As Toronto audiences gear up for a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde they could do worse than to watch a free video feed of the 2007 Glyndebourne production conducted by Jiří Bĕlohlávek (the man originally slated to conduct the Toronto production until he cancelled last week due to illness) and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. The video is available until January 6th 2013.
While the presentation is not precisely as what’s in the score the departures are relatively minor compared to what often happens in Wagner productions.
I suspect that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross –were she alive—would approve of the set, designed by Roland Aeschlimann with its echoes of wombs and birth canals. The third act begins with a colour scheme as pale as the face of a dying man, which is precisely how Tristan appears to us. The production is less interested in love –the word most often associated with this opera– than in death, and i believe this is a completely legitimate, and not especially radical, reading of the opera using Schopenhauer as subtext.
Nina Stemme, still one of the world’s great dramatic sopranos according to what I’ve been told—was in strong voice at this time. Have a look if you wonder what love really looks like. In Act I she’s one of the scariest Isoldes you could imagine –standing up to Bo Skovhus’s macho Kurwenal—in her assertion of her rights. When she drinks the potion she loses no intensity, but drops her defensive façade, letting us see the passion underlying her initial outrage. It hangs together wonderfully as a portrayal.
Robert Gambill starts slowly as Tristan, sounding a bit wobbly in the first act, but better as he goes on.
Skovhus is subdued considerably in the last act, a performance in tandem with Gambill’s allowing great sensitivity even in the closeups. Katarina Karnéus as Brängane has a lovely lighter sound –unlike the darker voices one sometimes gets in this role—leading to moments in the first act where she and her mistress are so similar one almost could mistake one for the other. While this may not sound desirable, I recall an old recording where I heard a similar effect in Act III between Lauritz Melchior’s sick Tristan and Herbert Janssen’s gentle Kurwenal. Indeed there are many ways these roles can be sung, so I am always grateful to hear something a bit different.
For the brief time he’s onstage Rene Pape as King Marke is the most impressive cast member. When King Marke shows up in Act II, interrupting the action, it’s hard not to resent his complaints, hard to hear him as anything but sanctimonious. Yet Pape is so sympathetic, so instantly lovely in his singing & acting, you’re not surprised when Gambill hugs him, in a gesture of complete contrition. I would imagine during rehearsal somebody was muttering “oh my God, give the guy a hug.” It’s one of the climactic moments of the opera.
Enjoy it while you can, although you can also obtain the Blu-Ray or DVD.