Tristan und Isolde

Zubin Mehta
Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
4 May 2014
Teatro Comunale Firenze
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanTorsten Kerl
IsoldeLioba Braun
BrangäneJutta Rutigliano
KurwenalMartin Gantner
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotKurt Azesberger
Ein junger SeemannGregory Warren
Ein HirtGregory Warren
SteuermannItalo Proferisce
Opera News

The May 11 matinée of Tristan und Isolde — the final show of the inaugural production of this year’s Maggio Musicale Fiorentino — was also the last performance conducted by Zubin Mehta at the Teatro Comunale, which has housed the principal events at Italy’s oldest festival since 1933. Mehta has been a frequent presence at the theater since he became the festival’s music director in 1986. In the fall, the Opera di Firenze (as it is now called) will move definitively to its new house a few hundred meters away. It was thus a moving occasion for Florentine habitués, who greeted the seventy-eight-year-old maestro and the orchestra with ovations at the beginning and end of every act.

The cheers were not undeserved, for the orchestral playing was warm, supple and focused in every detail, the pacing of the work persuasive from start to finish and the rapport between stage and pit unfailing, in spite of the vocal difficulties of some of the singers. It was, however, a somewhat crepuscular reading — as if filtered through memory rather than directly experienced here and now — which reached an apex of eloquence in King Marke’s monologue in Act II, in which Danish bass Stephen Milling offered the best singing of the afternoon, lending sculpted density to every phrase. The production — directed and designed by Stefano Poda — also suggested an atmosphere of twilight serenity; its sense of oriental ritual was emphasized by the oblique lighting, by the slow-motion movements of numerous extras and by the dominant image in all three acts — an unceasing cascade of rice onto a hillock at the center of the stage. There was also a suspended platform that suggested the deck of the ship in Act I and offered an imposing launching pad for Isolde’s “Liebestod” in Act III.

In visual terms, the effect, if unvarying, was never less than pleasingly tasteful, but strong emotional engagement with the characters was hardly favored. (In a program note, Poda claims that Wagner’s drama “is not a love story” and that the two leading characters are “already dead” at the beginning of the opera.) One could sense, for example, that Lioba Braun, the Isolde, possessed a strong stage presence, but the lighting was too dim for the character’s emotions to be visible on her face. Vocally, she managed the role without embarrassment but without conveying much of the youth or beauty of the Irish princess; her voice turned sour and unsteady when it rose at forte above the staff. The lack of physical contact with both Isolde and Kurwenal made it difficult for spectators to share the emotional life of Torsten Kerl’s Tristan. His voice sounded in healthier condition than Braun’s and was pleasant enough in quiet passages, but when projected forcefully, it sounded unvarying in color. The sense of virile communion with Kurwenal was undermined by the infelicitous vocal estate of the experienced Wagnerian baritone Juha Uusitalo.

Julia Rutigliano’s Brangäne also lacked warmth and solidity of tone, and the haunting urgency of her nocturnal warning was diminished by the presence of irrelevant extras onstage. Kurt Azesberger’s Melot, on the other hand, was musically well-focused, and his wounding of Tristan was skillfully contrived. Italo Proferisce proved a sturdy Steuermann, but Gregory Warren sounded uncertain in line as the Sailor and the Shepherd.

STEPHEN HASTINGS | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 5/11/14

Zubin Mehta exalts the lyrical side of the score, extolling refinements and colours, athmospheres and coherence to libretto and plot. Seldom I’ve heard this Orchestra play in such a convincing way, perfectly according to conductor’s will.

The opera starts in a sort of muted tone, almost the whole First Act is fragmentary and not quite convincing. Mehta starts to show his mastery from the Final of Act I, when King Marke arrives, and goes on with a great sorrowful partecipation in Second and Third Act.

He spurs the orchestra with his beautiful gesture, helps the singers when in difficulties, extolls really beautiful colours and tones. Probably, and this is the only little reproach, all this goes to detriment of “theatricality” that in some moments could be more evident. But in the whole it has been a really convincing conducting.

The singers were of average level. Torsten Kerl was a lyric Tristan, without vocal uncertainties. His accent was monotonous, but regarding to the lenghth and difficulty of this character he got away with it in very well.

Lioba Braun was disappointing, with her unequal soprano showing neither amplitude nor a charming timbre.

Juha Uusitalo was Kurwenal confirming unfortunately his long-time vocal problems.

Stephen Milling was a splendid King Marke both scenically and vocally: a wonderful approach to this character with perfect adherence to the score.

Mezzo Julia Rutigliano was Brangäne, but her voice and her technique were insufficient, so she was rather disappointing.

The other singers were on an average level.

As said, Orchestra and Chorus were really in good shape and quite agreeing to Mehta‘s interpretation.

On the contrary the staging (created by Stefano Poda) was pretentious and too highbrow-style. There is only one scene, with little variations according to the various situations, with sand on the floor and sort of a waterfall in the middle of the stage but with no water coming out but rice (all the rice will be not thrown away but used to prepare dog-food, so we were told…). These rice-grains pouring out unceasingly during the lenght of the performance, probably symbolize the passing of time or the inevitability of human destiny.

The almost only unic element of scenography is a platform forestage surrounding the rice fall, that can be lifted or lowered. On the background a planet, or maybe the moon, variously lightened during the performance.

The acting of the singers and of mimes is very affected, the characters move often very slow, and frequently in profile like an Egyptian bas-relief. Costumes are average, while the light-designing is exceptional, very accurate almost at the edge of a technical narcissism.

The story is staged in a not defined time, and there are fine moments, such as the arrival of King Marke in the final First Act, but others are almost embarassing, like the duet in the Second Act, where Tristan and Isolde are standing completely motionless in the middle of the stage, with “doubles” going around them like in slow-motion. Moreover, there are also almost incomprehensible symbols and little statues inspired to Bocklin’s Deads Island.

Some ensemble scenes were pleasant, but globally it was an unrealistic and disappointing staging, that in some moments made almost incomprehensible a simple and linear story like that of Tristan.

Unfortunately the House was only half full, but at the end the audience tributed very warm applause above all for the conductor.

Fabio Bardelli | Maggio Musicale Fiorentino 5/7/14

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1kHz, 362 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Stefano Poda (2014)