Breedt, Michelle


Tristan und IsoldeRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuthe Festspiele 2009 | Christoph Marthaler, Peter Schneider, Iréne Theorin, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle Breedt, Jukka Rasilainen, Robert Holl, Ralf Lukas | Opus Arte

It’s well known that Richard Wagner broke off the composition of his masterwork The Ring of the Nielbeung after the completion of the first two parts of the tetralogy (and up to the second act of Siegfried) in order to write his two other magnificent late music-dramas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. There are various political and commercial reasons for this break, but there remains a clear connection between the themes of these two works and those of the Ring that suggests to me that Wagner needed another outlet for the powerful themes that couldn’t fit within the tetralogy – as huge and encompassing a life-work as it is.

Die Meistersinger seems to want to consider another aspect of the nature of German art and culture and the creation of something new from a revered tradition that is part of what the Ring is about, but approached in a very different manner with a comic tone that can’t be found elsewhere in Wagner’s work. Tristan und Isolde seems to me to be very much connected with the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, a deeper exploration of the nature of love that is so powerful and so beyond our control that it surpasses any rational attempt to contain it, master it or even describe it, not least when it is a love that defies traditional moral constraints, something no doubt inspired by Wagner’s relationship with his mistress Mathilde Wesendonck.

Difficult to describe maybe, but in Tristan und Isolde Wagner makes one of his most persuasive accounts of those mystical feelings and powerful drives, not least through some of the most sublime music ever composed – almost equal to his final masterpiece Parsifal – that weaves contrasting leitmotifs together into a near frenzy of emotional outpourings and conflicting desires. In the same way that Parsifal would dwell at great length at the question of pain and suffering as a redemptive purifying force, Tristan und Isolde contains little real action and little dramatic intrigue in its four-hour-plus running time, leaving plenty of room for the opera to wallow in the sentiments it is concerned with.

Explored in depth they most certainly are, but even so, the structure of the opera would seem to work against a conventional expression of romantic sentiments, contriving rather to keep the two lovers apart or on guard for most of the opera. In Act 1, Tristan strives to keep his distance from the Irish princess that he has promised as a bride for King Marke, transporting her from Ireland to Cornwall, refusing requests from Isolde for a meeting, even accepting when they do meet what he suspects is a poison meant for both of them. Isolde is furious that she has feelings for the young man who, despite his disguise, she recognised and as the one who had killed her former betrothed, Lord Morold, yet still nursed him back to health. To make reparation she plots to give Tristan a poison and herself, for her weakness, but her maid Brangäne switches the draught for a love potion. Act 2 consists only of a furtive encounter between the two secretive lovers that is eventually discovered by the King, while Act 3 sees their separation and reencounter only in death.

Tristan

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of the unconventional nature of the love story, Tristan und Isolde is all the more powerful in its means of expression. The tension that exists in Act 1 is violently broken down by the imbibing of a potion – as a rather melodramatic device one can take this literally or not, but the intent is the same – that removes all constraints, pretences and reveals their true feelings for each other. It’s in Act 2 that the expression of those feelings is given voice – through the words, through the singing and through the music. The expression of that forbidden love is principally characterised by contrasts – in distance and nearness, in hatred and love, in darkness and light, in life and death, but principally through the day and night. Theirs is a love where, through its origin where they expected death in a potion but instead found the birth of love, everything is reversed and meaning turned upside down. Through their furtive encounters when the King is absent, signalled to Tristan by the extinguishing of Isolde’s bedroom light, theirs is also a love that is “consecrated to the night”, existing in a terrible but unquenchable yearning and state of tension that is only fully realised and consummated in the death that comes in Act 3.

With its expression of love as an endless eternal state thriving on contradictions, Tristan und Isolde is reminiscent in this way of Parsifal in its elevation of suffering to a mythical, mystic state, and Wagner’s musical expression of this state is simply astounding and also somewhat punishing (for the performers as well as the audience, the opera at the time of its composition being rejected by Dresden after fifty-four rehearsals as being impossible to play). It maintains an incredible state of mounting tension, constantly revisiting and revising leitmotifs, playing them off each other, only bringing them to a form of release in the climax of the ‘Liebestod‘. It’s a moment of utter musical genius that one can feel more intensely than almost any other dramatic operatic scene has ever achieved.

In terms of dramatic representation, there’s not really much you can do with Tristan und Isolde, which conversely means that an imaginative director can do just about anything with it. Bayreuth doesn’t really seem interested in staging traditional productions of Wagner’s operas, but in an opera like Tristan und Isolde, that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not a historical opera tied to a specific period, it’s a mythological opera about the mysterious forces of love. Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 production for the Bayreuth Festival, recorded here in a 2009 performance, finds a good balance between making the drama and the interaction between the characters intriguing to consider, while still being faithful to the opera’s themes.

