A Disappointing Tristan and Isolde

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Orchestra and Chorus Teatro Real, Marc Piollet   (Conductor), Madrid Teatro Real, 12.1.2014 (JMI)
Tristan und Isolde Photo Javier Real
Tristan und Isolde Photo Javier del Real
Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
Isolde: Violeta Urmana
King Marke: Franz-Josef Selig
Brangaene: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen
Melot: Nabil Suliman
Seaman, Sepherd: Alfredo Nigro
Pilot: César San Martín
Production: Opera National de Paris
Direction: Peter Sellars
Videos: Bill Viola
Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting: James F. Ingalls
The new year began at Teatro Real with this Wagner opera that was last performed here six years ago. The result was satisfactory although not outstanding: a staging that was more than debatable, a musical direction that was not totally convincing, and an irregular vocal cast.
This production premiered in Paris in 2005 under Gerard Mortier, and it bears the signature of one of his favorite directors, Peter Sellars. Mr. Sellar’s work is a semi-staged version with projected images by Bill Viola playing an important role. The production goes beyond minimalism: there are no sets, just a completely bare dark stage with a sort of platform as prop. The costumes seemed suited to this concert version, with timeless and always dark clothes. Over the years I have seen other Teatro Real operas officially announced as concert versions that have offered more stage content that this one.
The direction was very poor. Mr. Sellars added some personal touches that held little interest. The presence on two occasions in the second act of King Marke and Melot when Brangaene sings her warnings was unnecessary and made little sense, considering what Melot says when they finally appear on stage. It also made little sense that Tristan is wounded by Melot not in a fight but rather stabbed in the back while he is with Isolde and King Marke. In the last act Melot is killed by Kurwenal, but it appears that Mr. Sellars could’t find anyone to kill Kurwenal so we do not know if he died of a heart attack. In short, much ado about nothing.
The musical direction was initially entrusted to Teodor Currentzis, a frequent conductor with Gerard Mortier, but he canceled for reasons that are unclear. His replacement was Marc Piollet, who had just offered a not very exciting performance of L’ Elisir d’ Amore. His conducting is good in general though with ups and downs, and with an excess of orchestral volume coming from the pit. This opera requires a great conductor and Marc Piollet is not truly outstanding. For my taste his reading was short of life in the first act, improved at the love duet of the second act, and finally produced a good third act. On more than one occasion it would have been desirable to moderate his impulses since the voices on stage, with one exception, were rather small. The orchestra offered  an outstanding performance, and undoubtedly it is the best legacy that Gerard Mortier leaves in  Madrid. If Joan Matabosch, the new artistic director, maintains the quality of this orchestra, we should have very interesting years ahead, because my experience says that vocally we will be much better off than under Gerard Mortier.
Robert Dean Smith was Tristan, and his performance was the weakest I can remember from him in the character. He has never been a true heldentenor, but he has been one of the very few able to really sing the part. This time his lack of volume was worse than anticipated, and he was not a convincing Tristan in vocal terms. Certainly, he is a singer who knows how to manage his resources to arrive at the terrifying third act, but this time there was an excess of voice administration, even recognizing that he was not helped by Mr.Piollet.
Violeta Urmana was a  more convincing Isolde than in the recent past. In my opinion she was the best performer of the whole cast. It is true that there were  shouted notes, especially in the second act, but less than on other occasions. I have the impression that her recent movement to mezzo soprano roles has been good for her vocal shape. In summary, she was an outstanding Isolde.
Franz-Josef Selig offered a sensible and convincing King Marke with an attractive middle range, only lacking more easiness at the top to be a reference King Marke. Ekaterina Gubanova gave a good performance as Brangaene with an attractive mezzo soprano, excellent musicianship, and not too much volume. Jukka Rasilainen was a well-suited Kurwenal.
Teatro Real was at over 95% of capacity. The audience seem satisfied with the result of the performance, dedicating the biggest ovations to Violeta Urmana, Franz -Josef Selig and Marc Piollet, in that order. The creative team was greeted with applause and boos.
José Mª Irurzun