Saturday, May 3, 2014

Trug des Herzens, Traum der Ahnung: Tristan und Isolde in Frankfurt

Liebesnacht: Ryan/Wilson in Act II
Photo © Oper Frankfurt/Wolfgang Runkel
It seemed appropriate to me to begin the month of May with Frankfurt's Tristan und Isolde, an opera I've loved since hearing it cold as my first live Wagner. Frankfurt's current run boasts not only an impressive pair of lovers in Lance Ryan and Jennifer Wilson, but strong performances in further roles, and a rich reading of the score from conductor Stefan Blunier. Christof Nel's atmospheric production is a darkly pessimistic one, suggesting that there can be no comfort this side of death, and even that is denied to Isolde. The man next to me dozed stertorously through much of the first act, and whispered more than once in the second two… but I was gripped and moved.

This Tristan was my first live staging of Christof Nel's, and I found it interesting, often compelling, although there were some elements (notably the deliberate staginess of long monologues) that didn't seem fully integrated. The production's focus on performativity, though, I found very effective. In the claustrophobic lower decks of the Act I ship, the sailors treat Isolde as spectacle and as audience. Tristan's past also emerges as a disputed performance, Kurwenal celebrating the heroic narrative, Isolde ridiculing it as a pernicious fiction. Brangäne, of course, wants to help Isolde, literally pressing her body against that of the other woman in an attempt to be close to her. But Isolde angrily refuses assistance in performing the role of the docile bride, insisting instead on her honor, on her right to meet Tristan as an equal. And Tristan is motionless, with no heroic posturing, able to focus only on what lies between them, what has already entered into each of them. Credit is due to the revival direction of Orest Tichonov for the strong choreography, which conveyed emotional intensity to the back rows where I was sitting. The royal apartments of Act II are spacious, luxuriously furnished, with vast windows, a harshly illuminated stage. I found the retention of the medieval model of royal bedroom as private/public space very effective. Isolde is stiffly performing regal composure, spousal affection; the menace of the hunters with guns is the most palpably real thing in the room. Brangäne, in this production, clings throughout to a desire to keep everyone in their appointed roles. She and Isolde, of course, talk past each other. So when Tristan finally arrives, they talk and talk and talk as they need to do, each word weighty and intimate and understood. Melot's attempts to persuade Marke into the role of insulted husband, and Brangäne's to return Isolde to that of dutiful wife, both shatter against the lovers' utter lack of defensiveness, and utter refusal of pretense. The third act is darkest; Tristan's castle, "bequeathed to the people," in Kurwenal's narrative, is a plundered ruin, with leaks in the roof and fire scars on the floor. The shepherd, sharer of Kurwenal's loyalty, is a simpleton. Tristan, in his feverish wanderings, is the least delusional of them all. Kurwenal has put him in a niche where he cannot see the ruins of his heritage… or the sea. When Isolde finally arrives, she is dismayed but not deterred, kneeling beside her lover, collapsed amidst this wreckage. The vision of the Liebestod, however, is one which no one else comprehends, and which cannot sustain her; Brangäne pulls her back into the world, back to face the king who waits for her.

Stefan Blunier led the Frankfurt orchestra in a passionate and nuanced performance. There were a few moments where the brass sounded rawly exposed, but I loved the bold use of dynamics, the freely breathing pacing that allowed the rich textures of the score to emerge in all their glory. I loved the dynamic range, too, from ethereal woodwinds and strings to chords that were brutal in their physical force. Maybe it's unfair to say that some scores lose more than others in recording, but I felt as though I was being reintroduced to the music, listening to the hushed progressions following each other like the waves of the sea, the strings like the drumming of a pulse, the aching, unbearable intensity of Sehnsucht in sustained phrases. With the exception of the two leads, Frankfurt cast this Tristan from its ensemble; I was impressed, and I loved all the excellent diction. (So many German Consonants!) Baritone Dietrich Volle made an incisive, venomous Melot, and portrayed him as a convincing character rather than a mere dramatic necessity. Andreas Bauer was a commanding König Marke, emphasizing the king's anger rather than sorrow, the rage of a powerful man made powerless. I'm generally drawn to Markes more vulnerable in grief, but Bauer sang strongly and expressively. As Brangäne, Claudia Mahnke gave a richly nuanced dramatic performance. I thought she sounded a little unsteady at the top of her range, but her second act was stronger than her first, and the "Habet Acht!"s were gorgeous, beautifully and compellingly spun out. Simon Neal's Kurwenal was well sung and, to me, deeply moving. It was a treat to hear how Neal used his sonorous baritone, from the defiant taunts of the first act to the grief-stricken utterances of the last. Neal's vocal coloring and phrasing were an integral part of a compelling dramatic performance. I teared up more than once seeing the dedication of Kurwenal (that once-proud boaster) to the tender, patient nursing of the man whom he has lionized as a hero.

