Wagner – Tristan und Isolde
Tristan – Christopher Ventris
König Marke – Franz-Josef Selig
Isolde – Ricarda Merbeth
Kurwenal – Andrew Foster-Williams
Melot – Wiard Witholt
Brangäne – Ève-Maud Hubeaux
Ein Hirt – Ed Lyon
Ein Steuermann – Wiard Witholt
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Ed Lyon
Chœur d’hommes de la Monnaie, Symfonieorkest van de Munt / Alain Altinoglu.
Artistic concept – Ralf Pleger & Alexander Polzin.
La Monnaie – De Munt, Brussels, Belgium. Sunday, May 19th, 2019.
For its new staging of Tristan und Isolde, De Munt – La Monnaie engaged the noted dramaturge and director, Ralf Pleger, as well as the celebrated visual artist, Alexander Polzin, to create an ‘artistic concept’. It starts from an interesting premise. In an enlightening note in the program book, Pleger discusses how, in many respects, Tristan und Isolde’s drinking of the love potion can be seen as the characters embarking on a psychedelic trip, allowing them to enter a different realm to those around them. It makes for an intriguing starting point to what is a visually highly imaginative staging. As is usually the case at the house, the run was double-cast and the images accompanying this text are those of the other cast.
We’re taken into a stylized realm, perhaps neither of life nor of death. Ghostly figures in Act 2 seem to merge in and out of Polzin’s impressive set, as if inhabitants of another world visible only to Tristan and Isolde. The movements of the casts, and indeed their costumes (Wojciech Dziedzic), were redolent of another time and place – perhaps of the future or perhaps of the past. These were simple, formalized gestures – the raising of an arm or turning to the wall – creating an impression of a group of people both barely aware of each other, yet with the two central characters engaged in the most passionate, even self-destructive, love.
This is a slow-burning staging, for a slow-burning piece, one that reveals itself gradually to those experiencing it. It takes us, and confronts us, with a realm neither of night nor of day. I can understand that for some, it may feel too cold. In fact, for much of Act 1, I felt the same. Yet, once Tristan and Isolde drank the love potion, the staging moved onto a different plane, actively becoming part of the music, amplifying it, making it feel like a total visual and musical experience – precisely the gesamtkunstwerk the work requires. It felt that rather than watching a piece of music drama with a clear narrative thread, we were watching a visual manifestation of the music, one that was completely connected to the score. It’s also a clearly the work of a team with a vivid visual imagination that also has the tools to realize it. Some of the visuals were absolutely staggering – the use of lights in Act 3 to create a series of lines that intersected the set, or the beguiling use of shadow to create multiple views of the characters on stage, transforming individuals into multitudes and vice versa.
Of course, none of this would have had the impact it had, had the musical side not been as strong. Alain Altinoglu led a house orchestra at the top of its game. The quality of the playing was phenomenal, today easily the equal of any orchestra in the world. Altinoglu obtained playing of extreme confidence and refinement from the ladies and gentlemen under his charge. The string tone was rich, with a remarkable depth of colour. The brass was absolutely spot-on throughout this immense score. He started the prelude with huge languor, chords aching for resolution yet never finding it. The weight of the string tone was striking, digging deep as we stared into the darkest depths of the soul at the start of Act 3, while intonation was absolutely immaculate throughout. Altinoglu also brought out a rainbow of colours, particularly as Ève-Maud Hubeaux floated her warnings from the tower, the combination of the searching, surging orchestral textures conjuring limitless sonic vistas with Hubeaux’s fabulous sense of line was ravishing. Altinoglu’s tempi were for the most part nicely urgent, but there were moments when he let the tension drop – for instance in Marke’s extensive Act 2 monologue or Isolde’s entrance in Act 3. That said, when the resolution finally came it was overwhelming, filling the house in an orgasmic glow.
Vocally, there was much to appreciate. Ricarda Merbeth was a commanding Isolde, hurling out the curse with a staggering ease on high, where so many before here have run out of gas. The entire role was sung off the text – as indeed was the case throughout the entire cast – every word clear and invested with meaning. Her soprano sits comparatively high, which meant that there was some very careful negotiation of the lower passaggio, the register breaks not quite integrated. Merbeth rose to an overwhelming ‘liebestod’, pouring out theatre-filling streams of silvery tone. Her Tristan was Christopher Ventris. His was a brighter tenor than many who have been heard in the role, perhaps also more lyrical. He rose to the ravings of Act 3, always singing within his means, with never a sense that he was pushing the voice further than it could go. In the love duet, he sang with honeyed warmth, blending handsomely with Merbeth and the orchestra below.
Hubeaux was a glorious Brangäne. The owner of a tart, juicy mezzo of excellent sheen, she more than easily negotiated the extremities of the role’s extensive tessitura. She pulled back the tone to a ravishing thread in her interjections to the love duet, and throughout, the tone was absolutely even from bottom to top. Andrew Foster-Williams made Kurwenal a much more three-dimensional and sympathetic character than we often see, his concern for Tristan in Act 3 more than palpable. His firm baritone gave pleasure, although a hint of dryness in the tone towards the end suggested that the role might be taking him to his limits – although this was the last performance of a run of ten where Foster-Williams sang in every performance. What made his character live, above all, was his impeccable diction.
This was also the case for Franz-Josef Selig’s Marke, sung in a big, resonant, inky bass. He truly made the text live. Wiard Witholt and Ed Lyon were luxury casting in their roles. Witholt singing with a nicely virile baritone, with an impressive upper extension, while Lyon sang with a lieder singer’s attention to text. The gentlemen of the house chorus were on terrific form, particularly at the end of Act 1, making a massive noise from the boxes at the side of the stage.
This really was a very special Tristan und Isolde. Yes, there were some reservations along the way, but the cumulative effect was just as shattering and transporting as it should be. It gave us a total visual and musically overwhelming experience. It was a performance that transfigured and transformed. Satisfyingly sung, it was distinguished by orchestral playing that proved that this house really does belong in the premiere league of international lyric theatres. It is, more than anything perhaps, an achievement for the ladies and gentlemen of the magnificent orchestra.
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