JWR Articles: Live Event - Tristan und Isolde (Featured composer: Richard Wagner) - September 11, 2010

Tristan und Isolde

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Angel SEL-3777
No lack of imagination

In most cinema, the images are made first and the music added afterward. Writing a film score is an art in itself.

With director Peter Sellars and video artist Bill Viola being asked to bring their considerable skills to bear on Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the results were bound to be fascinating—perhaps even controversial.

Sellars has taken the timeless tale of doomed love and made full use of the Kultur and Kongresszentrum Lucerne’s concert hall (and all other venues that this production will tour).

He’s been multi-blessed here by the many levels of the room from the gently raked orchestra floor to the “Eiger Nord”-heaven of the fourth balcony. In between there’s even room for far-off-stage brass (with an assistant conductor to relay the pulse) and men’s chorus (largely lost with less decibel production per man than the trumpets and horns and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen whose penchant for being forceful—at times overbearing—in his treatment of the score drowned out many vocal and choral contributions). Once again there was no discernible, overarching dynamic plan that went beyond 100 measures at a time (cross-reference below).

The images appear above the Philharmonia Orchestra on a mammoth screen (landscape in Acts 1&2; tellingly portrait in the third, giving Tristan’s ascent to blissful afterlife an extra dimension of upward reach) worked remarkably well on some levels and failed miserably elsewhere.

The underwater sequences were especially endearing. With bare skin, bubbles and the special brilliance video has over film, the eye was delighted with every dip (John Hay and Sarah Steben were the Tristan/Isolde surrogates here; Jeff Mills and Lisa Rhoden had the honours on land). Fire-as-passion lit up everyone’s heart as the lovers fell under the elixir’s spell but the Act 3 shot of Isolde surrounded by pyre flames (similar to Tristan’s Siegfried-like walk through the searing heat earlier), garbed in hood and what could have been sackcloth conjured up Salem and a burning at the stake.

Much of the camera work (Harry Dawson) was hand-held, adding a certain “you are there” quality (but without the queasiness of The Blair Witch Project). The frequent pull-backs and slow zooms (curiously, the initial one seemed to begin as a follow-spot pointer before blossoming into the amorous pair—had a reel change been missed? one wondered) were also predominantly jerky.

Therein lies the biggest concern. Wagner’s music is a marvel of ebb and flow with sudden halts or stilted transitions exceptionally rare. Too often for comfort, the images seemed at odds with the rich sound pouring out of the musicians near-endlessly for well over four hours. Not surprisingly, the eye couldn’t help but follow the screen, not wanting to miss the next big moment. (Having this same day seen Sigalit Landau’s Dead Sea video just metres away in the KKL Art Museum, there were some extraordinary moments of resonance with both artists’ use of water, nude women and long unravelling: quel hazard!)

As to the soloists, this production is extremely fortunate to have such an exemplary cast. All live opera, whether in concert, semi-staged or produced can’t exist without the voices but also seeing how arias, duets and ensembles are produced is often equally important to more fully appreciate the emotional underpinnings. With the Big Brother flashing almost non-stop above (the orchestral introductions were left blank), the vital facial expressions and body language of the artists had to be relegated to second visual-fiddle, making this presentation feel more like watching a music video.

Gary Lehman was an engaging, sympathetic Tristan, bringing an impassioned tone and skillful dramatic turns to the role (although much of his second-act heroics were orchestrally overshadowed: the concert hall stage is not a pit; when on the same plane it’s extremely difficult to sing over an orchestra that is playing full out; when Isolde and Brangäne sang together from the first balcony, the balance was considerably improved).

Anne Sofie von Otter was a gem as Brangäne. Ever-radiant and powerful when required, her introspective closing lines were unforgettable. Matthew Best was as imperially-robust and humanly-caring King Marke as could be imagined; Kurwenal had a sensitive advocate in the personage of Jukka Rasilainen whose projection skills were second to none. Stephen Gadd was an appropriately menacing Melot even as Joshua Ellicott did yeoman’s service with his two parts as Young Sailor/Shepherd—here’s a voice with a fine future ahead.

But the evening belonged to Violeta Urmana as Isolde. Whether at full-cry, understanding her past or succumbing to her true, desperate love, Viola’s artfully conceived and produced images meant little as the hall was filled with spectacular intensity, a seemingly effortless range and a commanding presence from the soprano that is deliciously imagined in a future, fully staged production.

Lucky Lucerne to have had the chance of experiencing this multi-media experiment. It’s yet another reason why the proposed Salle Moduable can’t come soon enough. JWR

Historical Perspective

Tristan und Isolde
Angel SEL-3777
1972, 241 min.
Herbert von Karajan, Jon Vickers, Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Four and one-half stars

Revisiting this studio recording (and recalling a live performance by Jon Vickers in Montréal where Zubin Mehta had the conducting honours) reaffirms the heroic tenor’s supreme artistry. His stellar, riveting tone immediately captures and holds the listener whether in full cry confessions of love or sotto voce reflections on fate. This potent combination of vocal production, acting ability and musicality sets an exacting standard that few will match, much less surpass.

Also highly dramatic is Helga Dernesch’s Isolde, if not as pitch perfect as her sudden lover. The pair are positively scintillating together, stirring up a magical potion of art between them. Binding them together are the impeccable Christa Ludwig (a Brangäne to savour) and Walter Berry (the baritone’s easy-flowing, power-when-needed voice and excellent diction are a marvel in every bar). Karl Ridderbusch makes for a thoughtful King Marke, who, like Vickers, is fearless in sacrificing dulcet tone for theatrical effect. Bernd Weikl comes across slightly covered but is readily despicable as required; Peter Schreier’s double duty (Young Sailor, Shepherd) and lighter tenor is the perfect foil to Tristan’s searing projection.

The recording engineers have certainly favoured the singers both in presence (very forward) and position (the cavernous effects add welcome variety). The glimmering Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, with its sonic background deep into the speakers suits Herbert von Karajan’s exceedingly loose control of the talented players (the first-desk woodwinds are at their best), yet makes for an at times uneasy feeling, as if the overall ensemble threatens to fall apart at the seams at any moment. But the payoff comes in the closing measures from Isolde (“Mild und leise”). Wagner’s truly fantastic, dreamy atmosphere floats wonderfully into consciousness bringing the four-hour journey to an emotionally-rich close that lingers in memory long after the confirmation of B Major consonance trumps all of the “last gasp of tonality” that has come before. JWR

Between Performances

During the festival’s 38-day run, a wide variety of non-musical activities was sampled both in Lucerne and other parts of Switzerland. Because of the excellent local and inter-city transportation system, there’s plenty to see and do within a day’s reach and still be back in time for the next performance—Cultural Tourism at its best!

Just a short walk (or take one of the many boat trips from the docks in the centre of Lucerne) is Wagner House. No trip is complete without a visit to the Richard Wagner Museum—an ideal experience before attending your next concert! JWR

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Further information, future screening/performance/exhibition dates,
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Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra EMI Classics Lucerne Festival Philharmonia Orchestra
Cross-reference(s): Please click on the image link(s) below
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