Opera Critic

The stage for this production is unaccountably filled with cartoonish parallel “houses” made of foam-board, shaped like the green houses in Monopoly, but slim and ten feet tall. They are all painted baby blue and they might at any moment glide around and form into lines or a wall or a forest. They have doors that the characters can go into and come out of. One of them is taller and has a steeple – and this we see behind the others at as the curtain rises and we can guess it represents the church from which the chorus is coming. A girl runs by and a boy soon after her – then another man going in and out among them looking for somebody – then another girl who is either looking for or trying to escape this second man – The hymn is over and we gather this is Eva and Walther.

This inexpensive but unappealing set will preoccupy us through the entire opera. One of the “houses” will serve as the Merker’s booth in Act I, one of them (perhaps the same one, likewise equipped with a door) will serve as Sachs’s shop in the second, but only when he needs to open the door from his shop so as to cast its light across the path by which Walther and Eva would try to escape. The action, regardless of these bulky props, takes place in the space between, in front of, and behind them. Let’s not forget to mention there is also a desk-chair that serves as the singer’s chair in the first and last acts: but this is generally unused. Sachs delivers his two great monologues sitting on the ground leaning up against a house; and it is in between the houses that Sachs’s series of encounters with each of the main characters take place in the Act III, though they, as opposed to the rest of the action of the opera, is intimately staged indoors. The best use of them comes in the second act, always a problem to stage since so many characters are singing one after the other to one and then another, one overheard by another. In the present case the ins and outs among the houses allow for the various characters to encounter hide from one and encounter the other around the corner just at the right moment. For this part of the action the forest of houses is a success, though ugly; but for the rest of the opera the idea is an ugly failure. Some relief was given us in Act III, when the houses had all glided into the wings and the five stood together with their faces close like a family picture for the quintet.

These distracting large light-blue objects whittled the characters down: they are notionally outdoors on a black ground flailing around, driven about by their interests and impulses. So much convenes with comedy, and the portrayal of Hans Sachs corroborates that this sort of comédie humaine might be the register Andreas Homoki was seeking – though it should be remembered that he adopted a similar register in his Lohengrin, which he set in a beer hall with Elisabeth clearing the tables during what was supposed to be the bridal tête-à-tête. As for Sachs, he finds himself sitting on the ground for his monologues; when Walter sings his Trial Song in Act One, Sachs eagerly stands in front of him conducting him, unable to help himself; in the final Act during his Prize Song Sachs sits akimbo at the front of the stage facing the audience, as if to indicate to us that Walther’s performance is his own creation. We have seen Sachs cast as a meta-character bursting beyond his role in Stefan Herrheim’s Salzburg production, which places the whole opera within his desk, and we will see it again. But what makes Sachs larger than life is exactly his refusal to be so. The telling moment comes in the last scene when all Nuremberg salutes him: he is shocked and humbled, according to Wagner. In the present case he tries to escape the scene and is blocked by the Nurembergers, from the left then from the right and finally from the rear, and then falls prostrate to the floor. In fact, Sachs is something of a clown throughout, with a quizzical and wry look on his face. He is regrettably obtuse when Eva confronts him in Act Two, and when Walther shows up in the shop while he is fixing Eva’s shoe they have a tug of war over her that verges on slapstick. Overall he has no center of gravity though he is the kingpin of the plot, and the result is that the whole opera comes off as a lower kind of comedy than it should be. As such, however, mention should be made of the comical over-acting with which the dramaturge Werner Hintze has filled this rather boring scenario. In particular, in his very fine long aria in Act I, David was made to enact all modes and moods of the ideal Master Song, not only with voice but face and body as well.

Beckmesser is here refined in a comic but not ridiculous way, devoid of the nervous tells and ticks he is often given. He wears tails (muted purple in general but festive rust for Johannistag): the depiction is reminiscent of Hermann Prey’s. Eva is sprightly, happy and young, but quite conflicted over Sachs – she runs from his arms to those of Walther in Act III. Magdalena is allowed to be an eager woman instead of a dull handmaiden verging on mothering David. None of the voices were bad; there was a noticeably strong timber in Tómasson’s middle range; David’s aria was a high point of the performance.

