Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Wiener Staatsoper, May 29 2003

Conductor: Christian Thielemann. Production: Günter Krämer. Tristan: Thomas Moser. Isolde: Deborah Voigt. King Marke: Robert Holl. Brangäne: Petra Lang. Kurwenal: Peter Weber. Melot: Markus Nieminen. Shepherd: Michael Roider. Sailor: John Dickie. Steersman: In-Sung Sim. Orchestra and Chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper.

“A spectacular Isolde” (www.andante.com).

“Lyrical beauty and sumptuous colorings… where other Isoldes turn strident or even resort to faking when the vocal line lifts above high A here and there, Ms. Voigt, whose top voice is her glory, reveled in those ecstatic high C's” (New York Times).

“… Nothing tentative or unformed about it. The opulent voice, with its rich bloom, took full command of the music and asserted itself impressively even during the most climactic orchestral passages. And Voigt gave color and shape to the words” (International Herald Tribune).

“One glorious torrent of sound” (Financial Times).

The professionals have spoken, and there isn’t much an amateur can add – not that that will stop me. (The review which corresponded best to my own experience was that of the New York Times, covering the same performance.)

Isolde, like Turandot, is a role so demanding that you go expecting the soprano to be stretched to her limits. The performance is, therefore, in both cases (if you’re lucky) a physical achievement, exciting in itself, but not necessarily a purely musical one.

Moreover, Deborah Voigt herself, in an interview published by Associated Press, seemed to express doubts about her ability to succeed in the role: “’It's not going to be Kirsten Flagstad at 20 performances,’ she said. ‘I'm worried about expectations more than anything else. Pacing is going to be very important. It's very middle voice. I worry about what it will cost me vocally.’”

Also, I have heard “two” Voigts, one who lets rip and gives you that gorgeous torrent of sound: Chrysothemis, Senta, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth; another who seems more cautious (perhaps the pacing she mentions): the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Aida.

So we weren’t quite sure what to expect when we set off for Vienna. What we got, in the event, was fairly astonishing: an Isolde apparently so wholly at ease on stage and in the role as to be able actually to sing it, phrasing and shaping even the highest notes with, apparently, power to spare and not a sign of strain or fatigue. We also discovered a singing actress, as natural in her movements and gestures as her singing was lyrical. You might say she looked as relaxed and in control as if she were singing for friends at home. Which just goes to show how inadequate some of the directors she’s worked under must have been: no-one could have guessed, from Covent Garden’s Die Frau or the Met’s Aida, that Voigt could act.

For virtual newcomers to the Staatsoper, the other stars were the orchestra, under Thielemann, and the acoustics. A pianissimo as quiet as the opening of this performance would be inaudible in most houses I know. The same is true of the magically quiet start of the Liebestod. As the volume rises, the sound fills the auditorium and surrounds the audience, an almost physical, tangible presence. Yet you constantly hear details you never knew, before, were there.

Thomas Moser was not as bad as many reviewers imply. It’s true that his is not a huge voice; but it’s also true that Tristan is not always battling against the full orchestra at ffff and partnered by a mesmeric soprano, stealing the show. Petra Lang was disappointing as Brangäne. She certainly threw herself into the role and put in a committed performance; but somehow, despite these visible efforts, her voice failed to generate excitement. Weber was a brutal Kurwenal, Holl a noble king.

Nor was the production wholly bad. The first act was in fact quite well done; better, I thought, than a Book-of-Kells approach would most likely have been and no worse, by any means, than any other production of Tristan I’ve seen. Whatever some reviewers may say, it was perfectly clear from the slowly-turning, sculptural engines, that we were below decks on a ship, and the (Mies-van-der-Rohe pavilion-style) sliding partitions were used intelligently, with good, brightly-coloured lighting. It was not a static production at this stage either. Only in acts two and three did the sets turn cheap and ugly and the direction static. The act two garden was nothing more than a few flat silhouettes of cypress trees against the white walls. (Perhaps you’ve already noticed productions where you get the impression, unlikely though it must be, that all the money was spent on act one with nothing much left for the rest.)

But the hint (not actually made explicit) that the final scenes of the opera from Isolde’s entry onwards might just be Tristan’s dying hallucination contained real poignancy, and for the magnificent Liebstod, the director simply “stood aside,” as it were, and left Isolde, her face lit on an otherwise dark stage, to sing alone before a spellbound, silent public.

It was a magical moment. We didn’t, as we remarked, see the time pass. We felt it though: goodness, those Vienna seats were uncomfortable. No wonder the regulars stand as long as possible at intermissions, only sitting down as the lights dim…


  1. Thanks to your review I gave up waiting for a DVD of this Tristan and ordered the CDs today. You made me be there in person, without suffering the posterior discomfort!


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