Wednesday 2 April 2008

Tristan und Isolde, Vienna State Opera, 1 April 2008

Vienna State Opera

Tristan – John Treleaven
König Marke – Stephen Milling
Isolde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Melot – Clemens Unterreiner
Brangäne – Daniela Denschlag
Hirt – Michael Roider
Stimme des Seemanns – Gegely Németi
Steuermann – Marcus Pelz

Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Thomas Lang (chorus master)
Leif Segerstam (conductor)

Günter Krämer (producer)
Gisbert Jäkel (designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)

Wagner famously wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk of his fears whilst composing the music for Tristan und Isolde: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ On those rare occasions when ‘perfectly good’ performances arise, one knows precisely what he means: the work is truly unbearable. The problem, however, is, that it appears that nothing other than a ‘perfectly good’ performance will do. Even a performance with great merits, let alone a truly ‘mediocre’ one or a ‘parody’, leaves one feeling that it has not really done the job at all. Such, at least, has been my experience on a number of occasions, and was again this evening.

The orchestra was excellent. Indeed, the Vienna strings struck me as absolutely perfect for the work: certainly the best I have ever heard. Those hunting horns, that bass clarinet, the shepherd’s English horn: for all of these and more, I should have nothing but praise. There were many times that I found myself wishing to hear a purely orchestral rendition: inappropriate, of course, but not so wholly inappropriate as in any other of the Wagner music dramas, given that, even more than usual, the drama lies in the orchestra. Leif Segerstam’s direction was for the most part unimpressive. There were moments when he indulged the gorgeousness of the orchestra a little too much, but one could easily forgive that. Yet something very odd happened during Tristan’s monologue, which really derailed the performance. My problem is that I am not entirely sure what it was. It sounded either as if Segerstam had lost his way, or – which I cannot quite believe – the music had been cut. I say ‘cannot quite believe’, not because the work is never cut – although the Act Two love duet would be the more usual place for butchery – but because, if it were, I could not register when and where it had happened. However, the end of the monologue at least sounded foreshortened, and somehow managed to seem a terrible anti-climax (at least in retrospect, for one might actually have missed it there and then). Somewhere along the line, my attention started wandering, which I can honestly say it has never done before in a live performance of Tristan, whatever its faults. After that, I am afraid, I simply – and very sadly – found myself wishing that it were all over.

Casting Tristan is, of course, impossible. Perhaps Ben Heppner can sing the title role; I have not heard him. But I doubt that anyone else can today. There are no rivals to Windgassen or Suthaus, let alone Vickers or Melchior. I feared the worst with John Treleaven, following his Royal Opera Siegfried. Perhaps lowering expectations helped, but I think that he was somewhat better, even if his stage presence was risibly unconvincing. He looked throughout like a newly-redundant middle-manager, upset and just occasionally crazed at the prospect of eking out his remaining years on the dole. Nobility and unbearable possession did not come in to it. Nor did beauty of tone, or at times sung tone – although this was less frequent than it had been in the Ring. He exhibited stamina, as he had at Covent Garden, but sadly that is not enough. Dramatic sense would have been furthered if Evelyn Herlitzius's Isolde had chanced her arm by eloping with Clemens Unterreiner's vocally- and physically-attractive Melot instead. Herlitzius at least looked credible. She approached the part – or at least this was how it seemed – as a singing actress, rather in the line of Waltraud Meier, albeit without Meier’s extraordinary charisma, or indeed without the refulgence of tone of which Meier is still capable, whatever her detractors might claim. Some of her portrayal worked better than other parts. Much of the worst was over in the first half of the first act, when it had sometimes seemed as though she had little voice at all. She clearly did, and used it to great effect in much of the second act. Yet the guiding principle of her portrayal – was it of her direction? – appeared to be that Isolde was deranged. I suppose she is, in a sense, but this is something far more powerful, far more complex, than the traditional operatic heroine’s ‘madness’. Especially earlier on, one might have been forgiven for thinking that this was Donizetti with music. As so often, the Kurwenal and Brangäne were better, although Daniela Denschlag appeared – somewhat oddly – to tire later on. Boaz Daniel was certainly a fine Kurwenal; his loyalty was heard as well as seen. Moreover, his lines were shaped in a musical fashion from which the Tristan and Isolde could have learned much. Stephen Milling did not disappoint as Marke, but then I am not sure that I have ever heard anyone disappoint in this gift of a role. I did not find him especially memorable, but could find no fault with his tone, nor his command of line.

The production did no particular harm, although I am not sure that it did any particular good either. There was some powerful use of lighting, in a straightforwardly representational fashion, to suggest day and night. (The colours of Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden production achieved something far more difficult: meaningful abstraction.) I thought having Tristan and Isolde kiss as the curtain came down on Act I a mistake. It seemed merely tawdry, and not only on account of the unconvincing acting. The sets worked well enough, without drawing undue attention, which is as it should be. And there was one extremely compelling image, a video image of waves during the first scene of Act Two. Uncannily synchronised with the surging of the orchestra – impeccably projected by Segerstam – this was powerful indeed. I could not really say why, but it worked, which is all that mattered. The costumes were nondescript nineteenth-century, making one wonder why Falk Bauer had even been engaged.

There was, however, one other important element to the performance. Even if one had been in the presence of Furtwängler and Flagstad, I think it would have been difficult to maintain concentration in the face of the audience. In this of all works, absolute concentration, indeed possession, is vital. Lose it and one might as well go home. Mobile telephones rang twice. On the first time, the culprit would not even turn off the nauseating wrong-key rendition of the first subject from Mozart’s great G minor symphony. Coughing one can put up with, irritating though it might be; there are, after all, occasions on which many people simply cannot help it. There is no excuse whatsoever, for conducting 'conversations', for want of a better word. One member of an American ‘tour group’ behind congratulated another member, ‘admiring’ him for having ‘put up’ with ‘so long in the theatre’, just as the shepherd’s pipe song began. Nor is there any excuse for falling asleep, let alone for snoring, as the unpleasant Austrian in an ill-fitting suit seated next to me did: not just once, but on several occasions. When awake, he insisted upon ‘conducting’, although whatever he was doing bore no relation to the score, nor to what was being heard. Given that he had been asleep for much of the performance, I wondered at his boorish shouts of ‘Bravo’ – to John Treleaven, of all people. There were many more examples, but I shall stop there. It was doubtless all the more shocking for being Vienna, not Verona. What I truly do not understand, however, is why such people have elected to attend a performance of Tristan. Only the St Matthew Passion would seem less suited. Are they attending by mistake, expecting something akin to La Traviata? Do they really not care that they ruin whatever might be left to salvage for everyone else? This is, perforce, a communal experience. I was driven mad for all the wrong reasons.