Opera roars back with dueling Wagner premieres

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Opera roars back with dueling Wagner premieres
Jonas Kaufmann, left, as Tristan and Anja Harteros as Isolde in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s new production at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. After a long absence of large-scale productions, there are two major new “Tristan und Isolde” stagings running in Germany and France. Wilfried Hösl via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- If you were watching closely, opera never truly disappeared during the pandemic.

Some companies performed in empty houses, hoping to reach audiences at home. A few took the risk of an early reopening, and were forced to abruptly cancel their shows if a coronavirus test came back positive. Composers began to skip the stage entirely and write for streaming platforms.

But now opera as we remember it — starry opening nights, full orchestras and choirs, cheers coming from over a thousand people in formal wear — is back. It’s still rare in the United States, but not in Europe, thanks to rising vaccination rates, newly opened borders and relaxed safety measures. And, after a long absence of large-scale productions, there are two of Wagner’s immense “Tristan und Isolde,” with A-list singers and creative teams to match, running at the same time in Munich and Aix-en-Provence, France.

In a binge driven by deprivation, I saw them back-to-back: Sunday in Germany, and Monday in France. On the surface, the shows share virtually nothing, except maybe a belief in the timelessness of a wood-paneled interior.

But both are excellently conducted — by Kirill Petrenko at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and by Simon Rattle, leading the London Symphony Orchestra at the Aix-en-Provence Festival — though in different ways that demonstrate the interpretive elasticity of Wagner’s score. And the two productions are the work of directors known for their radical approaches to classics: Krzysztof Warlikowski and Simon Stone.

In Aix, the title roles are being performed with ease by two “Tristan” veterans, tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Nina Stemme; in Munich, stars Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros are making their debuts as the doomed lovers.

Warlikowski approaches the opera with shocking, if disappointing, restraint for a director who typically layers his productions with provocations. His staging (which will be livestreamed on July 31) is relatively straightforward, with legible metaphors and a concept guided by Freud’s death drive, which was theorized long after Wagner wrote his work yet is prefigured throughout, as in Isolde’s Act 1 exclamation “Todgeweihtes Haupt! Todgeweihtes Herz!”: death-devoted head, death-devoted heart.

Freud is ever-present. The set changes — within a frame of three sleekly wood-paneled walls designed by Warlikowski’s collaborator and wife, Malgorzata Szczesniak — but two furniture pieces remain fixed: at one side of the stage an analyst’s divan, where Tristan recounts his childhood trauma, and at the other a glass cabinet filled with deadly instruments.

Warlikowski’s melancholy Tristan and Isolde are bound for death, no love potion required, from the start. They attempt suicide in each act and are, perhaps, traumatized by the bloody history that precedes the opera’s action. And they aren’t alone: The young sailor who sings the first line, here the gently voiced tenor Manuel Günther, blindly wanders in his underwear and a childishly crude crown and cape, his wounded eyes wrapped in bandages. Recovery proves impossible for some. In the final scene, at “Hier wütet der Tod!” (“Here death rages!”) from Tristan’s servant Kurwenal — bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, with a ferocity out of place in this production — characters simply collapse, as if happy to welcome their fate.

In the pit, Petrenko led a patient prelude, letting its searching melody of desire waft organically. But then he paused, in breathtaking silence, before the orchestra’s first outburst of passion, which gave way to an evening of erotic intensity, druglike though never unwieldy. His Act 3 prelude had the thick texture of molasses, entrapping and hopeless.

Kaufmann and Harteros never quite rose to the level of the orchestra, or at times the assured sound of their colleagues Okka von der Damerau, as Brangäne, and Mika Kares, as King Marke. Kaufmann’s Tristan was a soft-voiced one, more fragile than heroic. And Harteros brought an unusual lightness to her role, delivering a “Liebestod” occasionally difficult to hear and marred by troubled intonation.

They were at their best near the end of the marathon love duet in Act 2: Harteros achieving a delicate beauty as she considered the “and” of the phrase “Tristan and Isolde”; and Kaufmann calm yet crushing as he sang the morbidly romantic words that introduce the “Liebestod” theme.

In Aix, Skelton and Stemme’s performances reflected their growth in these roles over the years — Skelton especially, who didn’t merely survive Tristan’s punishing Act III monologue, as he did at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016, but delivered it with herculean grit and shattering dramatic acuity.

With a cast that includes a mighty Jamie Barton as Brangäne and Franz-Josef Selig, vigorous but touching as Marke, and with the London Symphony propulsive and clear under Rattle’s baton, Aix’s “Tristan” is, musically speaking, an achievement. (The production will be broadcast on France Musique and Arte Concert on July 8, with streaming to follow on Arte.)

Rattle’s conducting was less sensuous than Petrenko’s, but it had a fiery command of the drama amid an insistence on precision. Unfortunately the prelude, one of the most effective mood-setters in opera, was difficult to focus on as Stone’s staging lifted the curtain to reveal a party inside a fashionable Paris apartment with — you guessed it — wood-paneled walls. Wagner’s music of teeming passion and longing underscored the sounds of clinking glasses and crinkling gift wrap.

Like many of Stone’s productions, this one — designed by Ralph Myers — features a set so realistic and thoroughly furnished it would be called “turnkey” on an HGTV show. The purpose of it, here, is to juxtapose it with fantasy in what amounts to “Tristan” by way of “Madame Bovary.”

During that opening party, a woman spies her husband kissing another woman in the kitchen, and reads incriminating texts on his phone. With a flicker of lights, Stone’s hyper-realism turns surreal: The view outside is no longer a Parisian cityscape but the open sea. Escaping into an old romantic tale like Emma Bovary, the woman imagines herself at the center of the Tristan myth.

These reveries continue with each act — in ways that, at best, crowd the opera and, at worst, betray it. As the lights flicker in a design office overlooking the hill of Montmartre in Act 2, the windows reveal a moonlit sky; when, in Act 3, the woman and husband ride the Métro to a night at the theater, joined by a young man — in her fantasies, the jealous lover and tattler Melot (Dominic Sedgwick) — the train car appears to pass through real stations and a verdant countryside.

No one dies in this “Tristan,” but when the woman returns to reality with the “Liebestod,” she removes her wedding ring, hands it to her husband and abandons him in the train as she walks off with the young man.

That ending, like other moments in the production, was as puzzling as it was exasperating — why not let her leave alone and empowered? Yet from the pit came, at last, the resolution of the “Tristan” chord, a serene send-off from the London Symphony. It was a potion of its own, almost enough to inspire forgiveness.

Perhaps that colored my gaze as, during the curtain call, I looked around and saw, for the first time since March last year, a full house. It was a privilege to be there, as it had been in Munich. I had my critical quibbles, but the sentimental side of me felt like Nick Guest in “The Line of Beauty,” seeing the ordinary as extraordinary and marveling at the fact of grand opera at all — in the light of the moment, so beautiful.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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