The revival of Plamen Kartaloff’s Tristan und Isolde is another triumph for the Sofia Opera Company

BulgariaBulgaria Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Dancers, Chorus and Orchestra of Sofia Opera and Ballet / Constantin Trinks (conductor). Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre, 23.7.2023. (GT)

Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Tristan und Isolde (Act II)

Following the successful premiere of the new Sofia Ring held over six days in early July, the following operas of Tristan und Isolde, Parsifal and The Flying Dutchman in the 2023 Wagner Festival were keenly anticipated. This 2015 production was performed after a year of preparation with Richard Trimborn. Many aspects of the company’s first Ring cycle of 2013 are seen in this revival, especially with its innovatory and visionary conception.

Plamen Kartaloff explains his production, ‘The complex philosophy of Richard Wagner’s poetic masterpiece I sought to realise in a fully understandable, emotional, dynamic and highly expressive musical and theatrical language. Wagner himself wanted to see on stage the theatre of his music. Notwithstanding the extreme requirement for the vocal stamina of singers, no lesser condition is that they have to be great actors.’ A unique aspect of the 2015 production is the prologue that opens the opera before the orchestral prelude and allows the audience a hint of the opera’s back story.

The production was created to realise a genuine emotional drama, as Kartaloff writes: ‘The music and lyrics of Tristan und Isolde spring from the most intimate fibres of experienced heartaches. Like living shadows, out of an unrealised dream of love oblivion, passionately and without fear, our characters fly off into their space made of dreams and emotions of illusory happiness. The delusion of their stellar love journey is not sinful. With their fiery flight from reality, the road of their life leads them from an inseparable love to their choice in flight to happiness in death. So they save themselves and their love. As in no other opera, here with Wagner, the leading heroine does not die. She is transformed into light, which is the real of the eternal and most true love. Carrying away her favourite creature to be ever together and live together forever.’

The prequel opened with a striking video of the sweeping waves of the sea, enhanced by a wind machine behind the inclined stage that allowed figures to move across it to convey an impression of a strange ghostly history. We saw the young Isolde and her saving Tristan after the well-choreographed clash with the knight Morold, who was to get the annual tax that King Marke of Cornwall paid to Ireland, but instead of taxes, they received the severed head of Morold. Tristan himself was severely wounded in battle and managed to reach the shores of Ireland on a boat. Princess Isolde, famed for her power to heal with herbs, cured the deadly wounds of the young man who identified himself as Tantris. When Tantris was almost healed, Isolde accidentally discovers that he is the murderer of her fiancé Morold and decides to take revenge. She had already raised the sword when Tristan looked at her in the eyes and the hand of the princess fell powerless. Isolde fell in love with Tristan.

The orchestral prelude to Act I opened splendidly on the verdantly rich strings, and the opening scene depicted the sleeping Isolde while her maid Brangäne waits over her. Isolde is told of her betrothal to King Marke, and the Brangäne of Anna Werle through her precise facial movements, demonstrated great acting as Radostina Nikolayeva’s Isolde seems to bear the weight of her tragic fate in her singing.

The scene of mixing the potions was cleverly enacted. As Tristan embraces Isolde they are turned around on a revolving platform until Marke’s men arrive. The Tristan of Martin Iliev showed a fine dramatic tenor voice in his skilfully crafted portrayal while the sudden arrival of the ship in Cornwall was spectacular with the brilliant support by Constantin Trinks’s musicians, most notably by the brass group.

In Act II, we see King Marke’s court with a backdrop through which Melot lurks spying on the betrothed Isolde. Isolde is now dressed in a silvery garb on a dais while Brangäne is in attendance. As Isolde sees Tristan, she recognises her burgeoning love and joins him. A screen portraying the beautifully exotic colours of the castle gardens descends for the love scene. This is enacted with the two lovers approaching each other in a unique presentation as if floating in the air, giving a quite uncanny dreamlike love story – and almost hypnotic in the imagery accompanied by glorious harmonies of orchestral sound.

Melot is watching the lovers and warns King Marke of the betrayal and he interrupts them. The characterisation of King Marke by Petar Buchkov is deeply moving in his magnificent voice and acting. The fight between Tristan and Marke’s courtiers ends with Tristan’s collapsing and his aide Kurwenal taking him to safety.

Sofia Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Tristan und Isolde (Act III)

In Act III, all the suffering of the dying Tristan was evinced by the haunting cor anglais solo portraying the tragedy about to unfold. The loyal Kurwenal of Atanas Mladenov was magnificent in his acting/singing – another of the evening’s highlights. The fight scene was portrayed with tremendous drama and led to Isolde’s magnificently performed Liebestod. As Tristan is dying, King Marke is told how Brangäne’s mistakenly gave Isolde the love potion, and lastly Isolde awakens and they embrace for the final time.

Werle’s Brangäne was the finest performance of the night with her intricate facial and body movements and her dulcet-toned mezzo-soprano voice. The Tristan of Iliev was superb in voice, as was his acting the role of the tragic hero, while the Isolde of Nikolaeva was glorious in characterisation and she sang with a beautifully rich spinto soprano. The Mladenov’s Kurwenal was terrific, and the King Marke of Petar Buchkov was unswerving in his darkly attractive bass.

The magical, almost dream-like concept of this staging was enhanced by the sets by Miodrag Tabacki, while the lighting by Andrei Hajdinjak greatly assisted Kartaloff’s visualisation with wonderfully effective colours against a backdrop of the night. The distinction between the colour scheme of the costumes brought out all the disparity of the different characters; Isolde was in a bright silvery dress, while Tristan wore black against the softer colours of the browns and greens of the other singers, and the costumes were medieval, or in some cases ageless. Again the choreography throughout, including the fight scenes was superbly directed by Kamen Ivanov and Riolina Topalova enhancing the rapidly moving drama. At the centre of the musical performance was Constantin Trinks and his excellent orchestra who have never played better, improving on each evening under this fine German conductor.

In all, following upon the premiere of the new Ring cycle staged at the beginning of July, this 2015 revival was a triumphant success for Plamen Kartaloff’s 2023 Wagner Festival.

Gregor Tassie

Director – Plamen Kartaloff
Musical preparation – Richard Trimborn
Set designer – Miodrag Tabacki
Costume designer – Leo Kulash
Lighting designer – Andrej Hajdinjak
Choreographer – Riolina Topalova
Multimedia –
Head of Production – Nela Stoyanova
Assistant Director – Vera Petrova
Chorus director – Violeta Dimitrova
Stage fighting – Kamen Ivanov

Tristan – Martin Iliev
Isolde – Radostina Nikolaeva
Brangäne – Anna Werle
King Marke – Petar Buchkov
Melot – Veselin Mihaylov
Kurwenal – Atanas Mladenov
A Young Sailor – Angel Antonov
The Shepherd – Krasimir Dinev
A Steersman – Nikolay Petrov


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