Literary Considerations: Tristan und Isolde at the Opéra national de Lorraine

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Samuel Sakker
König Marke – Park Jongmin
Isolde –
Dorothea Röschmann
Kurwenal – Scott Hendricks
Melot – Peter Brathwaite
Brangäne – Aude Extrémo
Ein Hirt – Alexander Robin Baker
Ein Steuermann – Kim Yong
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Alexander Robin Baker

Chœur de l’Opéra national de Lorraine, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Lorraine / Leo Hussain.
Stage director – Tiago Rodrigues.

Opéra national de Lorraine, Nancy, France.  Saturday, February 4th, 2023.

Tonight marked my first visit to the city of Nancy and its Opéra national de Lorraine.  It’s a city of great beauty and a place I would certainly like to return to and see more of.  The house itself is intimate in size, with just over a thousand seats, and the welcome is cordial.  This new production of Tristan und Isolde, also marks a number of firsts.  Many in the cast made role debuts at the opening night, last weekend, and this was also the first-ever opera production by noted actor and director, Tiago Rodrigues.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

As a newcomer to opera, it’s understandable that Rodrigues would bring a fresh perspective to the artform.  He sets the action in an archive – we know this because two dancers appear at the start, holding up a series of cards telling us we’re in an archive.  They also use the cards to point out the notion that people will be singing in German about love etc.  The evening started 15 minutes late, the business with the dancers lasted about the same, so it was around a half-hour after the curtain time that we actually heard any music.  Given that the show went on until after midnight, this made for a rather frustrating start – with a number of audience members announcing their displeasure as the silent card display proceeded.  Once the music started, the two dancers, Sofia Dias and Vitor Roriz, proceeded to gyrate interpretatively along with the music – though what they were attempting to interpret I can’t say I was able to discern. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Rather than traditional surtitles, the two dancers took phrases out of the archive and displayed them while the cast sang.  There were around 950 cards in total so I can only imagine how stressful it must be for the stage management team to ensure they went back in the right place.  These were replicated above the stage with an English translation.  They consisted of such pearls of insight such as ‘la femme triste a une amie’ and ‘beaucoup de mots’ whenever a character enumerated loquaciously.  This was particularly distracting in Act 1, as the singing characters were on a platform in the middle of the stage, while the dancers were in the foreground, making them impossible to ignore.  It was easier in Acts 2 and 3, as the singers were brought to the front.  There was a disconnect between the sung text and what we saw from the dancers, that was especially frustrating – particularly so as diction across the board was exceptionally clear.  In many respects, it felt that Rodrigues wanted to draw attention to the surface absurdity of opera, and Wagner in particular.  The frequent mention in the cards of ‘beaucoup de mots’ and the disconnect between the sung text and metalanguage presented to us by the dancers felt rather facetious.  Even more so, since direction of the principals far too often consisted of standing and delivering, with arms outstretched into the middle distance – even after Tristan and Isolde drank the love potion, they seemed to be lost in their own front-facing gesticulations.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

The most frustrating thought about Rodrigues’ staging is that it could have been a very interesting starting point for a concept – the idea of a story coming to life through dancers interacting, while singers dressed as librarians reflect a quotidian reality.  That could have been more intriguing than seeing a character being stabbed with a flashcard labelled ‘épée’, for instance.  Those who read me often know how much I am open to alternative interpretations.  It’s perhaps to Rodrigues’ disadvantage that the most recent staging I saw of Tristan, by Calixto Bieito in Vienna, was the best I have seen of the work.  The difference between Rodrigues’ and Bieito’s approaches is that Bieito uses his staging to magnify and amplify this revolutionary score, whereas it feels like Rodrigues undermines it.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Indeed, as Act 1 progressed, I became more and more aware of the fact that the score was not having the usual effect on me, simply because the mind was overtaken by the distraction of the flashcards.  This is a score that should feel like an unbearably potent five-hour search for release.  This evening, it didn’t quite feel like that.  Leo Hussain is one of the finest conductors out there.  He gave me one of the best-conducted Elektras I have ever heard.  I’m sorry to say his Tristan didn’t quite do it for me.  He certainly achieved some superb playing from the house orchestra, bringing out a sheer beauty of sound that was ravishing, despite the rather lean string sound.  Those surging textures in the love duet were magical, and the way that time stopped still just after the drinking of the potion, the beauty of the tinkling harp bubbling under the textures, was ravishing.  Yet, frequently throughout the evening, it felt that tension sagged – Marke’s lengthy monologue seemed to descend into stasis – and I longed for a more consistent sense of forward momentum, that overwhelming need for release.  When we got to the Liebestod, on the other hand, it felt rather rushed, so that that big orgasmic climax that we had waited five hours for, seemed a bit perfunctory.  Hussain was extremely singer-sensitive throughout, always allowing his cast through, which certainly helped as this was a cast of lighter voices than one often hears in the work.  There was a lot that was good there in that respect and in the quality of the playing he obtained from the orchestra.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Dorothea Röschmann might be a surprising choice for the role of Isolde, having gained her plaudits in much earlier music, but she’s at a point in her career when it’s either now or never.  She exploited a much fuller chestiness than I’ve previously heard from her, rich and full on the bottom, while the middle preserves that liquid beauty that is her trademark.  Röschmann is rather short on the top these days, the highest reaches emerge as more of a scream, and she ducked one of the Cs in Act 2.  That said, the voice certainly has amplitude, soaring over the surging orchestra with ease and authority.  She also brought a lieder singer’s attention to text, living it and using the beauty of the sounds of the words to colour the tone.  Her Liebestod was rather breathless, but otherwise Röschmann most certainly held the course.  The way that she lived the text gave much pleasure and this was a surprising but successful role debut for her.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Samuel Sakker was a youthful Tristan.  He certainly knows how to pace the role, keeping enough in the tank, so that his Act 3 ravings grew in intensity.  From my seat towards the back of the Orchestre section, it did sound that he was covered by Röschmann in their duets – her voice carries more easily.  The tone is also somewhat dry at lower volumes, to the extent that I did wonder whether the role is a size too large for his current vocal estate.  That said, Sakker found such great poetry in the text, savouring it, making his Tristan much more pensive and reflective than one often hears – his sung German is superb.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Aude Extrémo sang Brangäne in a rich, full mezzo with a deliciously resonant chestiness.  Higher up, it did sound like the role took her to her limits, the more sustained higher writing lost its tuning compass in Act 1, hovering around the note rather than on it.  Her diction was also not quite as clear as her castmates.  That said, she floated her warnings from the tower quite magically, enhanced by the evocative lighting of Rui Monteiro.  Scott Hendricks sang Kurwenal with great verbal acuity and vocal amplitude, although the vibrations have loosened somewhat in his baritone.  Park Jongmin was a mighty Marke, the warmth and beauty of his lower register filled the house, though the voice lost a little in quality higher up.  Peter Brathwaite sang Melot in a gravity-defying and handsome baritone, while Alexander Robin Baker sang his roles in a well-placed and easily lyrical tenor.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

This was a bit of a mixed evening.  In some respects, it felt that there were two separate performances taking place – what we heard was a performance that lived the text fully, what we saw seemed to undermine it.  Rodrigues seems keen to point out the absurdity of people singing for five hours, in German, using lots of words.  Yet, what is opera other than a need to suspend belief and surrender oneself to the music?  Particularly in this of all scores.  There was a lot to enjoy in the musical aspects of tonight’s show, but also a number of reservations.  Those who were still there at the end of the evening gave the singers and conductor an extremely warm reception.

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