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Wagner honored in Vienna

Vienna State Opera
06/13/2013 -  & June 18*, 22, 26, 30, September 21, 25, 29, December 8, 13, 17, 21, 2013
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Nina Stemme (Isolde), Peter Seiffert (Tristan), Janina Baechle (Brangäne), Stephen Milling (König Marke), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Kurwenal), Eijiro Kai (Melot), Carlos Osuna (Ein Hirt), Marcus Pelz (Ein Steuermann), Jinxu Xiahou (Stimme eines jungen Seemanns)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Martin Schebesta (Chorus Master), Franz Welser-Möst (Conductor)
David McVicar (Director), Robert Jones (Set and Costume Designer), Paule Constable (Lighting Designer), Andrew George (Choreographer)

N. Stemme, P. Seiffert (Wiener Staatsoper)

After Richard Wagner completed the composition of Tristan and Isolde in 1859, he thought Vienna would be a perfect place to mount the opera. But two years later the work was abandoned as unperformable.

In the hands of the great opera director David McVicar, it is hard to remember how problematic the love story seemed. With Nina Stemme, the reigning queen of Wagnerian sopranos, cast as Isolde on stage with superb supporting talent, the five hour evening flew by leaving the audience wanting more.

Franz Welser-Möst, a first-rate conductor of Wagner, wove all the musical and dramatic pieces seamlessly together. He took the music from love repressed to an almost helpless, but at the same time completely controlled, height. Dissonances contributed to the instability of the lovers’ predicament and aptly reflected their longing and desire. Earthbound passion is finally transfigured in death.

On a warm Vienna evening, the orchestra members, given the stillness of the air, were clad in white shirts with open collars. In fact, the production itself is still, like a Willy Decker production, which placed all the focus on the music and the drama. Not only are music and text joined as one, but every detail of McVicar’s direction fed into the unity.

Stemme has a rich and textured voice, sometimes soaring with seeming ease over the orchestra yet, at other times, so quiet that your ear has to snap to attention to get all her subtle vocal caresses. From her initial fury at being brought to Cornwall to marry King Mark, to her ecstatic union with Tristan, Stemme conveys her spiritual accession to a union possible only in death. At a time when love and sexuality were bursting through normal conventions, Wagner took passionate union to a new level.

Andrew George’s choreography added a light touch to the drama. Dancing couples suggested fornication in the deep, dark background of the Vienna stage. It does not feel like "overstepping the powers of execution", which Wagner wrote he had accomplished as he composed. Rather it is another mirror on music of extraordinary complexity and beauty.

The set featured a red moon, which changed to blue and white to match the moods. A puffy cloudlike arc midway on the horizon matched the moon in color, but not texture. Delineation between the earthly and the other earthly was softly articulated, perhaps because the action exists in a muffled sphere.

The boat carrying Tristan to Cornwall to deliver the bride Isolde to its King was the outline of ship, the construction of the hull revealing its ribcage of bent wood. A prominent prow entered at the beginning of the opera, carrying an angry Isolde off to her arranged marriage with the King.

A pile of ragged rocks is stage right. In the second act tryst, the garden is only suggested by a torch that is extinguished when a visit from Tristan is considered safe. Near the castle in Brittany to which Tristan has sailed after being betrayed and wounded by his friend Melot, the setting is particularly bleak and yet beautiful. Robert Jones has tended to every detail of the opera as he conceived the set. Its quiet beauty provides the perfect backdrop for the opera, which musically and dramatically consummates the greatest of all loves.

In this production, Stemme takes an unexpected step up, as David McVicar guides her gestures to enhance the drama. The extraordinary passion of the two lovers, expressed by their embraces is certainly among the most convincing ever staged in opera. You not only hear the passion in the second act duet,, but see it evoked by the singers. McVicar brings every expressive resource to the stage.

Even when the gestures are frozen in time they appear to be living. Seiffert standing behind Stemme in one duet, clasps her arms in an active grasping, hoping, wishing while Stemme holds her hands forward, fingers splayed in hope. Her clasped hands are a penitential plea. No props are needed for the audience to understand the singers, consumed by the music and emotion.

Seiffert warmed as the evening progressed. His voice does not blaze like some heldentenors, but his attention to expressive detail and his lyric lines created a satisfying performance.

Tristan dying sees a light which he imagines is Isolde. She arrives from nowhere to be with him in their shared fantasy. Tristan greets his own blood as though it were a sign of life. Isolde’s imaginary appearance in a blood red dress makes her real.

The staging evocatively captures the eerie zone between the real and the imagined. But there what we hear from Stemme is unquestionably real. Stemme’s Liebestod at the end of the opera, "to drown, to founder, unconscious – utmost joy" was to die for. Caught in the desire to live forever in their passion, they die to achieve their wish. The entire production transforms emotional turbulence to a fulfilling evening of opera.

Fused in love and death, the staging and orchestration provided a thrilling performance. McVicar, Stemme and Seiffert were among the many greatly gifted talents that made this tribute to Wagner so special.

Susan Hall



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