Countdown to Ecstasy

Jesse Simon
viernes, 23 de febrero de 2018
Tcherniakov: Tristan und Isolde © Monika Rittershaus, 2018 Tcherniakov: Tristan und Isolde © Monika Rittershaus, 2018
Berlin, domingo, 11 de febrero de 2018. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Wagner: Tristan und Isolde. Dmitri Tcherniakov, director. Andreas Schager (Tristan), Anja Kampe (Isolde), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Boaz Daniel (Kurwenal), Stephen Milling (King Marke), Stephan Rügamer (Melot), Adam Kutny (Steuermann), Linard Vrielink (Young Sailor / Shepherd), Kristin Becker and Mike Hoffmann (Tristan’s Parents). Staatskapelle Berlin. Daniel Barenboim, conductor

In Tristan und Isolde, Wagner set out to elevate romantic passion to the level of myth; Dmitri Tcherniakov’s new production, which opened recently at the Staatsoper Berlin, seemed determined to bring the myth back down to the level of the mundane. Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Mr Tcherniakov used a not-dissimilar approach in his 2015 production of Parsifal (also at the Staatsoper), removing the opera’s mystery-play veneer to reveal the misogyny and hypocrisy at the heart of the grail kingdom. While that production was a great (if somewhat controversial) success, his attempts to deflate the myth of Tristan and Isolde succeeded mostly in exposing a black hole of quotidian dullness into which the opera’s many pleasures were systematically swallowed.

Despite the flatness of the staging, there was little that came across as careless or indifferent. It’s possible the whole thing might have worked as a film: the opening of the stage, cropped down to the long, narrow aspect ratio of a cinemascope frame, presented the opera as a series of elegant widescreen compositions, and the muted interactions of the characters often aspired to the kind of austere chamber drama (think Bresson or seventies-era Bergman) in which tiny details from ordinary lives are rendered with such understated lucidity as to achieve their own particular universality. Yet what emerged was neither profound nor, for long stretches, even especially compelling; its deliberate manner seemed far too restrained for the stage.

The story unfolded in three exquisite, modern sets: the wood-panelled conference cabin of a luxury liner, an oval drawing-room in King Marke’s country house, and Tristan’s shabby one-room apartment; if Mr Tcherniakov were not so successful as a director he could have undoubtedly made his fortune as an interior designer. All the action took place behind a scrim, which not only compounded the gauzy, filmic look of the production but also served as a screen for a handful of flickery black and white video projections, mostly flashbacks to Isolde healing Tristan. In the third act there was a ‘live’ flashback to the impoverished but not uncontented home life of Tristan’s parents, which suggested that Tristan had engaged in some canny social climbing in order to attain his position in King Marke’s bourgeois milieu. Otherwise the stage remained static and evenly lit, leaving the burden of the drama almost entirely to the singers. 

Mr Tcherniakov seemed to have a strong command of the text, and the first act contained a few moments of subtle brilliance; Tristan and Isolde breaking down into a joint fit of uncontrollable giggles after consuming the potion was both arrestingly simple and unexpectedly perfect. But these brief flashes of inspiration made the long, uninvolving passages all the more frustrating. The second act especially went out of its way to incite none of the passions found in the music. Tristan did free himself from the hunting party and returned for a secret meeting with Isolde armed with a bottle of bubbly and a tray of canapés, but instead of collapsing into any kind of ecstasy, the two spent the next half hour sitting across from one another engaging in very polite conversation. Tristan lectured Isolde about death and Isolde elaborated on the connective conjunction ‘and’ with all the enthusiasm of two acquaintances discussing Pascal’s wager over coffee; King Marke could have returned at any point and not found even a trace of impropriety. 

If the handling of the story tended toward extreme understatement, the physical action was often simply baffling. The best moments strove for a muted naturalism that was, at very least, appropriate to the setting; but far too many scenes were thrown off balance by unconvincing, awkward gestures. Over the course of the three acts, every character managed to throw their arms wide at least once to express surprise, excitement, doubt or some other unspecified emotion. At the same time the opera’s most active scenes were curiously underplayed. At the end of the second act, Melot made a half-hearted attempt to strangle Tristan that wouldn’t have even left him out of breath, let alone mortally wounded; in the third act, the arrival of Marke and the death of Melot took place entirely in the dark, as though too much visible exertion would have somehow destroyed the mood.  

Musically the production fared somewhat better. Andreas Schager is one of the most indefatigable Heldentenors around, and his Tristan possessed considerably more energy than the staging itself. Although his initial appearance, receiving Brangäne, found him in a lighter, lyrical mode, he took the remainder of his scenes at peak intensity, often with captivating results. His monologues in the third act – especially his vision of the ship – were filled with impressive levels of anguish, even if one was never quite convinced that they were the delusions of a man on the verge of death. Mr Schager’s boundless charisma and strident projection only really became an issue during his scenes with Isolde, notably the second-act love scene, where he seemed overly intent on being the dominant force in their shared high notes. A little restraint in these moments would have gone a long way.

As Isolde, Anja Kampe started the evening at a high level of emotional volatility – her confession to Brangäne reached its climax with an expression of ‘Nun dien’ ich dem Vassallen’ that exuded palpable shame – but grew more measured and incisive when Tristan arrived, articulating each syllable with venomous clarity. She was convincingly lofty in the second act when lecturing Brangäne about ‘Frau Minne’, but seemed curiously aloof in the subsequent love scene with Tristan. If she struggled to rise above the volume of the orchestra during the Liebestod, her discovery of Tristan’s lifeless body earlier in the third act stood as one of the few moments in the evening when a credible emotion was allowed to escape from the stage.

The supporting roles were generally well sung. Ekaterina Gubanova was a sympathetic Brangäne, whose level-headedness was an ideal foil to Isolde’s flights of rage. Boaz Daniel’s Kurwenal was necessarily officious in the first act, but revealed considerably greater vocal and emotional range in his elegantly sung monologue at the beginning of the third. Only Stephen Milling, as King Marke, sounded a touch brittle, although it was announced before the third act that he was indeed under the weather; there were enough moments in his second act monologue to suggest that his performance would have been impressive in full health. 

Daniel Barenboim’s reading of the score has grown more volcanic (and also, perhaps, a touch slower) in the three years since he conducted the final performances of Harry Kupfer’s ‘submerged angel’ production at the Schiller Theater. The opera’s loudest moments were overwhelming and its most earnest passages were played with a heavily underlined severity; yet one would struggle to find another conductor who can maintain such taut drama at such slow speeds, or who can make the surges from nocturnal calm to ecstatic rapture seem quite so seismic. The playing of Staatskapelle was superb throughout and, for much of the second act, it was the orchestra alone who reminded us that we were, in fact, watching one of the most sublime scenes in all of Wagner.

Yet the exertions of the orchestra and the efforts of the singers couldn’t quite rise above the oppressive weight of the staging. At his best, Mr Tcherniakov can force his audience to confront aspects of an opera that other directors might prefer to ignore. His Tristan, however, seemed oddly adrift, lacking both a strong central argument and an obvious justification for its wilful mannerisms. In trying to tease out the supposed banality on which the romance of Tristan and Isolde is built, he succeeded only in creating a tepid, somewhat disingenuous spectacle, a world of studied indifference that even Wagner’s most passionate music was unable to redeem. A bad Tristan can be exasperating, and a great one can be transcendent, but it is rare to leave the opera having experienced no strong feelings one way or the other.

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