Transformative Journey: Tristan und Isolde at the Staatsoper Berlin

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Andreas Schager
König Marke – Stephen Milling
Isolde – Anja Kampe
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Melot – Stephan Rügamer
Brangäne – Yekaterina Gubanova
Ein Hirt – Linard Vrielink
Ein Steuermann – Adam Kutny
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Linard Vrielink

Staatsopernchor, Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim.
Stage director – Dmitri Tcherniakov.

Staatsoper, Berlin, Germany.  Sunday, March 18th, 2018.

Following their successful collaboration with Parsifal in 2015, the Staatsoper reunited the team of Dmitri Tcherniakov, Daniel Barenboim, Anja Kampe and Andreas Schager for this new Tristan und Isolde which premiered in early February this year.  I caught the seventh and final performance of the run.  The Parsifal was revelatory, an exploration of the blind power of faith in maintaining a closed community.  This run of Tristan also marks the first major new production for the Staatsoper forces back in their renovated home theatre on the celebrated Unter den Linden boulevard.  The house looks fantastic – bright and clean – and sounds even better, highlighting the warm and distinctive sound of the resident band, the Staatskapelle Berlin.  Hopes were high this evening.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

On paper Tcherniakov gave us a solid concept.  The first act was set in a room on a luxury yacht, the claustrophobic atmosphere providing a framework for the burgeoning love to take place in, as well as a loss of agency for Isolde being taken to be married to Marke.  In doing so, Tcherniakov highlights the fact that this is a story about an elite; yet within this elite there is a cruelty, a power exploited over others.  Marke turns his back on Tristan and Isolde in the latter stages of Act 2, disdainful of the fact that the two took their fate in their own hands.  He leaves the injured Tristan on the floor as he drags Isolde away to be his wife.  Consequently, the Isolde that Tcherniakov gives us in the first act is relatively cold and he, together with Kampe’s Isolde, maps her journey from cold princess to mourning lover over the space of the three acts.  It certainly makes for a compelling narrative, although I was less convinced by its execution.  Kampe’s initially passive Isolde seemed to lack the strength that the first act incarnation really requires.  There was a disconnect between the commanding princess delivering her curse and the glacial character presented before us.  As the evening developed, however, her character really did take wing culminating in a moving Liebestod and a deeply haunting final tableau.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The power relations inherent to Tcherniakov’s vision seem to be underdeveloped.  The group of men around a table in the opening scene, or the dinner party guests that Tristan and Isolde escape to have their assignation in the forest, may well point to something more significant, yet it feels like an afterthought and barely explored.  Similarly, some snatches of video showing Tristan’s face or images of children add visual interest in places but also feel like an afterthought.  The final act is where the evening finally took life, reaching a level of intensity that was in marked comparison with the coldness of the opening.  This was due in part to Schager’s staggering performance, displaying an almost superhuman level of strength and endurance.  Tristan’s hallucinations vividly came to life as he saw his parents before him while facing death.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Another reason why the evening felt that it didn’t quite catch wing until the final act was Barenboim’s conducting.  Perhaps wary of the need to preserve the resources of the cast, the first two acts felt somewhat underpowered.  Rather than that irresistible sense of a cadence desperately aching for resolution, that constant erotic charge seeking its ultimate climax, Barenboim seemed eager to illustrate so much detail along the way with tempi that far too often ground to a halt.  The net effect was a lack of tension where ultimately that need for relief needs to feel ever present.  The Staatskapelle produced a glorious sound, the prelude emerging from nothingness with sculpted lines, deep pile strings and piquant winds.   With that seemingly endless palette of orchestral colour, it is perhaps understandable that Barenboim wanted to luxuriate in it.  The final act did, however, bring a renewed level of intensity hitherto lacking and if the big resolution perhaps lacked the overwhelming sense of relief that it could have had, it still had considerable impact.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Schager’s Tristan is a force of nature.  That he has the volume to ride a large orchestra like this in full flight is well known.  Yet with Barenboim he brought out a level of intimacy in the love duet, shading the tone right down yet never losing its core, in a most beguiling way.  The emissions were absolutely even throughout.  He sounded absolutely tireless, seemingly as fresh at the end of the evening as he was at the beginning.  The relative coolness of Kampe’s Isolde was emphasized by her chalky soprano that perhaps lacks an ideal range of tone colours.  The voice is a good size and carries well and she certainly has all the notes.  She hurled out the curse with abandon and strength although the ecstatic pealing at the end of Act 1 appeared to take her to her limits, the voice not quite sustaining the tessitura.  Her final scene found a warmth and beauty of tone while she sang an ecstatic Liebestod that soared over the band with ease and humanity.  The cleanness of her vocal line, sung off the text, also gave much pleasure.  She had clearly thrown herself fully into Tcherniakov’s vision of the character and deserves our full admiration.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Yekaterina Gubanova gave us a fabulous Brangäne, rising to the high tessitura with an easy top and room to spare.  She floated her warnings from the tower with rich, claret tone.  The voice has wonderful roundness and warmth and her diction was very clear.  Boaz Daniel was a robust Kurwenal also able to ride the band with ease.  Stephen Milling’s Marke lost a little colour higher up in the voice but there was warmth and resonance to spare at the bottom.  Barenboim gave him the luxury of time for his monologue and he sang it with lugubrious dignity.  In the remainder of the cast, I was particularly impressed by Linard Vrielink’s young Seaman, a shimmering and attractive lyric tenor – certainly a voice I’d like to hear again.

Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was something of a mixed experience.  So much in the production concept made sense and suggested an interesting and insightful reading of the text.  And yet, on the whole I’m not sure it completely achieved its potential, partly because of conducting that lacked forward momentum and partly due to the fact that a number of ideas felt underexplored.  It’s an audacious staging with a very solid context that felt tonight that it didn’t quite cohere.  That said, it did take wing where it really mattered with Schager producing some staggering singing and Kampe giving us an ecstatic account of the great final scene.  The glorious playing of the Staatskapelle and the sheer depth of the sound they produced, in their own home, made for a remarkable experience.  This was an evening that promised much and in many respects delivered on that promise.

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One comment

  1. Thanks for your comments. We were at the Performance last night as well. We share Most of your comments. I liked Kampe more than Schlager I must say!

    Regards Thomas

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