In all opera this is possibly the greatest (and definitely the longest) love story. Tristan and Isolde is both a landmark in music and art – and an ultimate test for soprano and tenor, too. Wagner said that this was the most audacious work of his life: the innovations he introduced in the harmony, along with the description of the most extreme passion ever set to music, along with the philosophical and metaphysical implications, have changed Western music and culture. The opera draws on the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult, and explores the theme of eternal love through sublime music.

Lioba Braun (Brangäne) and Violeta Urmana (Isolde) © Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo
Lioba Braun (Brangäne) and Violeta Urmana (Isolde)
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo

This production of Tristan und Isolde has been an event of great quality, from the conducting of Zubin Mehta, timely and harmonious, to a talented cast, led by an inspired Violeta Urmana. Director Lluis Pasqual's 2004 staging, revived by Caroline Lang, is centred around the theme of everlasting love in different ages: in Act I the action takes place on the bow of a medieval (seemingly Viking) ship, moving towards the waves of a gloomy Nordic sea which is projected on the backdrop. As the opera progresses, the sea remains at the back, but ages change: Act II is set in a garden with cypresses, with Tristan and King Marke wearing 19th century uniforms.

Act III takes place in a 20th century military lazarette, according to the director’s notes, yet I couldn’t help thinking it was more like the sanatorium where Thomas Mann’s novella Tristano is set. And it is worth noting that the short novel’s tubercular protagonist, Gabriele Kloeterjahn, suffers a deadly relapse after playing Wagner's score on the piano, thus being induced a state of extreme emotion and sexual arousal.

Pasqual’s production transparently represents the gap between the physical passion and the metaphysical love; the impossibility of resolving the divide leads to the characters’ renunciation of life by forcing Eros until annihilation. This staging doesn’t alter the opera's story and draws proper attention to the beauty of Wagner’s score, emphasising the musical highlights: the Act I Prelude, the lovers’duet in Act II, Isolde’s Liebestod in Act III. The tension achieved in the Love Duet was remarkable and gave the piece an intense erotic load, rendering Isolde’s Liebestod a breathtaking catharsis.

© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo

The renowned San Carlo acoustics allowed the singers a freedom of expression (and a freedom from having to push their voices too hard) which they wouldn’t have had in many other houses. Here, the legendary ‘Tristan chord’ resounded as it were newly-shaped.

Violeta Urmana displayed a solid line of singing earning a vigorous public tribute. Vocally, her soprano was flawless, with vibrant timbre and secure intonation. Her Isolde was a princess and a bride, yet a still woman who lives a cruel conflict between love and hate, honour, and duty. Tortsen Kerl, with a more beautiful voice than many contemporary Heldentenors, made a fine Tristan, conveying the pathos of the hero's despair in Act III rather than his grief.

Violeta Urmana (Isolde) and Torsten Kerl (Tristan) © Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo
Violeta Urmana (Isolde) and Torsten Kerl (Tristan)
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro San Carlo
Lioba Braun was  a most inspiring Brangäne, strong and intense. The second act revealed the flair of bass Stephen Milling, with compact volumes and a fervent interpretation of a moving King Marke. Kurwenal is one of Wagner’s most ambiguous characters; baritone Jukka Rasilainen made a very good impression. Rasilainen seemed to have in Kurwenal an ideal role for his strong, slightly rounded voice.

Under Zubin Metha's baton, the orchestral playing was responsive to the demands of the score in each scene. As any performance of Tristan und Isolde depends heavily upon the efforts of the orchestra and conductor, Mehta brought the Orchestra of San Carlo onto the stage for the curtain call, which earned loud applause reserved just for them. Impressive, too, was the Chorus, producing a wonderfully amalgamated tone. 

In this performance, Metha focused on exploiting every musical and dramatic feature of Wagner’s score. He just allowed the opera to reveal its fascination on its own terms. Wagner’s hymn to desire, eroticism and death inspired Mehta's conducting, which achieved a depth of human and incorporeal expression, until the lovers’ final detachment from the world.

****1