We have a new twist at the end. When Walther wins the song the deeply divided Eva gives Sachs a kiss full on the mouth: though she had acquitted herself convincingly in the quintet, it turns out she has not quite learned her lesson. Walther recoils in anger and humiliation, and his rejection of the master’s crown is made to be a sequela of this anger. Sachs, who had entirely disappeared, now returns to scold him, but his character has been so sporadic and reactive that his lecture comes across as tiresome and unconvincing dogmatism, made only worse by the entire failure of his voice for several of the words in the last phrases.

Almost all I have said in this report has been negative, except for this last: I loved the performance. Nothing was ruined and almost all the golden threads of this rich and tightly woven masterpiece shone through despite, and partly because of, the distractions of the execution.

— Ken Quandt

This collaboration of well established giants, Daniel Barenboim and Harry Kupfer, which premiered here four days ago, imposed the sort of challenge one might expect from younger Turks. The music seemed new; the staging was rude; the supertitles were forgone. New, for starters, was the Overture – the rarely played third version done in tempi and phrasing still rarer; rude felt the systematic breakdown of any distance between actors and parts acted, and any distinction between fact and fiction, past and present, creation and reproduction, reality and illusion. The lack of supertitles was justified by the absolute clarity and enunciation of a cast to be dreamed of, and ultimately the whole thing came home and made sense at the close.

Barenboim has shaken things up before – as at last year’s Meistersinger, reviewed here also – as if to re-awaken the audience to musical ideas in the score that might have been smothered by the familiarity of more standard renditions. The long Leonore Overture no.3 was played slowly, with an almost brutal span between piano and forte. Black scrim hid the stage until some time near the middle, when a spotlight revealed on the stage a big Beckstein with a bust of Beethoven and a couple of white booklets on it: it shone long enough to show these to us but faded away before we understood. Not Beethoven’s piano of course, but Beethoven’s spirit was there in the bust, and we got an inkling that it designated Beethoven the performed, not Beethoven the composer. At the end of the overture the lights come on and we see a set of personages in normal dress facing, with us, in the rear, where the we see a backdrop brightly lit and brilliant, a vision of the Musikverein Wien seen from the seats, perhaps the most recognizable way to invoke and “place us” into a performance in Vienna, the city in which both the opera’s two premiers took place. As soon as we recognize it and before we have any idea why we are looking at it with these people, let alone who they are, the entire picture suddenly falls to the ground revealing a dark gray stone wall behind: it was a tapestry of sorts – the people nearby it at the rear carry it off the stage and now two of them are left on stage to begin singing from the white booklets on the piano. It is a duet; they must be Jaquino and Marzelline; the stone wall must be the wall of the prison: the opera has begun.

If we did not know the piece, and even the action, we would likely not understand what is happening in front of us, for what we are seeing is a comment on the performance and a performance at the same time. The costumes tell us little; the action takes place around a piano which soon enough is pushed off the stage so as to make place for the prisoners to come into the courtyard for light and air. I doubt Matti Salminen has pushed a piano offstage many times in his life, but he will have done it several times this fall in Berlin. When the prisoners finish their milling about and must return to the prison they doff their prison cloaks and walk of the stage in their street clothes: the First Act ends with their clothes lying where they stood. The continual refusal to hide the player behind the part played brings down upon the audience a command to remain aware of themselves as audience: belief is never allowed willingly to suspend itself, and instead we are being asked not only to hear but also to listen to the music, to reflect on its historicity as a piece conceived just after the French Revolution whose premiere was spoiled in part by Napoleon’s arrival in Vienna soon after, a work the man behind the bust of Beethoven worked on and struggled with for more than ten years of his life.

Soon enough we realize that we expect the director not only to protect a distinction between fact and fiction, but more, that he will preserve a hierarchy for us, our superior position as disinterested observer that liberates us for a while from our self-awareness. Entertainment, we arrived believing and anticipating, will entertain us – that is, will take over our consciousness and distract us from ourselves. But because the double identity of the persons and objects on the stage is maintained, of the actor as opposed to the role played and of the physical stage and the prison setting it barely depicts, we too continue to feel a double identity, as an audience seated en face and being told a story, and as minds conscious of receiving this story and evaluating it all along the way, and not just at the end.

