Peter Konwitschny’s Munich “Tristan” retains a very special place in my heart – it set the stage for what was probably the first truly great Wagner experience that I had and that I understood. The cast had something to do with it (Waltraud Meier, Kurt Moll, Marjana Lipovšek, Bernd Weikl, and Jon Frederic West), but it was also the staging which immediately told a story that was understandable even for someone not intimately familiar with the story and libretto.
That very performance – with Zubin Mehta conducting – can still be seen on DVD, and is a good reminder of this Tristan at its best, not just vocally but also as far as the direction is concerned. It isn’t just that Konwitschny’s production hasn’t aged all that well; it has become sloppy, the intentions, details, and text-based acting blurred by years of routine and singers’ willfulness. Like its third act, so successful at suggesting that worn-down but still just-kept-together castle Kareol, so this production is worn-down, yet just kept together.
What keeps it together are now isolated but important ideas and pictures. The white ocean liner still raises some viewers’ ire; I find it visually appealing, nearly iconic. The obvious absence of a love potion, not a novel clarification of Tristan and Isolde’s inner psychological workings but still as effective as in Wieland Wagner’s day. (That they both sip a little early from their drinks gives Isolde’s rants in the run-up to “Dich trink ich sonder Wank” a touching, tender irony, while Tristan and Isolde are already moving in on each other.) That aforementioned, dilapidated castle – so well intimated by the stark room, the radiator, and the chair (wasn’t that once a La-Z-Boy?), with the pictures of Tristan’s hallucinatory daydreams and memories slapped on the wall with the help of a slide-projector – it all still works well enough, and works best when supported by a good cast.
A good cast was present at the 2008 Opera Festival performance on June 30th: John Treleaven forced his way through the music admirably, his clear and nicely carrying (smallish) voice showing no sense of strain until the third act, which, all the same, was the high point of his performance. Jan-Hendrik Rootering was a sturdy Marke (though a bit pale compared to Moll or Pape). Michael Volle offered his excellent, compelling, even ideal Kurnewal, making more of the character than most. Michelle DeYoung gave a sturdy, faultless Brangäne, her voice surprisingly similar to Isolde’s. Only Christian Rieger’s Steuermann was unsatisfactory – a negligible nit if that small part were not so exposed and prominent.
The orchestra played flawlessly but too often too loud, and with less engagement than can be – should be – hoped for. Details like the wiggling flutes that depict the joy of arriving at Cornwall – the banners hissed in happy anticipation – were left too far in the background. On the upside, Nagano managed to accumulate some drive toward the end of the Vorspiel, and his fleet ways often paid dividends. The race may not always be to the swift – but in Wagner it’s better to heed the intended speedy tempos than to succumb to a dragging pace, failing to achieve the elusive broad glory of Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler, and Thielemann.
Best of all was Waltraud Meier, who burned off a dramatic fire, even if she no longer kindles one vocally. Incapacitated during the last scheduled Munich run of Tristan, she gave a celebrated performance shortly thereafter at La Scala. This Munich performance showed that she was rightly hailed; she can still mesmerize as Isolde. In “O blinde Augen” her line “mit ihr gab er es preis!” was hit in stride, with seething strength and violent passion. Her Liebestod, bolder, louder than usual, searing and intense, was just the touch to send the Wagnerian home delighted. I couldn’t and can’t shed a tear for Linda Watson, no matter how well she sings. Meier’s Isolde, no matter the condition of her voice, can make me sob, seemingly at will.
That is the litmus test of a good opera, and a good performance thereof: Does it move? It isn’t merely the quality of the singing that moves, it is the effectiveness of the drama. Most operas are devoid of any acceptable sense of drama and desperately depend on directors to salvage the mediocrity of the material. Many operas are not even pleasing musically, and depend on conductors to make sense of meaningless notes churned out by the yard. Not that Verdi and Rossini operas are necessarily without merit, but few works make it as easy to move as does Wagner; where, behind all the superficial pomposity, a dramatic heart beats so strong that it would take utter determination and skill of both performers and directors alike to make it stop.
Even watered-down, the Konwitschny Tristan remains strong, and even in a lesser production Waltraud Meier could move stones to tears. It’s not an artistic triumph anymore, but it is still Wagner done well and done far, far above the average of what we are likely to see (and hear) anywhere else. The review of this production from November 2007 can be read here.