Tristan und Isolde

Zubin Mehta
Coro e Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli
22 February 2015
Teatro di San Carlo Napoli
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanTorsten Kerl
IsoldeVioleta Urmana
BrangäneLioba Braun
KurwenalJukka Rasilainen
König MarkeStephen Milling
MelotAlfredo Nigro
Ein junger SeemannAlfredo Nigro
Ein HirtMarcello Nardis
SteuermannItalo Proferisce

Tristan and Isolde: an extreme love to die for in Naples

In all opera this is possibly the greatest (and definitely the longest) love story. Tristan and Isolde is both a landmark in music and art – and an ultimate test for soprano and tenor, too. Wagner said that this was the most audacious work of his life: the innovations he introduced in the harmony, along with the description of the most extreme passion ever set to music, along with the philosophical and metaphysical implications, have changed Western music and culture. The opera draws on the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult, and explores the theme of eternal love through sublime music.

This production of Tristan und Isolde has been an event of great quality, from the conducting of Zubin Mehta, timely and harmonious, to a talented cast, led by an inspired Violeta Urmana. Director Lluis Pasqual’s 2004 staging, revived by Caroline Lang, is centred around the theme of everlasting love in different ages: in Act I the action takes place on the bow of a medieval (seemingly Viking) ship, moving towards the waves of a gloomy Nordic sea which is projected on the backdrop. As the opera progresses, the sea remains at the back, but ages change: Act II is set in a garden with cypresses, with Tristan and King Marke wearing 19th century uniforms.

Act III takes place in a 20th century military lazarette, according to the director’s notes, yet I couldn’t help thinking it was more like the sanatorium where Thomas Mann’s novella Tristano is set. And it is worth noting that the short novel’s tubercular protagonist, Gabriele Kloeterjahn, suffers a deadly relapse after playing Wagner’s score on the piano, thus being induced a state of extreme emotion and sexual arousal.

Pasqual’s production transparently represents the gap between the physical passion and the metaphysical love; the impossibility of resolving the divide leads to the characters’ renunciation of life by forcing Eros until annihilation. This staging doesn’t alter the opera’s story and draws proper attention to the beauty of Wagner’s score, emphasising the musical highlights: the Act I Prelude, the lovers’duet in Act II, Isolde’s Liebestod in Act III. The tension achieved in the Love Duet was remarkable and gave the piece an intense erotic load, rendering Isolde’s Liebestod a breathtaking catharsis.

The renowned San Carlo acoustics allowed the singers a freedom of expression (and a freedom from having to push their voices too hard) which they wouldn’t have had in many other houses. Here, the legendary ‘Tristan chord’ resounded as it were newly-shaped.

Violeta Urmana displayed a solid line of singing earning a vigorous public tribute. Vocally, her soprano was flawless, with vibrant timbre and secure intonation. Her Isolde was a princess and a bride, yet a still woman who lives a cruel conflict between love and hate, honour, and duty. Tortsen Kerl, with a more beautiful voice than many contemporary Heldentenors, made a fine Tristan, conveying the pathos of the hero’s despair in Act III rather than his grief.

Lioba Braun was a most inspiring Brangäne, strong and intense. The second act revealed the flair of bass Stephen Milling, with compact volumes and a fervent interpretation of a moving King Marke. Kurwenal is one of Wagner’s most ambiguous characters; baritone Jukka Rasilainen made a very good impression. Rasilainen seemed to have in Kurwenal an ideal role for his strong, slightly rounded voice.

Under Zubin Metha’s baton, the orchestral playing was responsive to the demands of the score in each scene. As any performance of Tristan und Isolde depends heavily upon the efforts of the orchestra and conductor, Mehta brought the Orchestra of San Carlo onto the stage for the curtain call, which earned loud applause reserved just for them. Impressive, too, was the Chorus, producing a wonderfully amalgamated tone.

In this performance, Metha focused on exploiting every musical and dramatic feature of Wagner’s score. He just allowed the opera to reveal its fascination on its own terms. Wagner’s hymn to desire, eroticism and death inspired Mehta’s conducting, which achieved a depth of human and incorporeal expression, until the lovers’ final detachment from the world.

Lorenzo Fiorito | 23 Februar 2015

Chaos in the company but Zubin Mehta steers Tristan to calmer waters

For many opera companies, the sudden loss of a general manager, artistic director, musical director and the entire artistic administration would be worrying. Not for Italy’s oldest opera house – the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples has managed to overcome far greater irritations since 1737. Compared with total destruction by fire in 1816 and serious bomb damage during WWII, the lack of a few personnel was viewed by the drama-loving Napolitani as a mere scherzetto.

In a commendable spirit of derring-do and under the particular encouragement of Zubin Mehta the recent revival of Lluìs Pasqual’s 2004 production of Tristan und Isolde enjoyed considerable success with the local audience. But then again, Wagner isn’t Rossini or Donizetti and the pubblicodeipalchi were probably kinder to the singers than if they were performing bel canto.

