Waltraud Meier’s Dazzling Farewell to Isolde

GermanyGermany Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Bayerische Staatsoper Orchestra and Chorus, Philippe Jordan (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 12.7.2015 (JMI)


Isolde: Waltraud Meier
Tristan: Robert Dean Smith
King Marke: René Pape
Brangaene: Michelle Breedt
Kurwenal: Alan Held
Melot: Francesco Petrozzi
Pilot: Christian Rieger
Shepherd: Kevin Connors
Young Seaman: Dean Power

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


If there is a must-see  ̶  or, at least, highly desirable  ̶  series of events for opera fans, it’s the Munich Opera Festival, where you’ll find magnificent performances with outstanding companies, great conductors and top singers. The current Festival began on 28 June and will end, as every year, on 31 July. During this period Munich is offering 14 operas, including two new productions (Pelléas et Mélisande and Arabella) and singers like Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, Diana Damrau, René Pape, Anna Netrebko, Edita Gruberova and Waltraud Meier. This year I’m attending 8 different operas in 8 days and, as always, will try to keep my friends apprised of what is happening.

My first opera this year, Tristan und Isolde, was of exceptional interest: it was the farewell of the great Waltraud Meier to the character of Isolde. She is undoubtedly the greatest Isolde of the past two decades, although in recent years she has not often sung the part, a logical evolution for this noted artist who turns 60 next January. This farewell was an exciting opportunity for the public who filled the theatre to dedicate a heartfelt tribute  ̶  spontaneous, massive and well-deserved  ̶   to one of their greatest idols. The director of the opera company, the conductor and all the cast joined in the accolade.

The staging by Peter Konwitschny had its premiere here in 1998, when  Zubin Mehta was music director. It’s a curious work set on a small stage behind a curtain that reproduces the house curtain. The first two acts seem somewhat naive and even childish. Act I takes place on the deck of a boat, with modern chairs and period costumes, while in Act II we move to a reduced stage with some painted trees at the back (it reminded me of a Steingraber production shown at Barcelona’s Liceu a few years ago).

In the last act the action is set in a small room where the entire Tristan monologue unfolds. Mr. Konwitschny solves the arrival of Isolde in a somewhat questionable way, depending on the interpretation that one wants to give to it. Tristan does in fact die in Isolde’s arms, and then a little later he arises and they move off the stage and to the front, while behind them the fight of the arriving forces and the forgiveness of King Marke take place. Mr. Konwitschny has decided that Tristan and Isolde die at the same time, and both characters leave the world (the small stage) shutting the curtain themselves with the “Liebestod.” In the closing scene the small curtain is reopened to show King Marke and Brangaene mourning over two white coffins. It is definitely a production that holds real interest.

Opera fans can all agree on the huge importance of the musical direction. It’s not as critical for all operas, but there are some where the figure of the conductor is absolutely relevant, and Tristan und Isolde is one of them, an opera for the most prestigious conductors. This time the Bayerische Staatsoper had an exceptional one: Philippe Jordan, the current music director of the Paris Opera and one of the best in a pit today. His reading of the opera was memorable and he drew a fantastic performance from the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. What a great conductor and what a great orchestra! There are other fine conductors and other major orchestras, but it would be hard to surpass what was offered here. The only point of discussion that I could raise is that at times Jordan covered the singers. But that is almost inevitable in this masterpiece, unless you have some kind of aliens singing on stage.

As I mentioned, this was Waltraud Meier’s farewell to the role of Isolde, and emotions ran high in the house. Obviously, she doesn’t have the vocal freshness of 20 years back, and her top notes, especially in the first two acts, are tight, but there’s no doubt that she is an immense artist. Her Isolde is not the powerful and superhuman heroine of some of her colleagues; instead she presents a character of great vulnerability and emotion. Save for the high notes, her Isolde is a true  benchmark, and her performance in the last act was outstanding, with an exciting “Liebestod” that one rarely has the chance to experience. Waltraud Meier is a name to be written in gold letters in the history of opera, especially for her Wagner interpretations. Mezzo soprano? Soprano? Simply, a great artist!

Robert Dean Smith was once again Tristan, and his performance was excellent. He doesn’t have the power of other tenors, but he is one of the very few who SING (in capital letters) the score of Tristan. If I’m not mistaken, it is more than 10 years since Robert Dean Smith began to play Tristan, and in this time he has grown in depth in the character yet remains faithful to his vision of the part: a hero of flesh and bone, who has to move the audience without great displays of strength. I’ve seen Robert Dean Smith as Tristan many times, and this was one of his best performances.

On this exceptional occasion I shouldn’t overlook the presence of the best King Marke in recent years: René Pape, whose monologue puts others in the shade. He was just wonderful.

South African mezzo Michelle Breedt gave a good performance in the part of Brangaene, although she lacks the power and brilliance of some of her colleagues. Her warnings did not have the desired impact and emotion. Alan Held as Kurwenal was powerful and exciting. It’s one of the best performances that I remember from him. The secondary characters were very well covered.

The Nationaltheater was packed, which is not unusual, especially when it comes to Tristan. The opera had its premiere here in 1865, and it is enough to program it for opera lovers in Munich to rush to the box office, and even more so on an exceptional occasion like this. The audience showed their enthusiasm at the close of the first two acts, and at the end of the opera it was delirium. The quality of the performance and the tribute to Waltraud Meier joined forces. There was a spontaneous standing ovation as soon as the opera finished, and I cannot remember cheers and foot stamping (the ultimate sign of enthusiasm in Munich) like this. Waltraud Meier was acclaimed above all, but it was not for her alone. René Pape’s reception nearly equaled hers in decibels, and there were sound cheers for  Philippe Jordan, the orchestra and Robert Dean Smith. The final bowing lasted 28 minutes, a good portion of them dedicated to solo bows by Waltraud Meier, literally pushed by her colleagues to take them.

José M. Irurzun 




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