Tristan und Isolde - Deutsche Oper Berlin, 13 March 2011 (production premiere)
Petra Maria Schnitzer made her role debut as Isolde tonight at the Deutsche Oper. Tristan was her husband, Peter Seiffert, making the pair one of the very few real-life couples to play Tristan and Isolde since Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld and his wife Malvina created the roles back whenever. Novelty value aside, they did well to create a credible and compelling onstage relationship in a Graham Vick's baffling new production.
******** now updated with more photos ********
Schnitzer's voice is on the light and white side for Isolde, but it cuts through the orchestration well enough. Seiffert isn't far short of a miracle. Considering he's been singing professionally for thirty-odd years, most of that time in heavy Wagnerian roles, the voice is remarkably well-preserved. The more lyrical passages are a challenge he faces with impeccable technique more than vocal weight. In full voice he carved a solid and heroic line, unflagging to the very end. Both were always audible and always comprehensible, if at the expense of nuance. Together they were wrapped in their passion, oblivious to everything around them.
Probably just as well.
The stage is some '70s bungalow. A wall with a selection of doors is set at a different angle for each act, and through its french windows we now and then see random people, nothing whatsoever to do with the opera as far as I can tell. Inside are the usual tables and chairs, plus an omnipresent coffin. I half-expected Angela Gheorghiu to pop out and say hi - after all, she's got some unexpected free time at the moment.
In the second act, a naked man digs a hole behind the sofa while Tristan and Isolde get it together. Nothing says sex and death like bollocks swinging over an open grave. A naked woman wanders around, and a couple of children appear too. Oh, and a pregnant lady, rubbing her tummy in opera-pregnant style. None of the characters - that is, the characters Wagner rather than Graham Vick created - take any notice whatsoever. Presumably they're supposed to be some kind of psychological projections, but they aren't handled with enough specificity to add anything to the story.
As there's no ship, Vick bypasses those pesky libretto references with a paper boat. The 'sailors' are a swarm of rough-looking immigrant workers, a Daily Mail reader's nightmare, who torment and humiliate Brangane and Isolde. Tristan and Isolde don't drink the lurve potion, they inject it like a pair of junkies - most improbably given their bourgeois bearing.
Against this parody of provincial Regietheater, this concept without Konzept, the core action is handled pretty faithfully for the first two acts, albeit in modern dress. Vick's one worthwhile dramatic inspiration is to set the final act in an old peoples home. Tristan has some kind of senile dementia; Kurwenal humours him. All the other characters are residents too, so everything can be explained away as batty geriatric nonsense.
But then Vick wrongfoots. When Isolde turns up (from the next room), Tristan wanders out through the french windows, never to return - she does the same as soon as she's done singing. We don't see them die; we don't even see them together. This hangs together strangely well with the libretto, but of course it makes complete nonsense of the death wish at the centre of the opera. Simply perverse. Still, there was no dog, no underpants, no camouflage netting, and no overturned furniture, so you can't accuse Vick of relying on cliches.
Typically at German premieres you hear a few boos penetrating the applause. This time when the production team came on, it was the other way round. If anybody did applaud, I couldn't hear them.
Donald Runnicles, who seems to have settled in as Deutsche Oper music director after a patchy start, got the biggest ovation. There's a certain reserve to his Tristan; he doesn't manipulate or go for grand gesture. Instead he built momentum slowly but tellingly, infusing the sound with a refined warmth. When the big moments came - the potion, the discovery - he unleashed his forces for maximum impact. The orchestra played impeccably for him and the chorus too were superb. The very expressive Kristinn Sigmundsson as King Mark and Jane Irwin, an excellent Brangäne, were the pick of a well-chosen cast.
*** See a tv.berlin video including production excerpts here ***
curtain call photos: intermezzo.typepad.com