Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Saturday May 21 2016

Conductor: Daniele Gatti. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and costumes: Christof Hetzer. Lighting: Jean Kalman. Video: Anna Bertsch. Tristan: Torsten Kerl. Isolde: Rachel Nicholls. Brangäne: Michelle Breedt. King Marke: Steven Humes. Kurwenal: Brett Polegato. Melot: Andrew Rees. Shepherd, young sailor: Marc Larcher. Steersman: Francis Dudziak. Orchestre National de France. Chorus of Radio France.

The first thing I wanted to say here, without introduction, is that Tortsen Kerl, as Tristan, was magnificent. In his act three delirium he was phenomenal, acting up a storm in a way I had no idea he had in him. It was a rare privilege to be there. The TCE's reasonable dimensions allowed him to sing and shape the part in a way few tenors can - often they recite or bark or almost shout it out in desperation (sometimes quite effectively, I must admit) - and in a way Kerl himself was unable to bring off as Siegfried in 2011, defeated, as so many are, by the Bastille's unreasonable vastness. Apparently, earlier in the run he had people worried he might be falling ill, but there was no sign of that on Saturday night - as far as I know the slight but not unpleasant nasal timbre and hint of "congestion" are part of his usual package; and he has more body and grit to his voice than some I've heard. No, this was a truly exceptional experience.

But being at the TCE, not the Bastille, of course made a difference for everybody: singers, orchestra and audience, reminding us that “even” Wagner suffers from being performed in a jumbo-sized house. At the TCE, finesse is still possible and the impact of a large-scale work (even if the TCE’s pit limits the size of the orchestra) is intact.

People bought their tickets expecting Emily Magee as Isolde. She dropped out mid-rehearsal and was replaced by a young soprano as yet nearly unknown in France, so of course ticket-holders feared disappointment... They needn’t have. Rachel Nicholls is no doubt a very different Isolde from Emily Magee, but a very good one even so: young, energetic and determined, vocally brighter than usual at the top: her critics find her shrill and perhaps she does lack a degree of “rapturous” warmth. But she has all the notes and, like Kerl, can sing the part, not scream it.

For some people, the star of the show was actually Brett Polegato’s vigorous, generous Kurwenal. Steven Humes, as a youngish King Marke, was vocally bright, clear and powerful but in this role we could perhaps have done with more depth and warmth. Michelle Breedt was a highly committed Brangäne, warmer and rounder in timbre than Isolde, more “typically” Wagnerian might, I suppose, sum it up. In fact one of the nice things about this Tristan was that everyone was committed and generous – in a way they might also be at the Bastille, only there, from the far-off back rows of the upper reaches (I now pay a fortune for seats in the parterre, near the stage), it’s to little avail. In a smaller house their efforts pay off.

Conductor Daniele Gatti avoided wallowing and went for a fairly dry, compact sound, relatively transparent, bringing out details right down to the beautifully crafted harp arpeggio before the final long, swelling chord (the swelling upset some people). There was some memorable playing from the woodwinds (as usual; the cor anglais even came out on stage for a bow at the end) and lower strings (less usual), as well as some chaotic playing from the “hunting” horns – chaotic brass being a signature of the Orchestre National.

During act one, the production, a new one, came across as a visually seductive, timeless “modern classic”. I wasn’t alone in thinking of both Wieland Wagner and Robert Wilson: it could have been staged any time in the last 40 years. It started with a giant black square against a backlit (Wilson-style) backdrop. When the square had gone (it would be back for the other acts), the set was made up of four high-backed (nearly as high as the proscenium arch) steel trucks, gliding around, apparently unaided, to form different spaces evoking the ship’s rusty innards, sometimes plain black, sometimes with a beautiful, dimly glowing patina of blue, black and bronze. The potions were symbolised by crystals; taking them was symbolised by joining foreheads. The singers wore late 20th century “opera costumes” – needlessly complicated grey-blue draperies for the women, flowing blue-grey greatcoats, and cargo pants for the men (some of them with pony-tails ), with hints of Rick Owens. Extras were silhouetted against the backdrop like Karagöz characters. The lighting was spectacularly good, with principals brightly lit from the sides in front of dimmer backgrounds. So: not outright contemporary, but modern classic, very photogenic and and very promising.

But the following acts were less successful. The pallid, leafless act two forest was sparse: more like the rib-cage of a whale, or the ribs of a wave-worn shipwreck curving up from the ground. A facetted black menhir loomed up at the back, later shedding its black “skin” to reveal a structure of slender steel rods – like the kind of “modern” sculpture you might find at the HQ of a bank. The meaning of this was unclear, unless it was to do with Tristan and Isolde being uncovered. The costumes were now less “opera standard” and more everyday, closer to the kind of outdoor clothes people wear on Europe’s wet and windy Celtic fringes. The lovers stayed noticeably apart, singing to the far corners of the auditorium, but these days that’s standard too. Never once did Tristan look happy.

In act three, the castle was a black box, centre stage, with a glossy black interior and a single light shining out into the audience – Isolde’s light, which would go out, of course, once she arrived. The stage was strewn with black rocks, and on the right was a Flintstone-style structure with four long, knobbly legs, holding up a mummy on a bier. The costumes, in this post-apocalyptic setting, were sheer grunge, including plastic macs, and Isolde’s long hair had been cropped boyishly short.

Kerl was, as I said, magnificent in his delirium and Polegato was as vigorous as before, so there was no problem with the acting. And once Kurwenal had killed even Brangäne, the stage was left near-empty apart from the numerous dead: the black box became just a frame, and Isolde sang her Liebestod silhouetted, a black figure in a black cassock, against the light, quite effectively. But overall, though there were clearly symbols in this staging, it was hard to see what they meant (thinking of which, the videos were hard to see as well: I think I missed them, or mistook them for lighting glitches). There’s already a lot of death in Tristan. Did the successive costume changes, from “opera-classic” to modern grunge, add something about the death of mythical ideals? I don’t know and don’t seem to be alone in not knowing. Without Jean Kalman’s superb lighting, I’m not sure what would actually be left of this production.

But musically it was an outstanding evening. My neighbour was close to tears. In the circumstances I only wish – sincerely – that I liked Wagner better and could have shared fully in the excitement.

Maestro Wenarto shows once more how it should be done.


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