Tristan und Isolde - Nationaltheater Munich, 27 July 2011
A superbly-executed Festspiele performance of one of Munich's great productions. Covent Garden's older Wagner efforts are so embarrassing they're practically unrevivable. But thanks to Peter Konwitschny, the Bavarian State Opera has several that can be reliably resuscitated year after year, each time gripping/fascinating/provoking a new audience.
He came back to personally direct the latest iteration of his Tristan und Isolde, first seen more than ten years ago. Taking clues from the music, he radically rethinks the opera, substituting joy for pessimism and redrawing its trajectory on a more human scale. It becomes a celebration of love. Whether this is WWW (What Wagner Wanted) is debatable, but then so is benchmarking an evening out against WWW in the first place, so I'll defer.
In Konwitschny's conception, Tristan and Isolde have already fallen in love, the love/death potion is never consumed, and King Marke is compassionate and forgiving from the start. Most of the opera takes place on a naively-crafted smaller replica of the Nationaltheater stage. By stepping out on to the real stage the lovers enter their own private world.
Only the final act takes place in a real-looking space, a bare and dirty room. The first act's cruise ship setting is built from crude flats, and the second act's forest looks as if it was painted by small children.
Music is never relegated to mere accompaniment or decoration - every second becomes a part the story. The Sailor taunts Isolde with his song, the cor anglais players (two of them) come on stage, the pied pipers of death, and try to lure Tristan away with them. The narrative becomes believable because nothing is intrusive or improbable.
Kent Nagano complemented Konwitschny's with his clean and unsentimental reading, sparing in its moments of passion.
And what a fabulous cast! Ben Heppner occasionally sounded tight or wobbly, and even swallowed a couple of notes in the second act. But amazingly, he got better as the night went on, and finished heroically. In a perverse way his vocal difficulties helped lend his character a sympathetic quality. What makes him the best Tristan out there is not the vocal quality though, it's the way he seems to understand and believe in every word he sings. That is now becoming true of Nina Stemme too. I've often found her cold in the past, but this time she was singing to, not at, the audience. She hit a couple of dangerously thin top notes (straight after Heppner's bottling, which perhaps unnerved her) but for the most part her full, gleaming tone was intact.
René Pape's King Marke was as close to perfect as it gets. The velvety tone, the crisp yet unmannered diction, the liquid line all fed into a purposeful yet compassionate characterisation, magisterial in its self-containment. All the singers were roundly applauded, but the foot-stomping and the sheer volume of Pape's ovation beat anything I've witnessed in Munich.
Ekaterina Gubanova's Brangäne and Alan Held's Kurwenal were excellent too, as were most of the rest of the cast. I somehow doubt if Bayreuth's Tristan, opening tomorrow, could beat this.