Sir David McVicar's production of Tristan und Isolde premiered at the Wiener Staatsoper in 2013, and was then recognized as a friendly platform for singers. Freshly revived with a new cast, Robert Jones' simple and effective designs launch the visual action with an ascending moon tracing the prelude's gradual and inexorable climax, before the frame of a primitive ship comes into view and suggests medieval times. We embark upon the story co-mingling love and death already at night. A thin band of light spanning the cyclorama, with jagged imagery, intimates a remote, hostile realm. When the band glows red together with the moon, and Isolde comes into view, we sense burning passion and/or anger in the air. On opening night, conductor Mikko Franck's emphasis on the more voluptuous and urgent dimensions of the prelude supported such expectations, which then took marked detours, but the cast and orchestra achieved convincing and memorable ways of bringing this production to life.
It was a challenge, during the first act, to imagine a powerful attraction between Petra Lang's Isolde and Stephen Gould's Tristan. Lang clung firmly to the idea of a scornful and immature princess, while Gould offered a strikingly naive rendering of the heroic knight. Vocal differences perhaps motivated these tacks. Lang offered a sometimes gleaming upper range, while much below did not easily penetrate the orchestra at regular volume. What might have been assumed as self-pacing revealed itself to be a pronounced variance in registral strength, notably in the plunging declarations of Tristan's death-devoted head and heart. As Tristan assumed a more prominent role, Gould's seemingly effortless, warm-hued voice and guileless acting conveyed little sense that love for Isolde simmered within him. Yet Gould's capacious tenor was revelatory enough to support another reading of Tristan, whereby the potion would be understood as playing an especially transformative role.
Already in the first act, Sophie Koch proved to be a nuanced and sensitive Brangäne, consistently penetrating and with optimal diction. Franck's attention to smaller musical gestures, as opposed to longer fluid lines, enhanced the sense that she navigated a turbulent situation. Even more welcome were the hints of orchestral magic and timelessness that emerged during the extended dialogue with embedded duets for Tristan and Isolde in Act II, during which Lang relaxed her mannered acting and Gould's direct and generous tone took the lead. Koch's interruptions emerged radiantly from a misty frame. The gradual bleaching of accented visual color, from bright blue to an ethereal silver, was but a small step away from the harsh black and white canvas against which the truth of infidelity would play out.
Kwangchoul Youn, as the aged, authoritative King Mark, paced the revelation of his fragility well. Several extras, whose dramatic purpose in Act 1 seemed vague, here helped to frame Mark, enhancing the sense of shame as well as sympathy for his plight. Youn's concluding request for Tristan to shed light on what had happened was treated as a pivotal dramatic moment. Melot (solidly sung by Clemens Unterreiner) marked Tristan's oblique response as more than disrespectful, while Kurwenal registered even greater danger brewing. All on stage paid close attention to the lovers' strange pact.
Matthias Goerne shaped a compelling interpretation of Tristan's deeply concerned – and, in this instance, knowing – friend. Atypically muffled (mildly indisposed, perhaps), he was challenged by Franck's sometimes slow adjustment of dynamics shifting from passages featuring Gould. The same held true for Lang. One could argue that sharp accommodating swings should not be needed, but Gould's extraordinary carrying power could have been better absorbed into the overall musical conception. Small pockets of the audience booed Franck and the orchestra at the outset of Act 2; a hefty corrective set Act 3 in motion. My occasional concerns with balance and unclean instrumental moments aside, the dominating presence of Gould yielded vocal and orchestral highlights across much of the final act.
True to form, Gould's Tristan was more robust and frustrated than uncannily aware of the world's mysteries as he revived in Kareol. He made the most of his powerful curse on the potion and his innocent vision of Isolde, glimpsed from afar. Carlos Osuna sang the shepherd's role well, while the poignant but despairing English horn solo that attempts to undercut Tristan's optimism drained the red moon of its colour, but little else. Wild, thrilling alarm and jubilation sounded in the orchestra as the lunar image regained its red intensity, anticipating Isolde's return. That she did not swiftly embrace the dying Tristan, combined with her eventual retreat alone into the black recesses of the stage, reinforced the sense that her lover had been manipulated, albeit it to tremendous musical effect.
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