Bernard Haitink was also apparently inspired by Zürich for his conducting. Apparently he took one walk around, decided it was too damn quiet, and what the city needed was a Tristan that was excellent and yet most notable for being tremendously loud.
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde. Opernhaus Zürich, 10/10/10. Production by Claus Guth (revival), sets and costumes by Christian Schmidt, lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann. Conducted by Bernard Haitink with Barbara Schneider-Hofstetter (Isolde), Peter Seiffert (Tristan), Michelle Breedt (Brangäne), Martin Gantner (Kurwenal), Matti Salminen (König Marke)Claus Guth’s production is set in a seemingly concrete 19th-century bourgeois world, its elegant furnishings and garden modeled on those of Zürich’s Villa Wesendonck (today an art museum), its situation loosely analogous to that of Mathilde Wesendonck’s affair with Wagner with her banker husband Otto in the König Marke role. But Guth doesn’t push this parallel too far (and the premiere cast, pictured above, bears a much closer resemblance to the historical figures than the current one, pictured elsewhere in this post--though no photos involving Isolde have surfaced), and besides, he has other things on his mind as well.
It becomes apparent that this tidy world is not as literally realistic as it appears. Brangäne and Isolde are visual doubles, with Brangäne seeming to represent the socially acceptable half of Isolde’s self, while the soprano half escapes into another world with Tristan. In Act 1, as Isolde describes healing Tristan, Brangäne physically relives it, in the second act Brangäne wears a black dress to Isolde’s identical white one, and at the very end of the opera, Marke slowly takes Brangäne’s hand, as if Isolde had not just expired in front of them. The characters wander through mirror-image and double rooms on a relatively simple turntable set used to effectively dizzying effect.
As Tristan and Isolde narrate Isolde’s earlier healing, Tristan relives it, lying bloody on Isolde’s bed, a position he will return to near the end of the opera. Their dream life is recursive and ill-defined, an attempt to leave reality that inevitably fails. The second act explores further alternate and parallel realities, as Tristan and Isolde chase each other through Isolde’s house, seemingly in the midst of a dinner party. They sweep the place settings off a formal dining table, to collapse on top of it. It is unclear what really happens and what is imagined as they wander through crowded rooms, unconscious of others, but then something breaks, and they are exposed, and Tristan forces Melot to stab him. In Act 3, Tristan languishes with Kurwenal in a desolate, deserted streetscape, eventually managing to return to the dream world with Isolde.
It’s an immensely interesting and remarkably exciting production. “Exciting” as in you genuinely can’t wait to see what is going to happen next. Suspenseful, even. This isn’t really a concept you often associate with Tristan stagings, I know. They are supposed to help you submerge yourself in the well of the music, to forget the boundaries of sound and vision. This one doesn’t do that, or at least it didn’t for me. It isn’t a Gesamtkunstwerk, it’s an intricate reading of a text we already know. There is friction between the text and the production; you can’t get upset because Act 1 doesn’t take place on a boat. But Guth makes you rethink things you’ve seen many times before, possibly a textbook example of Regietheater. As a Tristan I don’t think it’s for everyone. But that’s the beauty of Regietheater, isn’t it? It doesn’t presume to be for everyone, or for all time.
Barbara Hofstetter-Schneider was Meier’s short-notice replacement as Isolde, and a very good Isolde she was, too.* She bravely took on Haitink’s super-orchestra and, most of the time, won, with an excellent dark-hued middle voice, somewhat less luxuriant top notes, and super diction at consistently high volume. At the beginning of Act 1, I thought, she can’t do this all night. But she did, with amazing stamina, right up to an on-pitch if short final note. It was not subtle but that we wouldn’t have been able to hear that. Her Isolde doesn’t have Meier’s charisma or heartbreaking intensity, but it was wonderfully sung and acted with honesty and dignity. If this is what Wagner singing is like at regional German houses (her usual haunts), we’re missing out in the US. (Zürich is a very small house, though, presenting different challenges.)
Peter Seiffert was announced as ill but sang anyways. This was my second time around with his Tristan. The first, at the Met under Barenboim in 2008, was a shaky experience (I believe it was his role debut). For the first act in Zürich, I thought he his interpretation had greatly grown. While not the Heldentenor of one’s dreams his tone is alright, he fit into the production well enough and sang with confidence and expression, as much as he could under the orchestral circumstances. In Act 2, his pitch and support began to falter and I began to dread Act 3. With good reason, because sick or not, no one should be onstage sounding like that. His vocal death preceded his character’s death by about 15 uncomfortable minutes and I hope he didn’t do any damage.
So not a definitive Tristan, but an awesome one, even without the reason I bought my ticket. I do hope a tenor other than Seiffert will be singing the next time I see this opera, though. And I think we should hope for a WWI Parsifal from Guth next.
All photos copyright Suzanne Schwiertz/Opernhaus Zürich
*Doesn’t the Isolde from this production premiere, Nina Stemme, currently have some time on her hands? I know she does because I have a ticket for the Rusalka she canceled. 'Tis a shame we didn’t get her. Not a spot on excellent Schneider-Hofstetter, but Stemme and Meier are together currently the last word in Isoldes as far as I’m concerned.