Striving Towards Unity
The Royal Danish Opera House, Main Stage
11/14/2010 - and November 17, 20, December 1*, 4, 7, 2010
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Stig Fogh Andersen (Tristan), Eva Johansson*/Iréne Theorin (Isolde), Stephen Milling (Kong Marke), Gitta-Maria Sjöberg (Brangäne), John Lundgren (Kurvenal), Peter Steen Andersen (Melot), Michael Kristensen (Shepherd, Young sailor), Jens Bruno Hansen (Steersman)
Det Kongelige Operakor, Det Kongelige Kapel, Cornelius Meister (conductor)
Stig Fogh Andersen (director), Steffen Aarfing (set designer), Bob Katzenelson (costume and video designer), Mikael Sylvest (lighting designer), Mette Borg (dramaturgy)
E. Johansson, S. F. Andersen (© Per Morten Abrahamsen)
In his last year as Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Opera, Kasper Bech Holten has chosen Tristan und Isolde, directed by Stig Fogh Andersen, to represent Wagner in the 2010-11 calendar. The production aspires to create a unified chromatic experience – musical, visual, and dramatic – and succeeds to large degree.
Enveloping us in music that struck deep into our emotional fundament, conductor Cornelius Meister and the Royal Danish Orchestra delivered a multifaceted sound landscape with fine solo instrument performances throughout the duration. It was clear that some spectators were unaware of the importance of the prelude: the slow crescendos, pauses, and definitive chords, so beautifully presented, were accompanied by sneezes and coughs from those who had not bothered to train themselves in the art of self-control. As principals drifted onto the stage, an animated Brangäne, instructed to gesture her supposed control over coming events, was also a distraction (and a deviation from Wagner), but the ominous, expectant, ecstatic prelude could not be overshadowed.
While operas with large choruses make use of the long stage depth in Copenhagen, the set design for Tristan und Isolde stretched from floor to ceiling across the stage and kept the singers close to the orchestra and audience. Created by Steffen Aarfing, who has worked closely with Bech Holten in the last decade, the white structure appeared to be the interior of a modern three-story transport ship. To differentiate between scenes and focuses within scenes, set designer Steffen Aarfing and lighting designer Mikael Sylvest projected coloured light and video effects onto the reflective surface.
In Act II, Tristan (Stig Fogh Andersen), dressed in a green robe, met Isolde (Eva Johansson), dressed in purple, and the set became a chromatic expression of their tryst rather than merely a representation of a garden. As the music led up to "Selbst dann bin ich die Welt" (I myself am the world), light and video transformed the white backdrop to a forest of purple tree trunks and green leaf cover. Positioned at each side of a circular arch illuminated with green and purple rays, the lovers faced us and sang, communicating to one another through us and the music. As Sjöberg (Brangäne) sang her warning, and the lovers pledged to die, the forest became threatening and barren. Finally, in a golden glow, observed by Milling (King Marke), the lovers seemed to reach a spiritual union, but the clear light of day took over as Peter Steen Andersen (Melot) burst upon the scene.
In Act III, at Tristan’s castle, the day was overcast, but shadows accompanied the shepherd’s song, which was so touchingly rendered by the solo oboe. As Fogh Andersen expressed Tristan’s pain and desire, we saw the chalice that had delivered the love potion surrounded by green light, and we heard the Tristan chord. And as he lamented the torment of day and longing, an intense white light was reflected from the walls behind him. And we re-experienced the night of unity as Andersen (Tristan) recalled details about Isolde: the stage set darkened accordingly. Symbolism continued: Tristan died by taking off his green robe; Isolde laid her cloak down beside his before the Liebestod, and Brangäne (perhaps postulated as an alter-ego of Isolde) followed suit. A golden background colour transformed to the peach of dawn, walls retreated, and Isolde stood before us in radiant pale blue, rendering the Liebestod and reducing us to tears. The colours of dawn surrounded us, Brangäne embraced Isolde, and conductor Meister brought forth the last phrase of the orchestra.
With her performance, Eva Johansson (Isolde) confirmed her reputation as one of today’s best dramatic sopranos. Looking like a Celtic princess with flashing blue eyes and long reddish-blonde hair, she embodied Isolde’s passion and pain through the three acts with surprising stamina and a strong expressive voice that was tender, indignant, commanding, and inconsolable. Her rendering of "Mild und leise" (Liebestod), combined with the sublime tones of the orchestra, left many of us in tears, and all of us in silence. Only after a minute did the applause begin.
Fogh Andersen (Tristan)’s voice mixed well with Johansson’s, as did Sjöberg (Brangäne)’s more lyrical dramatic soprano. Milling (King Marke) had the pondus and depth of voice needed for the royal authority, and Lundgren (Kurwenal) projected the manly brashness of the faithful soldier with an incredibly strong baritone. Tenor Michael Kristensen (sailor/shepherd) opened the first act with a well articulated a capella song – instantaneously we were at sea, and we felt Isolde’s aloneness and dilemma. Peter Steen Andersen (Melot) from the Royal Danish Opera Chorus contributed with a vigorous appearance and voice.
The quality of the cast and conductor, the brilliance of the orchestra, and the director’s vision to free the stage of specificity by using colour and light worked to transport us to a place beyond this world that yet was linked to our deepest needs and emotions.
See Tristan und Isolde while you can – it closes on December 7. Incidentally, the three major Danish newspapers did not review this revival, so Danes do not know what they are missing. Spread the word, and brave the ice and snow for a fantastic evening.
Kathleen Gail Jensen