The peculiar challenge of the two identities and the tension it imposes upon the audience’s consciousness is finally rewarded at the denouement of the action, when Fidelio reveals herself to be Leonore in the course of blocking Pizarro’s attack upon Florestan with a knife. She intervenes, first as Fidelio (Durchboren musst du erst diese Brust) but then, definitively, as Florestan’s wife (Töt’ erst sein Weib). Pizarro at first recoils in shock and in a duet with Rocco expresses his astonishment, not so much at learning the secret identity of Fidelio as at beholding this courageous and loyal act of a wife, this “Triumph of Married Love” – the subtitle of the opera. The subsequent action does not pit Leonore against Pizarro but suddenly by a deus ex machina puts a pistol in her hands that preempts any further attack by him – but only long enough for the arrival of Don Fernando to be announced which already seals the Pizarro’s fate. But it is Florestan to whom Leonore now says Ja sieh hier Leonore! not to them for all their astonishment. From this moment on, in our current production, Leonore and Florestan become each other’s and no longer ours nor even the plot’s. They spend the rest of the opera together – sitting together, holding hands, relieved of their years of separation and anguish, having even forgotten the anguish of their separation and the heavy task of their reuniting through the action of the opera. The other characters are singing to us, now holding again their librettos, but these two are singing to each other. With their removal from the plot they seem to be Camilla Nylund and Andreas Schager, and believe it or not, they are!

The entire chorus comes on stage for the finale, in their own clothes as it appears, singing the chorus of Freedom (Freiheit!). For decorum’s sake Pizarro has left the stage so as not to spoil the happy and ultimately naïve unanimity of this vision of liberation and release, but the historical sense that the opera had kept open for us, the fresh and modern sense of freedom as a natural state of man that Beethoven himself had in mind in the course of composing the work, is now presented directly to us, regardless and independent of the plot, by a huge chorus in street clothes. It is a freedom we no longer believe in but can remember from history. At the last moment Pizarro is allowed to return to the stage, and the backdrop from the Musikverein reappears in all its splendor and we ourselves are transported into the past, becoming them and facing with them the stage of the great golden hall.

Only such heady concepts as Freedom and the Brotherhood of Man, later to be scored in the An die Freude, can play the elixir to make all these boundaries disappear. In the end this complex and inconvenient production, with its flawless and star-studded cast, has transcended itself to present its primary idea and theme without mediation, in all its simplicity. Two giants have reaffirmed their hegemony.

— Ken Quandt

In a stunning yet not totally unexpected late season announcement, the Metropolitan Opera declared that its long-time artistic leader James Levine, with the company since 1971, would finally stand down as music director at the end of the 2015-16 opera season. Health problems have visibly ravaged Levine over the past few years, leading to complaints of uneven performances, unreliable direction, and occasional withdrawals from big-ticket assignments. But for anyone who heard Levine’s last productions in the house earlier this spring, his departure leaves much to be lamented. In any case he is not really going. With no replacement waiting in the wings, Levine has been promoted to “Music Director Emeritus” and will continue to conduct productions and work with young artists. The announcement left ambiguity over the future of the concert series by the Met orchestra, an ensemble Levine has raised to a truly world class standing over the past few decades. Of the three concerts booked for Carnegie Hall’s venerable stage, Levine conducted two (with his “emeritus” status already noted in the program), including last night’s all-Wagner concert featuring excerpts from the Ring of the Nibelung. Esa-Pekka Salonen has been announced as the conductor of next year’s Met concerts, so the Wagner extravaganza may well be Levine’s last.

It is true that at times Levine’s gestures lacked their past precision and subtlety. One could say that the orchestra’s radiant performance occasionally plodded along, with the musicians perhaps responding more to their long and deservedly celebrated experience playing Wagner’s music than to what they were seeing on the podium. The opening orchestral excerpts did reveal the orchestra in the fine form that it owes so much to its maestro. Levine’s program introduced “The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla” with a thunderous playing of the leitmotif associated with Alberich’s curse. The piece then opened up into glorious harmonies the captured the pomposity of the dramatic moment. Then came the famous “Ride of Valkyries,” played with a steady tempo that never reached into the realm of the histrionic. The second part featured Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Death March, both delivered in vivid character with each and every note pollinated by careful deliberation.

