Wagner's 'Tristan und Isolde'
impresses GIUSEPPE PENNISI
At its 77th edition, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence Musical May) is one of the oldest and most important music festivals in Europe. For nearly two months — this year from 30 April until 4 July — it blends opera, symphonic, ballet and chamber music with a balance between innovation and rediscovery of old scores. In the last few years, the festival has been plagued by severe financial problems (Read Important Debuts, 9 May 2012 and Troubles in Florence, 7 May 2013). Now, with financial aid from various levels of government and a new management, the worst seems to have gone. This year, the festival has a very rich program: four new opera productions (Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice), a large number of symphonic and chamber music concerts, a few ballets, and a 'festival within the festival' of contemporary music. For the specific, readers may wish to look at the festival's website. Most importantly, after several years of construction, a new and modernly equipped opera house (Opera di Firenze) will be inaugurated on 10 May 2014 with a Gala. Zubin Mehta will be in the pit with a special program giving the flavor of what Florence intends to produce. The program will include two fully staged acts of two different operas (Verdi's Otello and Puccini's Tosca) and two ballets by Ravel and Pärt.
In 1999, the Wagnerian masterpiece had been shown at the May festival in Klaus Michael Gruber's production shared with the Salzburg Easter Festival; Mehta was in the pit in Florence (Claudio Abbado conducted the opera in Salzburg) and the cast included Wagnerian heavyweights such as Ben Heppner, Deborah Polanski, Marjana Lipovsek, Franz-Josef Selig and Falk Struckmann. The stage production was quite traditional and Mehta placed emphasis on the anticipation, in the score, of twentieth century music, from extreme chromatic lines to the first announcements of the twelve note row system.
On 30 April 2014, a new production of Tristan und Isolde was unveiled. I saw and heard the preview on 27 April. Even though Zubin Mehta is still in the pit, this new production is quite different from that seen fifteen years ago and also from the recent La Scala and La Fenice staging. First of all, it is not a co-production or one borrowed from other theatres or festival; although there are plans of leasing it to major companies in other European countries. The stage director, set, costume and lighting designer (as well as providing visual aids) is Stefano Poda, a professional who works mostly in Austria and seldom in Italy. He had to make do with a limited budget. Thus, this Tristan und Isolde does not provide for a complex traditional staging: in a single abstract set, Isolde's boat, King Mark's castle and garden in Cornwall and the ruins of Tristan's tower in Brittany — the three settings of the three acts — are only vaguely hinted at. We are in a visually beautiful land where the moon is always present and Isolde's boat is a stylized hanging platform.
Also, there is no erotic expression on stage but only in the pit — as the two lovers barely touch each other. 'Tristan', Poda clarifies, 'is a journey of souls not of bodies'. The innocence of the journey is expressed by the frequent presence of children on stage and, in the third act, by chaste naked youngsters in the ruins of Tristan's castle in Brittany. This requires, of course, subdued acting. Only in the final scene of the second act, the duel between Tristan (Torsten Kerl) and Melot (Kurt Azesberger) and at the end of the third act, when Kurwenal (Martin Gantner) kills Melot and commits suicide, do we see the dramatic contrast between a world of souls and a world of fighters.
After fifteen years, Mehta's approach to Tristan und Isolde sounds drastically changed. The travel of souls is not, musically, an anticipation of the twentieth century's second Viennese School but an overwhelming almost ultimate romantic experience, 'a monument to this loveliest of all dreams' (as Wagner himself wrote) which goes beyond an emotional experience and enters the metaphysical realm. The tempos are kept very tight and there is careful use of dissonance. This is especially evident in the climatic chord played by the full orchestra at the end of the first act — generally called 'the Tristan chord'.
Tristan und Isolde is extremely taxing for the two principals. In the first act, Isolde ia always on stage, first with a long narration and then with a rapid switch from hatred to love; Lioba Braun is a mezzo — in other productions I've heard her in the role of Brangäne, Isolde's maid — and consequently she could easily descend to a very low register whilst reaching high acute in the second act duet and in the final death scene of the third act. Whereas, in the second act, the two protagonists have an equal share of difficulties in the duet, interrupted by Brangäne's warnings, the third act is impervious for Tristan. Torsten Kerl kept his voice for this strenuous task when his clear timbre filled the full theatre. Normally, musical directors select tenors with a darker timbre for this role. A mezzo, who could be almost an alto, and clear timbre tenor (eg Domingo in his best years) make a very good combination. Julia Rutigliano is a very effective Brangäne. A coup de théâtre by himself is Stephen Milling as a powerful King Marke. Often in the second act the King's monologue is somewhat ambiguous, but here the stage direction and Milling make very clear why the King feels betrayed by Tristan whom is raised as his own son, but not by Isolde whom he married for political reasons but never touched (as he felt too old for her).
The audience was enthusiastic. It included two senior high school classes which, for the first time in an opera house, endured the five hour performance quite well.