Opera roars back with Dueling Wagner premieres

Opera music

If you looked closely, opera never really went away during the pandemic.

Some companies have performed in empty houses, hoping to reach the audience at home. A few took the risk of an early reopening and were forced to abruptly cancel their shows if a coronavirus test came back positive. Composers began to skip the scene altogether and write for streaming platforms.

But now, the opera as we remember it – star-studded opening nights, full orchestras and choirs, cheers from over a thousand people in formal dress – is back. It’s still rare in the United States, but not in Europe, thanks to rising vaccination rates, newly opened borders and relaxed security measures. And, after a long absence of large-scale productions, there are two of Wagner’s immense “Tristan und Isolde”, with top singers and creative teams up to the task, taking place at the same time in Munich and Aix. -in-Provence, France. .

In a frenzy driven by deprivation, I saw them back to back: Sunday in Germany and Monday in France. On the surface, the shows share virtually nothing except perhaps a belief in the timelessness of a paneled interior.

But both are excellently conducted – by Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and by Simon Rattle, head of the London Symphony Orchestra at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence – although in different ways that demonstrate the interpretative elasticity of Wagner’s score. And both productions are the work of directors known for their radical approach to the classics: Krzysztof Warlikowski and Simon Stone.

In Aix, the title roles are interpreted with ease by two veterans of “Tristan”, the tenor Stuart Skelton and the soprano Nina Stemme; in Munich, stars Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros make their debut as doomed lovers.

Warlikowski approaches opera with a shocking, even disappointing, restraint for a director who generally superimposes his productions on provocations. Its staging (which will be broadcast live on July 31) is relatively straightforward, with readable metaphors and a concept guided by Freud’s death drive, which was theorized long after Wagner wrote his work but is all foreshadowed. at length, as in Isolde’s Act I exclamation “Todgeweihtes Haupt! Todgeweihtes Herz! ”: Head doomed to death, heart doomed to death.

Freud is always present. The whole thing changes – within a frame of three elegant paneled walls designed by Warlikowski’s collaborator and wife, Malgorzata Szczesniak – but two pieces of furniture remain fixed: on one side of the stage an analyst’s couch, where Tristan recounts his trauma to childhood, and at the other a display case filled with deadly instruments.

Warlikowski’s melancholy Tristan and Isolde are doomed to death, no love potion required, right from the start. They attempt to kill themselves with every act and may be traumatized by the bloody story that precedes the opera action. And they are not alone: ​​the young sailor who sings the front line, here the soft-spoken tenor Manuel Günther, wanders blindly in his underwear and a childish crown and cape, his injured eyes wrapped in bandages. Recovery turns out to be impossible for some. In the final scene, to “Hier wütet der Tod! (“Death rages here!”) Of Tristan Kurwenal’s servant – bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, with ferocity irrelevant in this production – the characters simply collapse, as if they were happy to welcome their fate.

In the pit, Petrenko led a patient prelude, organically letting his inquisitive melody of desire float. But then he stopped, in breathtaking silence, before the orchestra’s first burst of passion, which gave way to an evening of erotic intensity, like drugs but never heavy. Its prelude to Act III had the thick texture of molasses, tricky and desperate.

Kaufmann and Harteros never quite reached the level of the orchestra, or sometimes the assured sound of their colleagues Okka von der Damerau, in Brangäne, and Mika Kares, in King Marke. Kaufmann’s Tristan was soft-spoken, more fragile than heroic. And Harteros brought an unusual lightness to his role, delivering a “Liebestod” that is sometimes difficult to hear and marred by murky intonation.

They were at their best towards the end of Act II’s marathon love duo: Harteros achieved a delicate beauty as she considered the “and” of the phrase “Tristan and Isolde”; and Kaufmann calm but overwhelming as he sang the words of morbid romanticism that introduce the theme “Liebestod”.

In Aix, Skelton and Stemme’s performances reflected their growth in these roles over the years – Skelton in particular, who did not just survive Tristan’s punitive Act III monologue, as he did in Metropolitan Opera in 2016, but delivered it with a herculean and shattering grain. dramatic acuity.

With a cast that includes a powerful Jamie Barton as Brangäne and Franz-Josef Selig, vigorous but touching as Marke, and with the propulsive and clear London Symphony under the baton of Rattle, “Tristan” from Aix is , musically speaking, a feat. (The production will air on France Musique and Arte Concert on July 8, followed by streaming on Arte.)

Rattle’s directing was less sultry than Petrenko’s, but she had a fiery mastery of drama amid an emphasis on precision. Unfortunately, it was difficult to focus on the prelude, one of the opera’s most effective mood makers, as Stone’s directing lifted the curtain to reveal a party in a trendy Parisian apartment. with – you guessed it – paneled walls. Wagner’s music, full of passion and nostalgia, emphasized the sounds of toasting glasses and crumpled gift wrapping.

Like many of Stone’s productions, this one – designed by Ralph Myers – features a set so realistic and so carefully furnished that it would be called “turnkey” on an HGTV show. It is a question here of juxtaposing it with the fantasy in what amounts to “Tristan” while passing by “Madame Bovary”.

On this opening night, a woman sees her husband kissing another woman in the kitchen and reads incriminating texts on his phone. With a twinkle of lights, Stone’s hyperrealism becomes surreal: the view outside is no longer a Parisian cityscape but the open sea. Escaping into an old romantic tale like Emma Bovary, the woman imagines herself at the center of the myth of Tristan.

These musings continue with each act – in a way that at best clutters opera and at worst betrays it. While the lights flicker in a design office overlooking the Butte Montmartre in Act II, the windows reveal a moonlit sky; when, in act III, the wife and husband take the tube to an evening at the theater, joined by a young man – in her fantasies, the jealous and chatty lover Melot (Dominic Sedgwick) – the wagon seems to be going through real stations and a green countryside.

No one dies in this “Tristan”, but when the woman comes back to reality with the “Liebestod” she removes her wedding ring, hands it to her husband and leaves him on the train as she walks away with the youngster. man.

This ending, like other moments in the production, was as confusing as it was infuriating – why not leave her alone and on her own? Yet out of the pit finally came the resolution of the “Tristan” chord, a serene departure from the London Symphony. It was a potion in its own right, almost enough to inspire forgiveness.

Maybe that colored my gaze because, during the encore, I looked around and saw, for the first time since March of last year, a full house. It was a privilege to be there, as it had been in Munich. I had my critical quibbles, but my sentimental side was like Nick Guest in “The Line of Beauty”, seeing the ordinary as extraordinary and marveling at the fact of the grand opera – in the light of the moment, so beautiful.


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