Vocal artistry commanded the final selection of the concert’s first part and the opening and final selections of the second part. Both halves of the concert featured the latest Wagnerian discovery: the already much celebrated dramatic soprano Christine Goerke as Brunnhilde. In the first part she sang that character’s awakening in Act III of Siegfried, followed by the duet with the title character, sung by the sturdy tenor Stefan Vinke. Part II featured the duet in the prologue of Gotterdammerung and ended with the Immolation Scene. Goerke has been appearing sequentially in all three Brunnhilde parts, most recently in Washington as a stand-in for Catherine Foster in the Walkure installment of that city’s Ring. The voice rests on a solid, composed middle register that supports both strong chest singing and allows a platform for the role’s treacherous high notes. At times the technique was visible in a way that detracted from the higher range dramatic effects, but the overall impression was that we are witnessing the birth of a stunning Brunnhilde, one of maybe four or five singers working today who can deliver the part more than credibly. Vinke’s Siegfried seemed a bit tested by the orchestra and at times the voice had an unattractive leathery quality. But very often it provided a strong romantic partner in rapturous duet. He may yet rise from his Wagner singing in smaller German houses to an international career of some standing. The evening’s most lasting impression, however, was the departure of Maestro Levine from his principal role. This may well have been his last Wagner conducting. The legacy will live on.

Paul du Quenoy

The action of the opera is slight: the characters are declaiming their feelings throughout. Hence Nietzsche called it Wagner’s Opus Metaphysicum. The only choice that is made throughout the piece is King Marke’s choice to forgive Tristan at the end, but the choice is less effectual than Marke had hoped since by the time he reaches him Tristan is already dead. Ineffectual also is Brangaene’s very willful choice to substitute the love elixir for the death elixir: their love Tristan and Isolde already have, and since their love cannot take place in this world the only place it can take place is another world, but the only other world a human can go to is the world of death, if that is a world. Of such a world we have a conception at least, because every day gives way to a night and to darkness, a fact that will provide the master metaphor of Tristan’s declamations in second act.

When we enter the hall the work of the scenographer, Christophe Hetzer, has already begun. The curtain is up and a large black square about half as big as the whole stage is suspended there in front of a back-wall in muted silver-grey. It is the goings-on in the area occupied by that square that we have come to see, but now that area is only black. The square is too big to be taken in stride. Is its blackness blocking something or is the something there but unilluminated? With the Prelude the square disappears into the flies, but once Act One begins the looming blackness returns in the form of a set of large black walls twenty five feet high that slowly move and rotate on the stage, sometimes to divide a foreground from a background from which personages can surprisingly emerge, sometimes to separate and frame an area between the characters, but most often to give a black background before which the characters declaim. The movement of these large objects is very gradual; so gradual as to recall the sorts of things Bob Wilson did with Wagner a few years ago in his Ring at Chatelet, his Parsifal in Los Angeles, and his Lohengrin in New York: if you watch them the objects seem not to move; if you don’t watch them you suddenly notice they have disappeared or reconfigured themselves.

Wilson-like also was the lighting of the stage, under the command of Jean Kalman. There are no side walls, just a glowing rear wall that shifts from silver to blue and sometimes to a light green, with the large black moving walls in the middle: the backlighting frames the black walls and the black walls frame the players. The impression is that they are outdoors always (which in fact they are, in all three acts of this opera). Moreover they are always forward on the stage and the backlighting always threatens to cast them in silhouette. What lighting they are given so that we can see their faces and gestures is given very sparingly, largely by means of spotlights from the sides so that they cast shadows on other stage objects and even on each other. Their own costumes are nondescript and what differences there are between them is hardly visible because of the shadowy lighting. Overall the costumes are light blue grey, as is the rear wall most of the time.

The similarity to Wilson’s sets into relief a great dissimilarity from him: in his case these optical effects are his own signature gimmicks but here the concentration of blackness and darkness is the express thesis of the interpretation. Dull blue-grey framing black is the world the blue-grey characters live in – or more accurately are dying in. By the third act Tristan, supine before a black wall, is virtually invisible until he picks himself up and lurches about the stage, but when he returns to that position it is to a darkness invisible and eternal that he returns. Another similarity to Wilson, which we can attribute in this case to the dramaturge, Willem Bruls, is that the characters almost never touch each other. In Wilson’s Parsifal for instance Kundry kissed Parsifal from about fifteen feet away. Here too the characters look at each other only rarely and only once do Tristan and Isolde almost-kiss or maybe-kiss, and it is only after they have been discovered by Mark at the end of Act Two. But again the similarity with Wilson evokes the dissimilarity, for it is a thesis of this interpretation that the characters’ love is a metaphysical kind of thing, if we may use Nietzsche’s term: for this, their spatio-temporal proximity is an expression all-too-gross. And so we may go further and imagine that the gradual movement of the walls is also thematic for the gradual and ineluctable merging of their lives into death.

