das wirkt auf einer Bühne (welche Lichtstreifen, die den Mondfarben folgen, halbkreisartig definieren) klar und atmosphärisch konsequent. Zumal Schiffswrack, ein vom leuchtfähigen Drahtkranz umrankter Baumstamm und Felshügel die Bildkomposition mehr würzen als dominieren. In diesem zeitlos angelegten Setting hätte McVicar getrost – bei allem Verständnis für die Rücksichtnahme auf praktisch-akustische und vokale Erfordernisse der Monsterpartien – eine gestische Zeichensprache entwickeln können, die mit der Abstraktion der Bühne elegant korrespondiert. Hervorgebracht wurde jedoch leider ein häufig nur mit verkrampften Umarmungen beauftragtes Liebespaar an der Rampe. Wobei sich die grotesken Matrosentänze (des ersten Aktes) und das Monty-Python-hafte Gehabe der Ritter wie ein schlechter Opernwitz ornamental um die innere Liebeshandlung winden.

LJUBIŠA TOŠIC | 14. Juni 2013

User Rating
Media Type/Label
CA, Premiere, PO
Technical Specifications
224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 358 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (Ö1)
A production by David McVicar (premiere)