Wagner – Tristan und Isolde / Wiener Staatsoper 12-21-13

I am having bad luck with first acts this week. I slept through a bit of Lazarus on Wednesday, and yesterday I didn’t realize that the performance began at the alarmingly early hour of five and as a result arrived late and had to go to opera detention: watching Act I on the TV in the lobby of the gallery level (where our seats were). I was not alone, though, which was comforting. (This is actually the first time I have ever arrived late to a concert or opera, though Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Moscow a while back was a very near miss. I guess it happens to everyone at least once, right?)

The Vienna opera’s production, by David McVicar, offers up ancient Britain by way of Mordor. Act I takes place in a rather down-at heels-boat (there are planks missing) which at the end of the act separates from the rest of the set and rotates to end prow-forward, facing the audience, as the characters arrive in Cornwall. Act II involves a long concrete or stone jetty that extends forward and towards stage right, with a massive pillar in the center. As seen from my seat, from the pillar sprout two lit-up outcroppings that resemble moose antlers if you squint a little; photographs taken from a different angle reveal that the lighted bit is actually a circle. This encircled pillar casts a heavy bar of shadow across the front section of the stage (a gray area littered with flat stones) that both unites and divides the lovers as the action proceeds. At “sink hernieder” if my memory is correct the lighting changes so that the shadow disappears and the two are left in darkness. This is also a handsier production than others I have seen – in this case, Tristan and Isolde actually kiss one another (quelle horreur!). When Marke turns up at the end, the light brightens to dull gray day.

Act III, Tristan’s home of Kareol, involves a pile of stones stage right from which Kurwenal (Matthias Goerne) watches for Isolde’s ship, a gray area in the front with a chair for Tristan, and above it all a looming blood red moon that slowly sinks below the horizon as Isolde (Violeta Urmana) finishes her Liebestod at the end. Around the back (this is the case in Act II too) there is a distant ring of uneven reddish light, like a glow from behind a mountain range.

One odd thing. When Marke’s men make their exit in Act III they do so via a kind of backwards-moving side to side dance sequence. It reminded me of at part in the DVD of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Rodelinda where the mobsters do their slick mobster dance in the back as Grimoaldo sings “prigionera ho l’alma in pena” in Act II.

I feel out of place commenting on the interpretation since I didn’t really hear the whole thing – the sound from the lobby TV is obviously distinctly different from Act I as heard from, you know, inside the auditorium. But there were several things that stood out to me. First of all, I should hear more opera in houses that are not literally the largest opera house in the world. It really does make a difference in terms of immediacy of sound. (Dear Met: don’t worry, I still love you. We’ve had some good times. But you are not normal.)

Second, I was impressed with Elisabeth Kulman as Brangäne. There is a sort of solid cool shine to her voice that I found I I really like – both as blended with Urmana in Act I and especially during Brangäne’s moments of lament and warning in Act II.

Last of all, I am still not sure what I think Isolde’s “mild und weise” at the end is supposed to sound like. Every time I hear it, it is never quite what I expect – other than the big obvious climaxes, I don’t have a good feel for where the emphases are supposed to go, or how it’s divided up internally. It struck me that Urmana got the first bars exactly right, but after that I lost track of how the thing was shaped. If this wasn’t the last performance, I’d be tempted to see if I could go again – but I’m stuck with Fidelio tonight. (My life is extremely difficult, etc. etc.)

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