If there is no action, and the lighting and scenery and costumes conspire to make the characters barely distinguishable from each other, one might have been bored out of his mind unless there were something powerful in the libretto and the way it was sung. Wagner himself was aware that this was where the terrifying power of the opera lay, writing in a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck that the only thing that could likely keep it from being banned would be mediocre performance! The performance on May 18 of Torsten Kerl and Rachel Nicholls (replacing Emily McGee who withdrew) should certainly have led to banishment of the work in former times: easily the most inspiring execution of this opera I have heard. Kerl held up through the final act with almost incredible strength, his voice never losing its sharp, sometimes too sharp, edge; what was most impressive about Nicholls was her control of emotional modulations and the delicacy with which her notes arrived, especially in the Liebestod. Polegato’s Kourvenal threatened to steal the show early in Act Three with his voice and acting – a happy and hopeful voice that believes in the world we live in and thinks Tristan might come out OK, a light that soon enough will be extinguished. Humes’s Mark was strong and dignified but lacked the strain of doleful plangency that this father-figure and king must be made to display despite himself. Gatti’s conducting was limpid but sure with unusual ritardando for emphasis, and his modulation of piano and forte was effective: he is one of those conductors that seems to be teaching us the music.

Complaints: 1) Too much racket from the air-conditioner at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées, especially after the second intermission and the very quiet prelude to Act Three when it could have been turned off for a while – even worse the next night during the astoundingly quiet passages in Jonas Kaufmann’s performance of the Wesendonck Lieder. 2) It is an accident of the score that Brangaene’s and Isolde’s voices are very close and I always have trouble with this, but the trouble is exacerbated almost to the point of absurdity when their costumes are indistinguishable and the light is low. 3) Merold in this production is unaccountably portrayed as a crotchety and crippled old man with an elbow cane, playing spoiler – impossible in the hypothesis, since Merold is a contemporary of Tristan and younger than Mark. Merold is not jealous of Tristan’s love for Isolde (as the libretto is translated by the program of this performance) nor jealous of Isolde’s love for Tristan (as Peter Sellars had it in his Tristan Project, making him homosexual) but envious of Mark’s favoritism of him, for Tristan is an interloper in Cornwall by Mark’s adoption of him. Merold’s only way to Mark is through Tristan, as Brangaene tells Isolde in Act Two. Thus Tristan’s difficulty with Merold is not the product of his love for Isolde but another of the circumstances that makes pursuing that love impossible, and now in the third act, on his home turf, he tells us how his orphaned past led to his search for a father in Mark, which traces the origins of his love with Isolde and the trouble with that love all the way back to the moment he was conceived.

What I learned from this production was the importance of the libretto. The synopsis in the program sets out to give the action, but as I have said there is none. Indeed, to liken the opera to an oratorio has become a commonplace. It is the declamations that are the action, both in the sense of Tristan’s attempt in Act Two to teach Isolde the meaning of their love, and also in the separate but equal autobiographical declamations first by Isolde in Act One (Er sah mir in die Augen) and second by Tristan in Act Three (when the piper’s song reminds him of his parentage). These expose the separate psychological roots of their love for each other, and justify the dramaturgy of non-embrace. They are not, and will not be, spelled out in the synopsis of the opera, so that unless you already know them and to some extent have contemplated the way the characters articulate them – which in the case of Tristan is extremely poetical and as metaphorical as something from Ossian – the characters’ words will seem in performance nothing but more and more lovesick raving. What is tragic about their love is the credible and verisimilar story by which their personal circumstances – what occurred in the world of light – make their love impossible at the same time that it is the only hope in their lives. That death for them is the only viable alternative is not paradoxical or star-crossed but humanly tragic.

At the very end, for the Liebestod, the black wall behind became translucent and behind it, framed by its outline, Isolde sang in silhouette. The body of Tristan had disappeared; she was deep in the stage with the illuminated silver wall to her back, dead to our world and already being transported to the next. This one moment redeemed all the darkness before. More exactly, it embodied what the darkness had meant.

The production is a joint effort with Nederlandse Opera and with the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, whose 2016-2017 it will open. France Musique has announced it will broadcast it on 25 June 2016. Excerpts of what I have tried to describe are available to be seen on YouTube.

— Ken Quandt

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