This revival was certainly welcome for Ezio Frigerio’s superb shimmering silver sea rear scrim where the wonderful seascape predominates. Despite some enormous gnarled cypress trees blocking the vista, König Marke’s castle in Cornwall in Act II has very agreeable sea views making one wonder if Melot’s hunt was for deer or dolphin. Unfortunately Frigerio missed the mark in Act III, where instead of Tristan’s ruined castle as Wagner specifies, the Helden ohne Gleiche is found in an airy hospital by the sea which looked a lot more like Blackpool than Brittany.

Franca Squarciapino, who can usually be relied upon to design uncontroversial costumes, seemed in this case more inspired by HMS Pinafore than classic Celtic mythology. While the women fared better with chic fur-trimmed travelling clothes, Tristan looked every inch a toy soldier/sailor with gaudy gold epaulettes and matching jacket buttons. König Marke could have passed for a veteran bell-boy at the Headland Hotel in Newquay. No gravitas in costume design whatsoever.

This was regrettable because the performance of Stephen Milling as the cuckolded king was the most consistently pleasing of the evening. Possessed of a rich, mellifluous timbre with excellent diction and an ability to shape long vocal phrases with outstanding projection (the low B natural on Mir dies in Act II was a case in point) Mr. Milling brought considerable pathos without schmaltzy sentimentality to this almost Verdian of characters. Only a slight tendency to pinch at the very top of the register marred what would otherwise have been a first-rate performance.

The Tristan of Torsten Kerl, although much improved by Act III, was generally under-voiced and dramatically unconvincing. There were some better mezzavoce and lyrical moments in the Act II duet (the upward F-D# legato chromatic passage on von deinemm Zauber sanft umsponnen was especially agreeable) but even though Kerl has all the notes, this was a never more than a routine performance.

Although having sung Brangäne in Bayreuth and at La Scala some years ago, Lioba Braun was vocally underpowered and dramatically dubitable. Small in stature and smaller in voice, this was a mezzo, who despite Mehta’s considerate restraint with the orchestra, had serious projection problems. There was also something a bit academic about her overall characterisation.

As Kurwenal, Jukka Rasilainen was a disappointment. The voice has a light, almost Italianate timbre and while the top range is accurate and unforced, there was something essentially routine about this performance which matched that of the Brangäne – obviously not in a good way.

The smaller roles of Melot (Alfredo Nigro), Ein junger Seemann (also Alfredo Nigro), Ein Hirt (Marcello Nardis) and Ein Steuermann (Italo Proferisce) were competently sung without distinction.

The greatest interest of the evening was in the Verdi-mezzo turned Wagner-dramatic soprano Violetta Urmana. Whilst she has reportedly enjoyed success with Isolde in Vienna, Paris and Madrid, this performance, whilst vocally secure, showed a lamentable lack of emotional understanding, and an alarming absence of diversity of vocal tone colour. These limitations were also evident in her performance of Act II at the Proms in 2010.

There was none of the sheer sexual Sturm und Drang of Nina Stemme; the almost manic characterization of Iréne Theorin or the consummate artistry of Hildegard Behrens. Yes, she could certainly nail the top notes with laser-like Nilsson-eque accuracy,.and there was also some lovely mezzavoce singing, but the wow factor simply wasn’t there. During the Hört meinen Willen zagende Winde explosion in Act I she might as well have been complaining about the quality of Bovril served to the deckchair passengers on the channel ferry.

The concluding Liebestod, which often unfairly determines Isolde’s entire performance, was short on spiritual upliftment and even the final F sharp on Lust, although sung with the stipulated piano, was for some reason not given the required four beats. Reportedly Miss Urmana is going back to mezzo roles and will sing Brangäne later this year. Probably a better choice.

In keeping with his unflamboyant and commendably clear baton technique, Zubin Mehta’s restrained interpretation of this supremely complex score had a reflective, almost chamber-like quality about it. Wagner’s constantly changing orchestral tone colours and nuanced phrasing were played with insight, elegance and grace. Closer to Karl Böhm’s non-ponderous tempi than Carlos Kleiber’s angst-ridden reading or Leonard Bernstein’s mystical approach, maestro Mehta had the San Carlo orchestra display excellent warm string tone with overall rhythmic precision. To say there was a more Italianate sound than the customary robust Germanic klang would not be inaccurate. Clarinets and flutes were gentle and lyrical (the bass-clarinet during Marke’s soliloquy being particularly poignant) even if the oboes were a little strident. Moving on stage for the final curtain call, both maestro Mehta and the orchestral musicians received a thunderous ovation with plenty of bravis.

All in all, a creditable performance of Wagner’s seminal masterpiece which although never reaching the heights of höchste Liebelust, more than justified its inclusion in the 2014-15 San Carlo season. A year which will probably be remembered more for its administrative escapades than operatic triumphs.

Jonathan Sutherland | Teatro di San Carlo, Naples 3 March 2015

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224 kbit/s CBR, 44.1kHz, 350 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (RAI)
A production by Lluìs Pasqual