Konwitschny’s Tristan, Meier’s Isolde: Still Young at Fifteen

GermanyGermany R. Wagner, Tristan & Isolde: Soloists, Bavarian State Orchestra, Kent Nagano (conductor), Bavarian State Orchestra, 7.3.2013 (JFL)

Direction: Peter Konwitschny
Sets & Costumes: Johannes Leiacker
Lighting: Michael Bauer
Choreography: Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Waltraud Meier
Kurwenal: Markus Eiche
Brangäne: Petra Lang
King Marke: Kwangchul Youn
Melot: Francesco Petrozzi
Sheppard: Kevin Conners
Steersman: Christian Rieger
Suspiciously Young Sailor: Ulrich Reß

Tristan and Isolde, Act 1, Picture from the production's first year in 1998.
Picture courtesy Bavarian State Opera, © Wilfried Hösl

Seeing the Bavarian State Opera’s 1998 production of Tristan & Isolde is like visiting an old friend. A dear friend, certainly, because it never gets old. It speaks to the greatness of Peter Konwitschny’s work that it is an experience that “upon familiarity will grow more content”—not “contempt”, to quote Shakespeare’s intentional malapropism properly.

Konwitschny’s was the first Tristan & Isolde I ever saw. I was very impressed then, on June 7th 2001… so impressed that I filed a little report on my typewriter. I found that report again now, when I went looking for the program books and cast list that I tidily kept in case binders and haven’t had the heart to throw out. It seems I fell in love with Wagner that night, where previously there had merely been intellectual (or rather: pretentious) appreciation. Waltraud Meier—then as now the Isolde of this production—appeared to “make superlatives redundant”. Mihoko Fujimura stepped in for Marjana Lipovšek as Brangäne (something I had mis-remembered until now), Jon Fredric West was Tristan (“looks like the death mask of Agamemnon”) and Kurt Moll set an early standard for King Marke.

Richard Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
Barenboim / Meier, Jerusalem, Lipovšek, Salminen et al.
Telarc / Warner

I had seen the production twice since: In late 2007 when Linda Watson (not then or now my favorite Wagner singer) subbed for Meier, with a tired John Treleaven, magisterial René Pape, dramatic, multidimensional Michael Volle, and graceful, unobtrusive Daniela Sindram. Then again the following summer at the Opera Festival now with Meier back, Jan-Hendrik Rootering as Marke, and Michelle DeYoung as Brangäne. The production struck me as frayed at the edges; still “above average” but “not an artistic triumph anymore”. Perhaps it was time to retire Konwitschny’s production in favor of something new and vigorous?

The performance on Thursday, March 7th, answered such speculation in the negative. The production—fresh and engaging—can still be as powerful as it was fifteen, thirteen years ago. Another aspect has come full circle: Waltraud Meier struggled at the beginning of her shift into Isolde-territory with the heights, and she does so again. On CD, hers would have been a weak performance, in and out of audibility when Kent Nagano allowed the Bavarian State Orchestra to cover her with an orchestral performance that was level-headed but less transparent than Nagano’s Wagner can be. But on stage, it was (still) marvelous. It is a role she created and she invests all her very considerable dramatic ability into it. Rarely are the subtlety, the wit, the sarcasm, the irony, the insinuations of the text so evident as in the first act of this production—ocean liner and all. In it, Meier gets to bristle, coo, appeal, and revile. She proved to be particularly biting, fierce, vulnerable and sweet this night, ever depending on what the situation demanded.

Everyone around her seemed to go along with that: Petra Lang played her Brangäne as an infatuated gal, a bit of a doting ditz, not, thankfully, the often-encountered spinster-chaperone. She did that with great dramatic instincts and a bit like the Maggie Jacobs character in Extras. That made up for a slow vocal start during which her voice had a pale metallic quality, plane rather than focused. Her tone gained dramatically in color and concentration as she warmed up, and a few tricky coordination issues later on were worked through when Nagano tightened the reins by waving like a semaphore. Markus Eiche as Kurwenal was a breath of fresh air, a joy: virile, with just the right (minimal) amount of smarminess in the first act, and in great, fresh, and charismatic voice.

Robert Dean Smith, who seemed born to play a good-plain-boring Tristan when employed in Christoph Marthaler’s Baryeuth production, suddenly showed up as well: Here was a Tristan at once noble and sturdy (rather than portly) and absolutely in line with the overarching humanity of the first act. It helped that his slightly unspectacular tenor was pleasantly lyrical right off the bat. Minor textual missteps notwithstanding, he remained a delight throughout, pacing himself nicely to end the third act as impressively as he began the first.

It took me a while to warm up to the deliberately crude-naïve set of the second act—a bit like a Henri Rousseau painting gone rogue—but it’s happened at last. The focus on intimacy and conversation, further helped by the stage-within-a-stage set, pays dividends in a scene that is basically two people talking about love. Eventually Tristan and Isolde shed their outer personae (visually, too: they strip their cloths until they are in plain black garb) as part of their metamorphosis into disembodied night itself. Together they—literally—step out of the frame and become onlookers to what King Marke (Kwanchul Youn, booming and barreling at first, but soon with gravitas and dignity) & Co. discover.

The lovers repeat the stepping-out-of-the-frame trick again in the marvelous-IMMEDIATEOTHERWORD third act, when they finally shed their physical representation and Isolde sings her Liebestod to him. (Super-titles were necessary on this occasion, which is usually not the case with Waltaud Meier… the restlessly coughing crowd admittedly didn’t help.) The shells of Tristan and Isolde are laid out in the final scene, as Marke and Brangäne stand in mourning before two white coffins. Curtain, the End. Until next year.

Jens F. Laurson