In Dresden: Vogt’s fine role debut in another remarkable Tristan und Isolde from Thielemann

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden, Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden / Christian Thielemann (conductor). Filmed (directed by Tiziano Mancini) in January 2024 at the Semperoper Dresden and available now on medici.tv. (JPr)

Klaus Florian Vogt (Tristan) and Camilla Nylund (Isolde) © Ludwig Olah

Production
Director and Sets – Marco Arturo Marelli
Costumes – Dagmar Niefind-Marelli
Lighting – Friedewalt Degen
Stage music – Alexander Bülow
Dramaturgy – Hella Bartnig
Chorus director – André Kellinghaus

Cast:
Tristan – Klaus Florian Vogt
Isolde – Camilla Nylund
King Marke – Georg Zeppenfeld
Kurwenal – Martin Gantner
Brangäne – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Melot – Sebastian Wartig
Shepherd / Young Sailor – Attilio Glaser
Helmsman – Lawson Anderson

Available on medici.tv is this interesting revival of Tristan und Isolde at the Dresden Semperoper. It is described as ‘After the original production by Marco Arturo Marelli’ which had its premiere in Dresden on 17 May 1995 (with Wolfgang Schmidt and Deborah Polaski in the title roles) as a co-production with the Opéra de Montpellier and was last performed at the Semperoper in October 2013 with Frank van Aken and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Tristan and Isolde. Now in 2024 famed Wagnerian tenor Klaus Florian Vogt was taking on the challenge of singing Tristan for the first time onstage; the operatic equivalent of climbing Everest. Sadly, with certain singers being either no longer with us or having retired, either completely or just from singing the role, Tristans – and maybe Isoldes too – are an endangered species.

It is almost forty-four years since I first saw Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden with Zubin Mehta conducting Jon Vickers (who I didn’t particularly care for) and Berit Lindholm. In that summer of 1980, I went to Munich to see Spas Wenkoff and Ingrid Bjoner in the leading roles. The opening to Act II of that production involved a seemingly endless field of poppies which Tristan negotiated on his way to Isolde. I don’t think I have even seen anything as visually stunning as that since. The first time I heard Christian Thielemann conduct Tristan was in 2000 at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper when René Kollo sang his last Tristan at the very edge of what was vocally possible in the last act because it was the final time he would sing it. Kollo’s Tristan was the most convincing, in a dramatic sense, I have ever seen and I cannot be sure I have seen it equalled – and certainly never bettered – until Vogt’s Act III ravings in Dresden which were the highlight of his Tristan and were almost as good.

Of course I have nothing to compare it with, but ‘After the original production’ might have given the singers free-range to just – in a phrase I was reminded of recently – ‘park and bark’. Mostly everyone just looked resolutely out into the audience, frequently far from any other singer onstage, making the whole thing more like a semi-staging at times. Looking at the costumes (with much teal, grey and silver) from Dagmar Niefind-Marelli, the director’s wife, we could be in medieval times and the musical Camelot came to mind though the setting is more abstract. It was essentially a huge cube, but only shown as a translucent one because of the scrim in front of the stage in the second act. On two sides there were door-like panels with an impression of grey concrete which characters frequently opened and closed – presumably – to let light in or shut it out. In Act I Tristan offers his sword to Isolde and lies on a catafalque near the front (which Isolde is sitting on when the opera begins); in Act II Tristan and Isolde sing the Liebesnacht love duet in a depression in the centre of the stage; and in the final act it is all very sandy with some dirty looking bedding on a flight of stage-wide shallow steps (whilst Tristan himself in now in pristine white).

There is some effective lighting from Friedewalt Degen especially at the start of Act II when Isolde is – supposedly – waiting for Tristan in the garden of King Marke’s castle and there is some green and then some blue for, I guess, the fountain Isolde sings of. Also, we see flames flickering through a gap at the back representing the signal Isolde extinguishes to let Tristan know it is safe to come to her. Otherwise, there are only a few props, including a black and silver chest with all the first act potions and a large gold salver that Tristan and Isolde drink from which appears to reflect light on their faces. There are torches for Marke’s men when they enter at the end of Act I and some swords leading to Tristan committing hara-kiri at the end of Act II and the conspicuously under-rehearsed swordplay near the end of the opera.

In the end it was the music we heard accompanying some more than reliable singing which makes this Tristan und Isolde unmissable if you are able to catch up with it on medici.tv. I find myself repeating how I have eulogised about Christian Thielemann before; he is undoubtedly the finest Wagner conductor of our times and is able not only to follow the score but understand and draw out from his musicians all the emotion behind it. From the opening notes of the Prelude, Thielemann immerses us in Wagner’s world. The performance continued at a symphonic, grandiose, yet always dramatically-compelling pace, gaining strength as each act continued; the Act II love music was suitably rapturous, and the haunting despair throughout Act III – as well as the concluding transfiguration – will live long in my memory as it always does when Thielemann conducts this opera. Through my loudspeakers the sound from the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden was as good as it gets. The orchestra played as though truly inspired by Thielemann’s languid baton as his time as their chief conductor draws to its close and he moves on to the Berlin State Opera.

The final scene of Tristan und Isolde at the Semperoper © Ludwig Olah

Camilla Nylund is very new to the role of Isolde and sang the vengeful, titian-haired Irish maid as though she was Brünnhilde’s twin sister, with her impressive tone lacking a certain lyric breadth. Nevertheless, her concluding Verklärung (popularly known as the Liebestod) was sung as if it was a tender love song. After an exquisite beginning that was both very gentle and oh so quiet, it was not only transfigurative but quite ecstatic as Nylund ended with arms outstretched appearing to hover above Tristan.

I was not won over by Klaus Florian Vogt’s Tristan until Act III and up to that point was wondering whether the seemingly-eternal Lohengrin with his unique – for Wagner – (older) choir-boy sound had made a mistake adding Tristan to his repertoire. After two acts with almost the same wide-eyed expression on his face and singing with his familiar bleached tone, secure top notes and occasional use of mezza voce – albeit to eloquent effect during ‘O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ in Act II – nothing prepared me for Vogt’s magnificently rendered delirium and hysteria in Act III. Was Vogt saving himself elsewhere for this act, undoubtedly it took a lot out of him, and I cannot imagine him singing Tristan too many times.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner provided a perfect vocal contrast to Isolde as an anxious Brangäne and for once – unlike others I have heard in the past – did not out-sing her. Baumgartner’s floated off-stage warnings underpinned the implied threat to the lovers in the music during Act II. Martin Gantner was a bluff, stalwart Kurwenal, Sebastian Wartig’s Melot was solidly sung whilst Attilio Glaser was more mellifluous as the Shepherd and Young Sailor.

Last but not least there was some of the finest acting and singing of this performance from the ever-reliable Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke: his appearances, though brief, were gripping. Zeppenfeld was sonorous, deeply expressive and affecting in his immense sadness over Tristan’s betrayal in Act II and in ultimately forgiving him, if rather too late, in Act III.

Jim Pritchard

1 thought on “In Dresden: Vogt’s fine role debut in another remarkable <i>Tristan und Isolde</i> from Thielemann”

  1. Nylund and Zeppenfeld were really great, but Vogt has no clue about Tristan’s character, only one note after the next…….

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