Susan Hall
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Bayerische Staatsoper ab 29.6.2021
Tristan and Isolde Unite Forever in Munich
The Munich State Opera featured a new production of Tristan and Isolde in its annual festival. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros teamed up as the lead characters. In some ways, they are an unusual casting choice. Kaufmann in appearance is more desirable than most tenors who have filled the role. In the US, he is regarded as a matinee idol. Yet he is now the master of some of opera’s most challenging roles: Walther von Stolzing, Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Siegmund.

Harteros, who is on her way to marry a King as the opera opens, is truly regal. While her acting suggests a real human being, as does the timbre of her voice, she also has an out-of-this-world quality. She does not stand and deliver. In motion all the time, this physical actor moves with music’s beat. She gestures with her arms, closing them to contain, and opening them wide to receive her new feelings and Tristan. Her voice is lovely. Yet, when the drama or emotion demands, she can move into an almost harsh speech.

Polish theatre director Krzysztof Warlikowski, a regular in Munich, has created the new production. While he cleaves to the composer’s notes on production elements, he brings a fresh view to the story’s demands, and to the suggestions of the score. Wagner wrote that Isolde should be introduced on a couch. Warlikowski has tucked one into the corner of the stage. It is a cross between magic carpet and psychoanalyst’s workplace.

Water is a recurring theme in the opera. Sea journeys precede the action, and are the setting of the opening Act, as Tristan accompanies Isolde to her new home as the bride of King Marke. In the third act, Tristan awaits the arrival of Isolde by sea. Again, Warlikowski is inventive in his suggestions of water. A drop down frame is filled with seagulls in flight. The lovers drown not only in love-death, but in water at the end of the opera. Malgorzata Szczesniak contributed to the sets. Kamil Polak filmed evocative video inserts.

The main stage is an elegant state room, whose walls are of burnished brown-gold wood. A double world of stick-like humans opens the opera and peoples the stage in the third act. Warlikowski continously plays with the question of what is and is not real. While this may sound complicated, the elements fit the story well and do not interfere with listening pleasure. A triumph in its own way.

The supporting cast is superb. Okka von der Damerau is the go-to Brangäne today. She gives an unusually warm performance, supporting the complex woman she serves. So too does Wolfgang Koch as Kurwenal bolster his beloved friend, Tristan.

Kaufmann is moving firmly into the Wagner roles. His Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera was masterful and moving. He brings these same qualities to Tristan. His voice is smooth, whether it emerges from his head or the back of his throat. This contrasts with Harteros when they are mimicking each other’s words. Their voices blend well in duet.

Kirill Petrenko is a known quantity who always surprises. He has a delicate touch with the subtleties of this score. He dares to move the music slowly, as Leonard Bernstein did in his great performance in Munich in 1981. Greatness is not transferable. Yet Petrenko has found his way to an extraordinary musical experience by taking the same slow tempi Bernstein did. Wagner wrote that his music could not be played slowly enough. This is a daring course, because it exposes instrumentalists and singers alike. This Munich performance revealed the tortured, anguished underbelly of the score, as each detail became part of the whole. Superb instrumentalists are part of the whole. One notes the English horn, the bass clarinet accompanying King Marke and the solo violin which sings with Okka von der Damerau.

The subject of the opera is endings. What is humanly possible and what must be deferred to an after life, interpretations of the ancient myth ask. The composer may well have been responding not only to his need to exceed himself and defy music’s rules, but also to his personal feelings for the wife of his Swiss host. Wagner liked the ladies. Some he loved in the extreme. This feeling is explored in Tristan. Bruno Walter remarked, after conducting a performance of Tristan, “This isn’t music any longer.”

Harteros is cool, and an object at the opera’s start. By the time she joins Tristan in death, she is transported to the extremes of feeling and takes us out of the world with her in her rush of ecstatic words at the end of the third act.

Tristan and Isolde is often cited as a pivotal opera. What followed was inevitably influenced by it. The repetitions of Philip Glass and John Adams come right out of this score. Yet for intense emotionality, Wagner himself remains not just a pivot, but the consummate master of musical feeling. The Munich State Opera captures this. Kirill Petrneko makes his final mark on the house with a definitive gesture, a performance of this opera that few can deliver as he does in its sublime intensity.

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