A convincing and successful Tristan und Isolde in Valencia

SpainSpain Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Generalitat Valenciana Chorus, Comunitat Valenciana Orchestra / James Gaffigan (conductor). Palau de les Arts, Valencia, 23.4.2023. (JMI)

Tristan und Isolde Act I © M. Lorenzo and M. Ponce

Director – Alex Ollé
Sets – Alfons Flores
Costumes – Josep Abril
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Video – Franc Aleu

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Ricarda Merbeth
King Marke – Ain Anger
Kurwenal – Kostas Smoriginas
Brangäne – Claudia Mahnke
Melot – Moisés Marín
Shepherd – Martin Piskorski
Steersman – Alejandro Sánchez

After an absence of ten years, this great Richard Wagner opera has returned to Valencia’s Palau de les Arts. On the earlier occasion, it was done in a semi-staged version in the Auditorium, not in the Main Hall. The opera had been programmed two years ago, but had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. The staging is by Alex Ollé of La Fura dels Baus, and comes from the Opéra de Lyon where it premiered in June 2011. In 2017, is was put on at the Liceu in Barcelona.

Beyond the aesthetic aspects, it is a fairly traditional production with no new readings and a correct narration of the plot. The most interesting aspect lies in the set design by Alfons Flores. Act I takes place on the deck of a ship with some waves in the background, and a large sphere appears above as the ship approaches Cornwall. In Act II, we are inside the sphere which represents the palace of King Marke; it is located at the back of the stage and serves as a screen for projecting images. In the third act, the sphere is turned 180 degrees, with the action taking place at the front of the stage. The environment of the entire production is very dark.

Tristan und Isolde Act II © M. Lorenzo and M. Ponce

Alex Ollé’s stage direction does not offer much interest: it narrates the plot without originality of any kind. The biggest problem is in Act II where the action takes place inside the sphere, leaving the entire front of the stage open.

The conductor was James Gaffigan, the opera house’s music director, whom I have had the opportunity to see in Munich but in a very different type of repertoire. His conducting gained in intensity as the opera progressed: Act I was the least successful, things improved in the second act and Act III was outstanding. Under his baton, the Comunitat Valenciana Orchestra gave a performance worthy of being highlighted, one of its best in recent times.

Tristan und Isolde Act III © M. Lorenzo and M. Ponce

Tristan was sung by veteran tenor Stephen Gould, who has become a reference Tristan in recent years. I last saw him in this role five years ago, and I wondered how he would be nowadays. The truth is that he surprised me in a positive way: his voice has quality and amplitude, and he is an admirable vocal and stage interpreter. I got the impression that he had some difficulties on the high notes during Act III, but he is still an excellent Tristan.

Soprano Ricarda Merbeth in the role of Isolde was also convincing. She has always been an outstanding Wagner interpreter, although she is not the dramatic soprano that characters like Isolde require.

The performance of bass Ain Anger as Marke was fine, and he sang his two monologues in a well-suited voice, particularly the first one. It was not the same as René Pape (who was announced for the part two years ago), but he is not far away.

Baritone Kostas Smoriginas as Kurwenal sang with gusto and was quite good, as was Claudia Mahnke as Brangäne. In the secondary characters, Moisés Marín, Martin Piskorski and Alejandro Sánchez all did well.

Jose M. Irurzun

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