Earlier this month Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky personnel performed Tristan und Isolde (March 3) and the Ring (March 4-8) at the new Mariinsky Theatre II in St. Petersburg. Barely a week later this busy company has come to Barcelona for a single concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. The personnel overlaps (Petrenko sang Marke and Gogolevskaya Isolde) but there were substitutions as well (among them Nikitin who had just sung Wotan in the Ring). Gogolevksa’s voice sits a little low for what Isolde must sing in the First Act, but it was perfectly suited to the lower and quieter Second. Her Liebestod was marred by some lurching to the high notes. The most welcome surprise was Yulia Matochkina as Brangaena, who sang the best on this evening, her voice clear and sharp and burnished. Locals will have the privilege of hearing her sing Dido at the Mariinsky next month.
The other surprise in the cast was Robert Gambill as Tristan, not a member of the St. Petersburg troupe, whom I liked very much in the first two Acts, though he drew a few loud boo’s at the end of the Second. It is true that his tonality was not sure but his Heldentenor voice and style projected a vivid personality, which added a lot to the semi-staged version. In the Third Act he had lost some of his power and really at the end became inaudible. Part of the problem, then and throughout the night, however, was that Gergiev’s band was louder up on the stage and he did not compensate adequately. Most of the night he overpowered the singers, and within the orchestra there were problems of balance in the amplitude of the woodwinds and the strings, as for instance at the opening of the overture. What the orchestra lost for playing too loud it gained back for playing that way at climactic sections, as for instance at the thrilling end of the First and Second Acts. The opening of the Second Act was unaccountably fast – the french horns could hardly execute the huntsman calls.
Experiencing a performance in the concert style always puts one in mind of the absence of staging, and on this occasion it occurred to me that Tristan is particularly well suited to such a presentation since the most important action takes place within the souls of the characters and is expressed entirely by what they sing and by Wagner’s all-knowing score which is constantly reading their minds. Since there was nothing extraneous to distract me, as for instance the gratuitous chromaticity of the Hockney production of recent years or even the large quiet sculpted mass Kupfer placed in the middle of the stage in Berlin, I could look at “nothing” and listen only. But the nothing I looked at was of course the individual members of the orchestra and the singers that were making the music, and these though not costumed characters were persons just as much me. The elimination of fictional apparatus, what Aristotle in the Poetics called choregia, for once brought the music and its meaning only closer to me. There was no deficit of portayal since what was happening, the plot, was invisible anyway (one could say similar things about the Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy). This “illumination” if you will came upon me in the dreamy Second Act of course, when Tristan delivers nothing less than a set of declamations on the operation of his and Isolde’s love in their souls – events if you will that occur outside of time, or to use the metaphor Tristan uses in death and night rather than in life and day – and teaches her the Liebestod she will sing back to him at the close of the opera.
Upon reflection one recalls the Peter Sellars production that premiered in the regime of Gerard Mortier at the Bastille in
2005, which had originally been called the “Tristan Experiment” when it was presented over the course of three days at the LA Philharmonic the year before. The “Experiment” was essentially a concertante performance, with the characters on stage in front of the orchestra (though Sellars occasionally placed them in the aisles of the vertiginous Disney Hall as well).
What dominated the scene was of course the thirty foot high visual screen on which was projected the “movie” created by Bill Viola, depicting as little action as takes place in the opera itself: a man and a woman very slowly preparing themselves with ablutions in the First Act and gradually moving toward each other in the Second. Even in the final version at the Bastille the video dominated the scene though by then Sellars added a subdued and minimal staging, with all the characters dressed in black on a black stage and moving as in a trance. The very conceivability of this presentation already revealed to me how slight was the literal action in Wagner’s story. Sellars, overactive and overcreative as usual, filled this rarified void with a second love-story that had to be somatic (including washing, walking toward, and intertwining) in order to be visible. But the visuals he introduced were unable to depict Tristan’s suffering in Act Three (the video devolved into sentimentalism: storm, trees in winter, sunset), and most important they were unable to depict the three surprise entries of Marke, which apart from the hoped-for arrivals of Tristan in Act Two and of Isolde in Act Three, do constitute the most dramatic moments of the evening, in the usual sense.
In a concertante version, conversely, Marke can be depicted as arriving, for the singer in the tuxedo does enter the stage and comes to his music stand! Thus in the case of Tristan’s grand entry to assuage Isolde’s yearning near the beginning of Act Two, Gambill’s very appearance from the flies as Tristan was a dramatic event, made all the more powerful by the long walk he had to take to get from the proscenium to the front of the orchesta elevated to the level of the stage above the floor of the pit – and in the way he strode Gambill showed he knew it Up until this point in Act Two the concertante arrangement had been rather stiff, as we would expect it to be. Even when the two begin to suffer the effect of Brangaene’s elixir in Act One they are not sure what is happening to them and so it served just as well that they should simply stay near their music stands. But from the moment Tristan arrives in Act Two a new dimension came into view, and the most attenuated gesture by the singers invited interpretation. It was the way Gambrill managed this very limited but expressively powerful range of gestures, turning away from his music to face Isolde, raising his arm toward her and the like, that attracted my attention to his performance and helped me to “look away” from his uncertain intonation. Gogolevskaya on the other hand fixed her attention on the score – certainly not because her grasp of the score is insecure or her vision is weak, but just not taking it upon herself to exploit this subtle dramatic vehicle. Petrenko’s Marke, though magnificently sung in all three Acts, likewise exploited not at all the dramatic potential of his entrance from the flies. There is nobody to blame for this since there was no stage director managing things – only Gambrill to praise for adding to his manner of coming on the stage as the star of the evening, a show of some sensitivity to his appearance as Tristan.
The special dramatic power of a concertante version in rather than a full-on stage production might with profit be compared with the special dramatic power of a the Platonic Dialogues, which are likewise unstaged. Plato chose to forgo the medium of drama for a colder medium, a medium in which the reader is not distracted by the choregia of full-on drama and is allowed to focus instead on the words of Socrates and his interlocutor, and upon the music of the words, and in particular to invest more attention on small but eloquent conversational gestures like the hand motions of the singers I mention above. To stage the Platonic Dialogues has often tempted those who love and admire his works, and has always resulted in failure. This is a fascinating obverse of the way opera concertante can succeed, particularly in connection with the Wagner operas, and proof that Wagner’s operas in particular are works in which the true subject matter is the movements of the soul. Of course his operas are based on myths instead of history!
It is exactly their transcendence of history and their articulation of the essential that has left the Wagner operas particularly open to the historical overlays of the Regiesseur in the last thirty or forty years (just as it has left Plato’s Dialogues open to an interpretation that invents a Plato who wanted to be a dictator). During this “Regie Regime” under which all of us are suffering (the 2014-2015 yearbook of the Staatsoper Berlin asks on the cover whether Regie has destroyed opera altogether) it might be a safer and more prudent measure to go to a performance of an opera you love only if performed in the concertante mode. When I complain about interventionist stupidities these days my Wagnerian friends keep reminding me, “You can just close your eyes,” but it was something of an eye-opener last night that even a concertante version, especially when the opera is Tristan und Isolde, could provide a visual feast, albeit of small dishes, or what they call tapas here in Barcelona.