Tristan and Isolde Meet at Villa Wesendonck 

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Wagner: Tristan and Isolde Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: John Fiore, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 25.1.15. (JR)

Tristan: Copyright Suzanne Schwiertz
Tristan: Copyright Suzanne Schwiertz


Tristan:,Nina Stemme
Brangäne:,Michelle Breedt
Tristan:,Stephen Gould
King Marke:, Matti Salminen
Kurwenal:,John Lundgren
Melot:,Cheyne Davidson
Shepherd:,Spencer Lang
Steersman:,Mauro Peter


Director:,Claus Guth
Assistant Director:,Aglaja Nicolet
Sets and costumes:,Christian Schmidt
Lighting:,Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus:,Ernst Raffelsberger
Choreography:,Volker Michl
Dramaturgy:, Ronny Dietrich

This performance was the first of a number of revivals of a production first seen here in 2008 and Nina Stemme as Isolde and Michelle Breedt as Brangäne repeat their roles. The newcomer (at least, in Zurich) is Stephen Gould.

 Tristan and Isolde is closely connected with Zurich, more particularly due to his extremely close relationship with his muse for this work, Mathilde von Wesendonck, the wife of his patron.  Wagner was invited to live in a small house (his “asylum on the green hill”) in the grounds of the villa Wesendonck (both are still there and worth visiting if your travels should bring you to Zurich).  Claus Guth’s interesting production draws on this extra-marital attraction and turns it into the fatal attraction between Tristan and Isolde. The main protagonists are shown in rooms which might have existed at that time in the Villa Wesendonck (which is as it happens within sight of Zurich’s opera house, although on the other side of the lake).  The rooms are shown as rather bare and the cracks in the wallpaper bring to mind a British cheap conference hotel rather than the stately villa of a Swiss industrialist. There are no ships (except for some graffiti on the castle on the Breton coast in Act III), no sailors, but that does not harm the production. As the stage revolves, we move from bedroom to winter garden or hothouse, to the dining room (where Tristan sweeps away the remains of dinner and candelabra to make love to Isolde on the table), to the reception room where the burghers of (possibly) Zurich are entertaining the King with a cocktail party and where Tristan and Isolde exchange glances. The production lacks fire when passion is called for; Stemme and Gould, physically and by virtue of their age, make a very plausible couple of lovers, even if not so young, but Guth contrives to have them kiss once but then the passion wanes. Their love duet is sung with them on the dining table at an angle of some 45 degrees which looks most uncomfortable; full credit to them for being able to fill their lungs in such an awkward position.  The long tortuous beginning of Act III while we watch a delirious Tristan waiting interminably for Isolde’s arrival was alleviated only somewhat by a series of flashbacks using the revolving stage.

The costumes belonged to Wagner’s period in Zurich, mid 19th century; interestingly in Act I Isolde and Brangäne wore matching dressing gowns – was Brangäne supposed to be Isolde’s alter ego? That suspicion was confirmed later when Isolde mouthed the words of Brangäne’s watchman’s song at the end of Act II until Brangäne came into view – a nice touch.

The glory of the evening was undoubtedly Swedish soprano Nina Stemme, a perfect Isolde, steely and tireless of voice, sure of intonation and diction and convincing with her acting skills (even when she accidentally rolled off the bed onto the floor). I cannot imagine nor have I heard a better Isolde; she is of course fresh from Covent Garden in the same role, also with American Heldentenor Stephen Gould by her side. Her top notes were spot on and she garnered by far the greatest share of the bravi.  Her Liebestod was a real tearjerker: but I pondered why King Marke should stretch out his hand to Brangäne just before the very end, Brangäne reciprocating – Isolde’s alter ego again, I assumed, or perhaps just a happy end for King Marke with a new potential conquest. Gould was very sturdy, his strong voice almost over-filled the small Zurich opera house – occasionally volume was at the expense of intonation. He is very much in the physical and vocal mould of Jon Vickers, perhaps not quite so gruff.

Michelle Breedt impressed as Brangäne, as did John Lundgren’s strangely almost comic Kurwenal. Matti Salminen, at nearly 70, must be reaching the end of his long career but he showed us what a superb veteran Wagnerian he is even if the voice is no longer as rich as it once was and his breath not as full. Cheyne Davidson sang a firmly-toned Melot; all the other minor parts were well taken, particularly Mauro Peter as the voice of the helmsman.

Originally Jiri Belohlavek was down to conduct these performances but his replacement, not at short notice, was the American conductor John Fiore. The orchestra played well for him, balance with the singers was exemplary, dynamics controlled; his sensitive accompaniment contributed greatly to the success of the evening. The offstage hunting horns were a glory, as was the shepherd’s cor anglais from high above the auditorium; only the offstage trumpet giving the warning call had a more unfortunate start to his evening.

John Rhodes

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