After the performance, I was astonished to learn that this run of Tristans is Lance Ryan's first. Before I even get to the singing: he showed a gift for intense stillness on stage which I found fascinating: in Act I, it is a stillness of intense internal focus; in the final scene of Act II, of utter vulnerability; in Act III, one that had me (like Kurwenal) watching every twitch in the pale hands, afraid of what he may ask of his ravaged body. There were moments in the first two acts when I found myself hoping for more legato phrasing or variation of tone (of which, having heard his Tannhäuser, I know Ryan is capable.) But his use of text was gorgeous: sudden, unguarded sweetness in the twist of "harrt mein König meiner Frau," tension like that of a plucked bowstring in "Fragt die Sitte…" dark resolution in the pledge of reconciliation and death. Both singers made much of the dynamic exchanges of Act II. "Wohin nun Tristan scheidet…" was of aching beauty, but I found Ryan strongest in the non-histrionic madness of Act III. To an unusual degree, he brought out Tristan's remoteness, and his exhaustion. His meditations on the love of his parents, on birth and death and his own lingering on the threshold, emerged as painfully lucid reflections. Isolde's coming is clarity to him, is breath, is fierce and dangerous joy. The self-accusing curse, given with building intensity, felt true and terrifying. Here, Tristan's final exultation is part delusion, part simple need: a cry of desire that ends in that final "Isolde!" Movingly, the moment of his death is not staged; the audience doesn't see when he dies; we know only that he does so holding Isolde's hand.

This was my first time hearing Jennifer Wilson live, and I hope I can hear her again soon. She has a dramatic soprano of great expressivity and warmth, as well as great power. I really liked that her Isolde is angry, and unashamed of being angry, and that she is completely free of shame in Act II. All the proof any spy would need was in this woman's coming to life in the court's absence, her radiant, sensual joy. Wilson's was a lyrical Isolde, bringing aching sorrow to her lament in Act I, and deep, warm tenderness to Act II. Her impatience in the first scene (she smashes the expensive lamp which is the final signal, grinding the bits under her feet, defying Brangäne's horror) was matched by the infinite patience with which she counters her lover's febrile anxiety. She soothes him, debates with him, loves him, until they can relax into the "Sink hernieder…" There is comparatively little physical touch in this production, but enormous erotic tension (I loved it.) The first and only time the lovers kiss--deeply, unhurriedly--is in the sight of all the court, after Isolde's vow to follow Tristan, given by Wilson with melting beauty. In Act III, there is no anger left in her; only deep tenderness. I think I held my breath as she knelt and pleaded with the dying man, Wagner's elaborate poetry turned into a simple declaration of love. The Liebestod, warm and tender, is this love's final vision, but there is no longer anyone to share it.


  1. "Maybe it's unfair to say that some scores lose more than others in recording"

    Nope. It's the truth and Tristan may be top of the list.

    Gnashing teeth while reading about Lance Ryan. It's a national disgrace that Canada's leading heldentenor hasn't sung at the COC.

    1. Given your extensive experience of recordings, I feel confirmed in my instincts! Maybe COC's next revival of that Sellars/Viola Tristan production would be a good chance to remedy this omission?

    2. I think Lance will have retired before we see Tristan again. Maybe it could be his swan song though. Toronto - the elephants' graveyard of Heldentenors.

  2. Intense stillness sounds just right for Tristan.

  3. Any thoughts about the new season in Frankfurt? Definitely not your average Traviata-Boheme-Zauberflöte season, wish I would be closer to Frankfurt to see all these rarities. On the other hand there have been claims that the house is forced to go for the obscure since they cannot afford any more to compete with the top houses in the standard repertoire in view of the recent cuts.

    1. I'm really intrigued by it! I like that it showcases the diversity of early- to mid-twentieth-century opera, and the enormous quantity of Strauss suits me just fine. I like that they're also doing two pre-18th-century works, and the new production roster looks exciting. Personally, I think programming more diverse seasons is likely to be a success strategy for a house at almost any level, as a saturation of Traviatas, Bohèmes, etc., is likely to lead to the exhaustion of artistic ideas as well as audience interest.

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