Prisoners of Desire: Tristan und Isolde at the Oper Köln

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Peter Seiffert
König Marke – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Isolde – Ingela Brimberg
Kurwenal – Samuel Youn
Melot – John Heuzenroeder
Brangäne – Claudia Mahnke
Ein Hirt – Kim Youngwoo
Ein Steuermann – Choi Insik
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Kim Youngwoo

Chor der Oper Köln, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln / François-Xavier Roth.
Stage director – Patrick Kinmonth

Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal 1, Cologne, Germany.  Saturday, September 21st, 2019.

Tonight’s season opening at the Oper Köln took place at their temporary home, the Staatenhaus, on the opposite bank of the Rhine from the cathedral city.  The Staatenhaus is an exposition centre, with all the issues that that entails for operatic performance.  While the seats are comfortable and the sightlines excellent, thanks to the very steep rake in the ersatz auditorium, acoustically it’s far from ideal, with a sound that’s very dry – and from my seat it felt that the orchestra was playing in a different room.  The renovations to their permanent house are running far behind schedule and budget, and it’s likely that they’ll be based in that venue for a few more seasons.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

The impression of the orchestra being in a different room may have been compounded by the set used in Patrick Kinmonth’s new staging, which received its premiere tonight.  Abstract wave shapes, upon which video images of waves were projected, surrounded the orchestra, containing them within the set and making it feel that the orchestra was as much part of the stage furniture as the set and the singers.  It did mean that the cast was always audible over the band.  The downside was a lack of that all-encompassing orchestral glow that one hopes for in this work.  The action took place within a permanent set, split into four separate rooms, with further action taking place either on what appeared to be a lawn to the right of the stage, or the ship’s bridge on the left.  Kinmonth gives us an interesting premise.  Initially, it seems that the action evolves on board the ship taking Isolde to Cornwall.  As the evening develops, one begins to question whether, instead of a ship, this is instead a prison or an asylum.  The lovers don’t touch or engage with each other, neither stepping out of their room, but rather imprisoned within their desires.  This idea of two people becoming obsessed with something that remains intangible is an idea I found quite compelling.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Personenregie is straightforward, the blocking was effective, and we had a sense of real flesh and blood characters, even if they barely related to each other.  There were some random visual touches.  I’m not quite sure what the idea behind the gentlemen marching through the waves in formation at various points in the evening was.  Although it was interesting to have Marke deliver his monologue from the waves at the front, reinforcing his distance from the lovers.  Above all, this is a staging that illustrates the text and provides an intriguing visual framework for the action.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

Musically, it must be admitted that it was somewhat variable.  Peter Seiffert, in his sixty-sixth year, gave us a singing lesson as Tristan.  The freshness of the voice, after decades of singing the most demanding roles, is staggering.  The vibrations have loosened slightly but his tenor has retained its bright, clarion colour.  He sang with an openness, savouring the text, finding a poetry in Wagner’s vocal writing, that one rarely hears.  He rose to the ravings of the third act, finding power to spare, the voice penetrating into the room with laser-like precision.  One always felt secure in his vocalism and, despite the passing of the years, the artistry is undimmed.  Seriously impressive.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

As Brangäne, Claudia Mahnke sang with a lieder singer’s attention to text.  Her mezzo is large, rising from a warm and chocolatey bottom to a bright, bell-like top.  She was unfazed by the role’s demanding tessitura, always singing with beauty and poise.  She floated her warnings from the tower with wonderfully even tone.  Samuel Youn sang a heroic Kurwenal, his bass-baritone firm, never hectoring.  Karl-Heinz Lehner’s Marke was sung in a warm and resonant bass, descending to the depths with rounded tone – although the top sounded slightly disconnected to the rest.  The beauty he brought to his monologue and the way he pointed the text, in a moment that can so often feel interminable, was most impressive.  The supporting roles were effectively taken.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

I must admit that I found Ingela Brimberg’s Isolde problematic.  This was a role debut for her and it sounds as if she is still working the role into the voice.  She sang with lyricism, her soprano bright, but it also felt that she lacked a significant degree of vocal colour, singing over the text rather than with it.  The role sits low for many sopranos and Brimberg lacked amplitude at the bottom, the voice disappearing under the orchestral texture at times.  As the evening progressed, it sounded like tiredness kicked in and intonation began to sink.  Her Liebestod contained much Gwyneth Jones-like swooping, though without the fabled Celtic diva’s renowned volume.  While Brimberg gave an honourable account of herself, I left with the impression that this is a role that takes her beyond her current limits.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

There was much that gave pleasure in François-Xavier Roth’s conducting.  The way that he encouraged the strings to use vibrato sparingly made the opening to the prelude and the dark night of the soul at the start of Act 3 spellbinding.  Tempi were nicely swift, for the most part, but there were a significant number of occasions on which the tension sagged.  If felt that, rather than guiding the action, Roth was skimming over the surface, accompanying rather than leading, which meant that the coital flow of the music, that constant yearning for relief, climaxing five hours later, seemed prosaic.  The orchestra played efficiently for him.  There were a few brass slips along the way although the string intonation was generally accurate.  The chorus was fine in their interjections.

Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

This was a somewhat mixed evening on the whole.  The staging was effective and logical, giving us an interesting visual premise of lovers trapped within their desires and made us question what was real and what was imagined.  There were moments of genuine insight in the conducting but it also felt very much like a work in progress, as indeed did the assumption of the lead female role.  At the same time, it was a privilege to see a great artist at work in Seiffert’s Tristan.  That lifetime of understanding and vocal strength, not to mention the artistry that comes with experience, made for a compelling portrayal of this monster of a role.

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