Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists,Frankfurter Opern und Museumorchester, Male Chorus of Franfurt Oper. Conductor: Sebastian Weigle. Oper Frankfurt 17.4.2011 (JMI)
Production Oper Frankfurt
Direction: Christof Nel (Original) Orest Tichonov (Revival)
Sets: Jens Kilian
Costumes: Margit Koppendorfer
Lighting: Olaf Winter
Tristan: Frank Van Aken
Isolde: Catherine Foster
Brangaene: Claudia Mahnke
Koenig Marke: Alfred Reiter
Kurwenal: Simon Neal
Melot: Dietrich Volle
Shepherd: Michael McCown
Steuermann: Toby Girling
Without starting a long discussion on the importance of all the elements that make up opera, I think we can all agree on three important aspects that need consideration: the staging, the music and the singing, in whatever order of priority we rank them Sadly, the overall result of this Tristan was something of a failure in all three; the staging was less than satisfactory, it was disappointing musically and it was more than patchy in purely vocal terms.
The production bears the signature of Christof Nel and was premiered in 2003. The sets are white in the first two acts and a very dark space in the third; nothing less than the light and the darkness, to which the protagonists refer during the opera. The first act takes place on the deck of a boat, but it could also well be the corridor of a hospital, so aseptic is the environment. I do not believe that a long hard bench is the ideal seating for the Princess of Ireland to travel on no does it make much sense for her to open a suitcase filled with different potions in it to prepare for Tristan’s visit. The second act takes place in Isolde’s bedroom, with a big bed as relevant prop. However, Tristan, despite his ardent desire, never takes off his coat during his love making with his beloved Isolde. It is true that they do spend some time in bed, but mostly they are standing on it. Finally, Kareol becomes a dark room with a large window facing the ocean, through which the only visible thing is the black night. At the end of the opera there is a real bloodbath, which is actually simply childish. The costumes reflect modern times and did nothing for Isolde and the stage direction was not too compelling either. Apart from all this mentioned above, I didn’t like the idea of having Brangaene singing her warnings while actually in the bedroom and singing close the lovers. In short, this was an uninteresting production.
Sebastian Weigle is the musical director in Frankfurt and I was not really moved by his reading, which I found short of inspiration and long on volume. This opera can easily seem to be too long without expert musical direction and this is what happened here. No doubt Maestro Weigle knows the score perfectly it was true that the orchestra sounded much better than in the earlier performances I saw, but Tristan needs more than that.
Tristan was the Dutch tenor Frank Van Aken, whom I last saw at Barcelona’s Liceu as Tannhäuser some three years ago. The result here was not greatly different. He sang a good first act, pushing the voice too much, and was left struggling with his instrument as the opera progressed, ending seriously underpowered in Kareol. Although there was no indisposition advice, I had the impression that he was not in perfect health, as evidenced by a few peculiar sounds and regular use of a handkerchief.
I was most interested to see British soprano Catherine Foster as Isolde, preceded by excellent reviews for her Brünnhildes in Cologne. We were told before the curtain rose that she did have a cold and it was true, since she coughed quite frequently during the first two acts, as it needed to get some water here and there. Even so, my impression of her was clearly favorable, although there were some darker spots. Her singing is least effective in the lower part of the tessitura, which is pretty weak. The center of her voice has good quality, although it’s not too big on volume but from the middle rage upwards this voice truly shines and opens up beautifully to some very bright and very accurate top notes. Beside this the volume in this range is quite remarkable. Altogether Ms Foster is a very remarkable singer who knows how to express feelings with her voice. Given today’s death of Wagnerian dramatic sopranos she is definitely someone to be reckon with.
I was also very well impressed by mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke, a powerful Brangaene. Hers is a nicely pitched voice which she knows how to manage.
Another pleasant surprise to me was British baritone Simon Neal, who made an outstanding Kurwenal, with an appealing and well projected voice delivered with some fine and persuasive acting.
Sadly, the final disappointment was bass Alfred Reiter as King Marke. He was too an modest interpreter of this most noble character whose voice lacked amplitude, with some weak low notes and some higher ones that were too tight.
The secondary parts were well covered. Dietrich Volle was a well equipped Melot, Michael McCown was good as the Shepherd and young Toby Girling showed good promise as Steuermann.
The theater had a few empty seats but the audience gave a very warm reception to the artists, particularly to Catherine Foster and Claudia Mahnke. Simon Neal and Sebastian Weigle were also cheered.
José Ma Irurzun