Bayerische Staatsoper 2020-21 Review: Tristan und Isolde
Jonas Kaufmann & Anja Harteros Give Nuanced Performances in Role DebutsBy A.J. Goldmann
(Credit© W. Hösl)
Richard Wagner thought that if people ever got to see an ideal performance of his opera “Tristan und Isolde” it would drive them mad. In the case of Munich’s new Tristan, at the Bayerische Staatsoper, where the work premiered in 1865, the madness began well before opening night.
Since March 2020, when a new Tristan was announced as the centerpiece of the 2021 Opernfestspiele, the planned premiere became arguably the most awaited operatic event worldwide.
Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, Munich’s operatic dream couple, would make their role debuts as the doomed lovers – two of the most punishing assignments in all of opera; Kirill Petrenko, the company’s former GMD who now leads the Berliner Philharmoniker, would return to his old pulpit to conduct the mammoth score; the Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who has furnished some of the BSO’s most distinctive (and difficult) recent stagings, was tasked with the production. Expectations ran high, to say the least.
Then the Coronavirus pandemic arrived full force; lockdowns were imposed, extended, lifted, reimposed, extended, and lifted again.
The late June premiere came together under a cloud of uncertainty. When rehearsals began in May, the company hadn’t performed for a live audience in six months, since early November, when 50 of the Nationaltheater’s 2000 seats had been filled for the premiere of Walter Braunfels’ 1920 opera “Die Vögel.”
As the Opernfestspiele approached, the Staatsoper announced its reopening plans: first for a few hundred masked spectators, then at half-capacity for audience members who had tested negative for COVID or were fully vaccinated. Tickets for the festival sold like hotcakes and free seats for the five Tristan performances were virtually impossible to come by.
As the penultimate premiere of Nikolaus Bachler’s long tenure as Staatsintendant, this luxuriously cast Tristan often seemed like a summation of the Austrian impresario’s long and exciting reign. During his 13 seasons in Munich, Bachler has finessed the Bayerische Staatsoper into arguably the finest opera company in Germany, a place where musical excellence, avant-garde theatrical approaches, and exciting repertoire choices come together like nowhere else.
A Tristan this carefully considered, elegant and idiosyncratic seemed the perfect ending of this extraordinary era. Did the performance meet the ludicrously high expectations? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask because, with Petrenko and Warlikowski, it’s often best to leave preconceived notions at the coat check. Far from “meeting expectations,” then, this was a Tristan that repeatedly took one by surprise.
In an age where so much of musical performance is standardized, it was bracing to hear a work this famous sound different and defamiliarized. The success of the production ultimately had less to do with any single performance than with collective intent and dedication. There were plenty of bones to pick and one could fussily enumerate virtues and shortcomings. Such an evaluation, however, would not account for the cumulatively searing effect of this indelible Tristan. From the first note to the last, the maestro, musicians, and singers seemed to be in communion with each other, and with the score.
The Two Stars
It is nigh impossible to imagine a deeper, darker Tristan than Kaufmann. The German tenor’s only previous outing with the role was a concert of Act two (which contains the ecstatic 45-minute love duet) in Boston in 2018. His thickly textured, crepuscular tenor is often baritonal. (indeed, at times Wolfgang Koch’s Kurwenal shaded brighter than Kaufmann did.)
His most radiant singing came in the second act. His finely-spun phrases had a Lieder-like quality, and he sang with an astute concentration that characterized his debut as a whole. Like everything about his performance, it was patient, generous, and warm. This was not a performance of heart–stopping moments, but rather of glowing intensity, from the singers and orchestra alike. Which is why Kaufmann’s gradual, stepwise ascent to the summit of the third act made for a performance of smoldering, rather than eruptive, power. Keeping his full vocal power at bay, yet buoyed by almost athletic reserves of strength, Kaufmann often seemed to be steadying himself against the musical waves crashing around him. The tenor placed no less emphasis on Tristan’s traumatic childhood reflections than on the character’s delirious outbursts.
Throughout the long act, he sustained tension by riding out the musical storm rather than by pushing out the thrilling high notes that are the bread and butter of most Heldentenors who tackle this herculean role. Kaufmann is extremely cautious with his voice: it is telling that he chose to make his role debut inside of this specific artistic constellation. My guess is that he’ll decide very carefully if and where he sings it again. It does not, however, seem destined to become one of his signature roles.
Like Kaufmann, Harteros chooses her roles very deliberately. She is among the most versatile singers around: a lyric-dramatic soprano who has an uncanny way of slipping into roles more convincingly than pretty much anyone else. She excels as Verdi heroines, Tosca, and even in lyrical Strauss roles like Arabella and the Marschallin. And while she’s reliably moving as Wagner’s Elsa or Elisabeth, it was difficult, in advance, to imagine her as the Irish princess.
I can safely say that I’ve never heard an Isolde like hers, especially in the demanding first act, where she brought the injured character to life with shrewd reasoning rather than quaking rage. Unlike with most Isoldes, her voice lacks the steel required to cut through an orchestra blazing at full volume. (Audibility, however, was never an issue). In the end, she succeeded by making the role her own by successfully tailoring it to her own strengths as a singer. There was plenty of soft, delicate warbling in the Act two love duet, and she sang the Liebestod with disarming directness and a touch of fragility. Like Kaufmann, she understood that there was no place for showboating in this Tristan.
The supporting cast was carefully chosen using mostly house singers, adding to the sense that this event of international import was also very much a local affair. Okka von der Damerau, a particularly voluptuous Brangäne, was a touch strident in Act one, but every inch the supportive and protective maid. Like her male counterpart, baritone Wolfgang Koch was a dependable yet emotionally vulnerable Kurwenal. The Finnish bass Mika Kares was a refined and distinguished Marke. The decision not to cast this magisterial role with a star seemed deliberate: no fire was stolen from the two debuting leads.
After a delicately spun prelude that reveled in the sinewy flow of Wagner’s unresolved progressions without ever succumbing to their narcotic qualities, Petrenko made the first act sound like a conversation piece. There was a sustained and fervent power to the entire performance that sharpened one’s attention. Throughout, one marveled at the consideration that Petrenko seemed to give every note. (The Orchester der Bayerischen Staatsoper is like putty in his hands: their long experience together shows in how they respond to his direction with alacrity and agility. Petrenko has yet to achieve similar things with the Berliners). However, there was nothing fussy about his reading. Like the singers, the maestro and musicians were alive to every nuance of the drama contained in the music. Over three acts and five hours, the focus never wavered, and the intensity never slackened. Nothing ever sounded overblown or maudlin.
A Disappointing Production
Warlkowski’s sparse production, with a wooden-paneled set designed by his frequent collaborator Margorzata Szczesniak (a replica of a 1920s exhibition hall in Paris), didn’t seek to deconstruct the work or probe too deeply into its Schopenhauerian philosophy or symbolism, but it was a fine complement to this slow-burning Tristan. In all, the staging was a mild disappointment. Its most arresting touch, a projected video of the lovers in a hotel bed submerged by water, seemed an homage to Peter Sellars and Bill Viola’s now legendary Paris production. That moment aside, the production was largely static, especially for Warlikowski’s dynamic standards of stagecraft. Then again, stasis becomes Tristan perhaps more than any other opera.
In all, it was a deeply individual and fine-grained performance that, considering both its timing and the enviable constellation of talent that successfully came together for the production, felt valedictory. This was a Tristan for Munich, if not necessarily for the history books. In that regard, it was a tribute to the end of a remarkable era at the Bayerische Staatsoper.