If you look carefully, opera never really went away during the pandemic.
Some companies performed in empty houses in the hope of reaching the home audience. Some took the risk of reopening prematurely and had to abruptly cancel their shows if a coronavirus test came up positive. Composers began to skip the stage entirely and write for streaming platforms.
But now the opera as we remember it – starry opening nights, full orchestras and choirs, cheers from over a thousand people in festive clothing – is back. It’s still rare in the US, but not in Europe, thanks to rising vaccination rates, newly opened borders, and relaxed security measures. And after a long absence from large-scale productions, two of Wagner’s huge “Tristan und Isolde” with A-list singers and creative teams are running simultaneously in Munich and Aix-en-Provence, France.
In a frenzy driven by privation, I saw them back to back: Sunday in Germany and Monday in France. On the surface, the shows have practically nothing in common, except perhaps a belief in the timelessness of a wood-paneled interior.
But both are superbly conducted – by Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and by Simon Rattle, who leads the London Symphony Orchestra at the Aix-en-Provence Festival – albeit in different ways that demonstrate the interpretive elasticity of Wagner’s score. And the two productions come from directors known for their radical approach to classics: Krzysztof Warlikowski and Simon Stone.
In Aix, the title roles are played with ease by two “Tristan” veterans, tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Nina Stemme; in Munich the stars Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros make their debut as doomed lovers.
Warlikowski approaches opera with shocking, if disappointing, reluctance for a director who typically overlays his productions with provocations. His staging (which will be broadcast live on July 31) is relatively straightforward, with legible metaphors and a concept guided by Freud’s death instinct, which was theorized long after Wagner’s work, but is consistently anticipated, as in Isolde’s proclamation of the first act “Doomed head! Heart doomed! ”: Head devoted to death, heart devoted to death.
Freud is omnipresent. The set changes – within a frame of three smooth wood-paneled walls designed by Warlikowski’s colleague and Ms. Malgorzata Szczesniak – but two pieces of furniture remain fixed: on one side of the stage an analyst’s divan on which Tristan relates his childhood trauma, and the other a cabinet full of deadly instruments.
Warlikowski’s melancholy Tristan and Isolde are dead from the start, no love potion is necessary. They attempt suicide in every act and may be traumatized by the bloody story that precedes the plot of the opera. And they are not alone: the young sailor who sings the first line, here the gentle sounding tenor Manuel Günther, wanders blindly in underwear and a childlike, raw crown and cloak, his wounded eyes wrapped in bandages. Restoration proves impossible for some. In the final scene in “Here rages death!” (“Here rages death!”) By Tristan’s servant Kurwenal – the bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, with a wildness that is out of place in this production – the characters simply collapse when would they like to greet their fate.
In the pit, Petrenko performed patient foreplay, which organically let his searching melody of desire waft. But then he paused in breathtaking silence before the orchestra’s first outburst of passion, which gave way to an evening of erotic intensity, drug-like but never unwieldy. His third act foreplay had the thick texture of molasses, catching and hopeless.
Kaufmann and Harteros never quite reached the level of the orchestra or sometimes the sovereign sound of their colleagues Okka von der Damerau as Brangäne and Mika Kares as König Marke. Kaufmann’s Tristan was quiet, more fragile than heroic. And Harteros brought an unusual lightness to her role, delivering a “love death” that is sometimes difficult to hear and clouded by disturbed intonation.
They were best at the end of the marathon love duet in the second act: Harteros achieved a delicate beauty when she looked at the “and” of the sentence “Tristan and Isolde”; and Kaufmann sang the morbid, romantic words that introduce the “love death” theme, calmly and yet devastatingly.
In Aix, Skelton and Stemme’s appearances reflected their growth in these roles over the years – notably Skelton, who not only survived Tristan’s punitive monologue in act three, as he did at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, but him with Herculean courage and shocking performance delivered dramatic sharpness.
With a powerful Jamie Barton as Brangäne and Franz-Josef Selig, energetic but touching as a brand, and with the London Symphony driving and clearly under Rattle’s tactics, Aix’s “Tristan” is musically an achievement. (The production will air on July 8th on France Musique and Arte Concert, streaming will follow on Arte.)
Rattle’s conducting was less sensual than Petrenko’s, but it dominated the drama with ardor and insistence on precision. Unfortunately, the prelude, one of the opera’s most effective mood-makers, was hard to focus when Stone’s staging raised the curtain to reveal a party in a fashionable Parisian apartment with – you guessed it – wood-paneled walls. Wagner’s music full of passion and longing accompanied the clink of glasses and crackling wrapping paper.
Like many of Stone’s productions, this one – designed by Ralph Myers – features a set so realistically and thoroughly set up that it would be called “turnkey” on an HGTV show. The purpose here is to contrast it with imagination in a “Tristan” in the form of “Madame Bovary”.
During this opening party, a woman watches her husband kiss another woman in the kitchen and reads incriminating texts on his phone. With a flickering of lights, Stone’s hyperrealism becomes surreal: the view outside is no longer a Parisian cityscape, but the open sea. The woman escapes into an old romantic story like Emma Bovary and imagines herself to be at the center of the Tristan myth.
These daydreams continue with each act – in a way that at best overflows the opera and, at worst, betrays it. While in Act II the lights flicker in a design office overlooking the hill of Montmartre, the windows reveal a moonlit sky; When in the third act the wife and husband take the metro to an evening at the theater, accompanied by a young man – in their fantasies the jealous lover and babbler Melot (Dominic Sedgwick) – the wagon seems to be driving through real train stations and a green landscape .
Nobody dies in this “Tristan”, but when the woman returns to reality with the “love death”, she takes off her wedding ring, hands it to her husband and leaves him on the train as she drives off with the young man.
This ending, like other moments in production, was as confusing as it was annoying – why not leave them alone and empowered? But from the pit finally came the dissolution of the “Tristan” chord, a cheerful farewell to the London Symphony. It was a potion of its own, almost enough to instill forgiveness.
Perhaps that colored my gaze as I looked around the curtain and saw a full house for the first time since March last year. It was a privilege to be there, like in Munich. I had my critical quibbles, but the sentimental side of me felt like Nick Guest on “The Line of Beauty,” who viewed the ordinary as extraordinary and amazed at the fact of a great opera in general – so beautiful in the light of the moment.