Bayreuth Festival @ the Liceu: Tristan und Isolde

SpainSpain  R. Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Orchestra & Chorus, Peter Schneider (conductor), Barcelona’s Liceu, 6.9.2012 (JMI)
Concert Version


Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Irene Theorin
Brangaene: Michelle Breedt
Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen
King Mark: Franz-Josef Selig
Melot: Ralf Lukas
A seaman. Clemens Bieber
Sheperd: Arnold Bezuyen
Pilot: Martin Snell

Tristan und Isolde. Picture A.Bofill

The Bayreuth Festival’s visit to Barcelona ended with this concert version of Tristan und Isolde which was another a huge success. Both Barcelona and Bayreuth can be fully satisfied with the visit, because the public responded to it with exemplary dedication and appreciation. The only weak point of the tour was  the relatively low attendance for the titles with two performances, especially in the more expensive seats.

If   I  disagreed with the popular reaction to some of the singing in the previous two performances of the tour – for me a very important element in any opera –  then this time my divergence from  general opinion must go further.   While  I freely confess,  though with a certain sense embarrassment, that Tristan und Isolde is not one of my favorite operas, despite acknowledging   the fact that it contains music of unsurpassed beauty, some of the greatest in the whole history of music  in fact,  I have also to report that  my overall experience of it has been to find it  truly satisfying  only very rarely.   On the few occasions where this has happened, then either  there were some exceptional singers in the cast or else the performance was led by extraordinarly gifted conducting. Unfortunately neither was quite the case in Barcelona.

Musical responsibility, as last month in  Bayreuth, was in the hands of the veteran German maestro Peter Schneider, whose performance seemed to me rather routine. Peter Schneider has always been a very professional and musically solvent conductor, but I have never found him  too inspired or inspiring.

He was not the conductor I needed to become excited by this opera, but rather the opposite. I did not really enjoy much at all  other than the Bayreuther Festspielorchester’s great sound:   and I felt that a veteran and expert conductor like Professor Schneider, should have realized that he was not at Bayreuth and that his singers, particularly Tristan, were not super -beings. The orchestral volume was generally too high, causing  the singers  a deal of trouble on more than one occasion and   tempi were generally rather slow. That’s not necessarily  a bad thing if the chosen tempi  reveal genuine musical depth, but that  was not the case here. On the other hand, the Bayreuther Festspielchor  did prove  their high value once again so that  I wondered whether Richard Wagner, had he known this particular chorus personally , would  have decided to  write  more music for them after Act I.

The American tenor Robert Dean Smith is unquestionably a great singer, who always sings with gusto and suavity, avoiding any tendency to shout, as some of his colleagues do. That said, we also must recognize that Tristan requires a true dramatic tenor and Mr. Dean Smith is not that. His voice is perfect for Lohengrin, Walther or Parsifal in my opinion but he lacks the vocal weight need to face Tristan, although in his favor I must say that one can always appreciate his sense of vocal line,  his beautiful voice and general elegance. In Bayreuth his voice runs better, while here he was overpowered by the orchestra more than once.

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin was a powerful Isolde, and a compelling performer of the role. Despite this, her  voice has two serious problems that have no ready solution, I’m afraid. On the one hand her low notes are very weak, inaudible at times, while on the other, her top register, again and again, can be tight, when not purely shouted. Fortunately,  she was at her best in the Liebestod

Brangaene’s character is almost as grateful a role as Micaela or Liu so that it’s difficult for her not to have the audience’s sympathies. This happened for South African mezzo soprano Michelle Breedt, who delivered a remarkable performance, with a pleasant voice, well handled.

Robert Holl had canceled as King Marke, and was replaced by Franz-Josef Selig. For once,  I have no doubt that we were better off with this change.Mr. Selig was the best singer in the concert showing gusto, emotion, elegance and an excellent voice. This is clearly at a superb moment in his career.

To complete the principals, the Finnish baritone Jukka Rasilainen made a good Kurwenal. The Liceu  was almost sold out this time and the audience gave an enthusiastic reception to all the artists,  particularly to the orchestra, Irene Theorin and Franz-Josef Selig. A review by my colleague Jens Laurson of the performance from Bayreuth this year can be read here.

 Jose MªIrurzun