Seen and Heard International, 05/07/2021
by Antoine Lévy-Leboyer
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Bayerische Staatsoper ab 29.6.2021
There is huge applause at Munich’s Tristan und Isolde for Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros and Kirill Petrenko
There were many firsts and lasts in this production of Tristan and Isolde. It was the first time Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann were singing their roles, but it was the last Wagner production conducted by Kirill Petrenko in his capacity of music director and of Nikolaus Bachler as general manager of the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Thanks to a positive evolution of the pandemic with incidence rates in single digit numbers, for the first time the audience was seated in a chessboard pattern. There were this time around 900 people in the audience. To gain admission, one had to either show a recent negative test or a confirmation of full vaccination. There was some extra checking at the entrance but all went smoothly and efficiently, thanks to the flawless organisation we know from the Germans.

This was not the first time that Krzysztof Warlikowski was working with Kirill Petrenko. While being somewhat controversial, productions of Strauss’s Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten were well received. But Tristan and Isolde is a work where there is far less action than any of these. It is more a philosophical opera which makes unusual demands on the production. Warlikowski’s production failed to achieve the same levels as he did in Strauss. Two expressionless dancers – puppeteers kept appearing here and there – mostly in the last act and added very little. There were some good ideas, in particular an imaginative use of video, that mirrored either the music or text, but their use was inconsistent.

But the music-making was simply gorgeous.

Over the course of her long career, Anja Harteros has waited wisely before tackling such a difficult role. Her reading was superb, both vocally and dramatically. She has ample technique and one always felt that she had no need to be at full capacity. Students of singing should witness what she does to project sound. She was particularly regal in Act I, making us appreciate what a strong work this is. This was not a ship marooned at sea, there was violence and passion in her reading.

Jonas Kaufmann’s reading was in line with what we know of the German tenor. There was a sense that he had devoted a great deal of time and care to this reading. Words and lines were delivered as meticulously as if he were singing Lieder. Exercising caution, he did not overextend his voice in this taxing role. His control of head and chest voice remains a marvel. He was at his very best in the brooding passages where his darker tones were particularly convincing. His solo after King Marke’s monologue was a highlight. However, compared to Harteros, this was an intellectual Tristan to a passionate Isolde.

As always in Munich, secondary characters were well cast. Mika Kares has a giant size and giant voice. His reading however was more that of a king than a father and he missed some of the sorrow of this magical part. Probably because of the pandemic, which has prevented singers from overperforming, Wolfgang Koch was in wonderful form as Kurwenal. Okka van der Damerau was a radiant Brangäne and her Act II calls were stellar moments, reminding us – if we needed it – how stunning a masterpiece Wagner wrote.

The musicians played like lions for their departing music director. Tempi had flexibility but were on the whole swift, bringing both tension and intensity. The orchestra displayed darkness of colour and depth of tone. Petrenko knew exactly when he had to hold the orchestra back to accommodate the singers, and when to let them loose. Tension never faltered. Every word could be heard. There is a saying that singing in Bayreuth, where the pit is covered, helps the singers. The pit is not covered here in Munich but the conductor clearly supported his singers. This was Wagner at its best.

When the curtain came down, the completely silent audience went wild. Harteros and Kaufmann, who will both be featured in many productions next year, received huge applause, but it was Petrenko, whose future performances here are numbered, who received a well-deserved and lengthy standing ovation.

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