Tristan in Munich: Pape, Sieffert and Nagano Excel

GermanyGermany Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Bayerische Staatsoper’s Orchestra and Chorus, Kent Nagano (conductor), Munich’s Nationaltheater 11.7.2013 (JMI)

Bayerische Staatsoper
Direction: Peter Konwitschny
Sets and Costumes: Johannes Leiacker
Lighting: Michael Bauer

Tristan: Peter Seiffert
Isolde: Petra Maria Schnitzer
König Marke: René Pape
Brangaene: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Markus Eiche
Melot: Francesco Petrozzi
Steuermann: Christian Rieger
Hirt: Kevin Conners


Tristan Schnitzle _Seiffert c-Wilfried Hösl
Tristan Schnitzle Seiffert c-Wilfried Hösl

Tristan und Isolde is one of the most successful titles at this Munich box office: the house sells out no matter who is in the cast. The opera has a long tradition in Munich, beginning with its premiere here in 1865. The musical quality of this great work has always seemed guaranteed in this theater, but this time I found that not everything was as first-rate as one expects.

The stage production by Peter Konwitschny premiered in 1998 under the baton of Zubin Mehta, then music director of the company. Konwitschny makes a curious work of it. The opera takes place on a small stage behind a curtain reproduction of the actual big curtain in Munich. The first two acts seem somewhat naïve and even childish, as if he were telling a story for young people. Act 1 is set on board a ship with modern deck chairs but period costumes; in the second act we are on stage surrounded by painted walls with primitive trees (which reminded me of the Steingraber production in Barcelona). In the final act we are in a small room where Tristan sings his monologue. Konwitschny solves the arrival of Isolde in a somewhat debatable way, depending on which interpretation you want to give to it. Tristan indeed dies in the arms of the newly-arrived Isolde, but a few moments later he gets up and leaves the small stage with her. Both remain at the front of the main stage, while behind them is the fight and the final forgiveness of King Marke. I think what Konwitschny means to convey is that Isolde has died with Tristan, and that both lovers leave the world (the small stage), closing up the curtain themselves as if they have already ceased to belong to it. In fact, at the final notes the small curtain reopens to show King Marke and Brangaene praying before two coffins. It is an interesting production, although somewhat outdated in stage terms.

The musical direction was in the hands of Kent Nagano, who leaves his post in Munich at the end of this July Festival, to be replaced by Kirill Petrenko. There is no doubt that Mr. Nagano has been gaining in the Munich public’s favor year by year. Here, Nagano’s reading was admirable, and the excellent musical performance was the best part of the opera. Nagano drew some glorious moments from the orchestra, in particular in the Prelude and Act 3.

This opera has two main characters, and the failure or inadequacy of one of them has a negative impact on one’s final assessment of the performance. Here the protagonists were Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer, husband and wife in real life. I say this because I am convinced that it is precisely this personal relationship that caused them to be cast together. Mr. Seiffert’s presence in the part of Tristan is perfectly understandable: he is one of the most reliable performers in the character. I cannot say the same for Ms. Schnitzer, whose role as Isolde in a theater like Munich’s is not justified.

Peter Seiffert maintains a powerful and attractive timbre, and he overcame the difficulties of the part, although he had some problems in the last act. There are few good Tristans nowadays, and Seiffert remains a dependable one, despite the fact that his vibrato was more noticeable than on previous occasions.

Petra Maria Schnitzer can sing other Wagnerian roles such as Elsa and Elizabeth without difficulty, but Isolde makes vocal demands that exceed what she can offer. For one thing, she is a lyric soprano and not the dramatic soprano that Isolde requires. Her middle range is limited, her low notes are weak (when not inaudible), and her pushing in the middle makes her produce uncontrolled and shouted sounds at the top of the tessitura.

René Pape was a glorious King Marke. It always seems a shame that Richard Wagner wrote such a short part for the character when there is a singer like Mr. Pape. He is unrivaled in this role, and he overshadowed the rest of the cast. It is not possible to sing better than he did.

Ekaterina Gubanova was a good Brangaene, but rather weak in the first act. She is a strong performer and her voice is attractive, although a little limited in the lower register.

Markus Eiche reflected all the nobility that Kurwenal requires, and he offered an appealing and well-projected voice.

The secondary characters were well covered, as it is usual in this theater.

Again the Nationaltheater was sold out. The audience gave a triumphant final reception to the artists, particularly to René Pape. There were also sound cheers for Peter Seiffert and Kent Nagano.

José Mª Irurzun