Tristan

From the costumes and the décor of the ships interior in Act 1, it looks like it is randomly set in the 1930s, but not over-realistically so – the sets there to create a specific environment that ends up working quite well, rising into three tiers for each of the three acts, maintaining a fluidity and consistency in the piece. The main visual theme however – considering its significance in the second act – is that of lights, from the neon ring “stars” in the sky in Act 1, to the light switches of Act 2, and the pulsing rings of Act 3 that could represent love or life, or the two combined in death. Obviously, this is highly conceptual in a manner that those who like a more concrete, literal stagy representation dislike, but it suits the nature of the opera, and certainly suits the nature of Wagner’s conceptual themes, without distracting from them or imposing a false reading. The performers fit well into the stage directions laid out for them – looking a little incongruous and a little uncomfortable at times with the eccentric mannerisms, but mostly finding a perfect accommodation between the words, the emotions and dramatic interaction with each other.

Iréne Theorin is fairly magnetic throughout as Isolde, capturing her haughtiness and conflicted feelings for Tristan in Act 1 with a degree of precision, and finding a similar level of emotion in the contradictory impulses of the ‘Liebestod‘ in Act 3. Through much of Act 2 she appears to be in a love-potion-induced trance, acting without volition, almost in a state of madness, which may not be how one would expect Isolde to be played, but her childish, playful eagerness to switch off the lights does capture a perfect sense of complete abandon to her condition to the disregard of any rational sensibility. Her singing is strong, only occasionally faltering, but a fine representation of her character nonetheless. It may take a while to warm to Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, but any doubts should be dispelled by his handling of the incredibly demanding final act soliloquy that he delivers magnificently with such impassioned yearning that you almost fear that he, like Tristan, is going to push himself over the edge. Michelle Breedt is a fine Brangäne, her singing strong, her acting in character throughout, and Jukka Rasilanen as Kurwenal delivers a touching performance, particularly in his sympathy for and fidelity to his master in the final act. If there are any minor irritations with interpretation and staging in the first two acts, all should be redeemed by Act 3, and that is certainly delivered here under the baton of Peter Schneider.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray looks good for the most part in terms of the 16:9 video transfer. There are some problems with the quality of the audio, but they are mainly down to the recording, positioning of the actors and the acoustics of the live performance on the Bayreuth stage. The minimal staging, the positioning of the performers and the surrounding walls give a somewhat echoing quality to the singing in places. In Act II’s “Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!” for example, with Theorin and Dean Smith backed up against the walls, the singing fails to rise above the orchestration. The orchestra isn’t ideally clear either and doesn’t make a great deal of use of the surrounds, tending to be mainly focussed towards a centre stage. Extras include an optional conductor camera visible in a small box at the bottom of the screen (a pointless feature when Bayreuth productions otherwise do their utmost to keep the orchestra and conductor invisible in line with the composer’s intentions), as well as an illustrated synopsis and a 25 minute making of that looks behind the scenes at the staging of the production at Bayreuth.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opernhaus Zürich, 2006 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Claus Guth, Alexander Pereira, Michael Volle, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Guy de Mey, Elena Moşuc, Emily Magee, Gabriel Bermúdez | TDK

Claus Guth’s opera productions are known for being psychologically-based – delving into an old, familiar work – as in his productions of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas, or in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride – and seeing whether a more modern outlook and a wider consideration of the composer’s intentions can’t illuminate some aspects of the characters’ behaviour. As such, it would seem that Guth has had all his work done for him when it comes to this 2006 production for the Opernhaus Zürich of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about the composing of an opera that is so self-reflexive that it surely doesn’t need any further deconstruction.

One wonders whether Strauss was thinking in part about his own opera Der Rosenkavalier, when he came to write Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera about an opera that mixes opera seria with opera buffa, that is played out in the most farcical, old fashioned and self-absorbed manner, while at the same time making a comment on serious deeper underlying aspects that the farce helps illuminate. Der Rosenkavalier is even self-reflexive itself on the nature of opera composition, on the history of opera, on the ability of opera to mix singing, drama and music, to be able to mix serious elements and low-brow comedy and through this unusual combination of elements be able to reach deeper truths about life, about love, about time and our place in it all.

It’s already been done in Der Rosenkavalier, so is there anything else that can be brought out of the idea by making the idea the entire purpose of Ariadne auf Naxos? Well, in the very premise – a wealthy patron decides to combine two operas that he has commissioned, one a commedia dell’arte farce, the other a serious treatment of a classical subject, so that both will be finished in time to entertain his guests with a fireworks display at 9 o’clock – there’s certainly a satire on the commerce of opera. Opera can aspire to high art, but it also needs to entertain and the two need not be mutually exclusive. There’s also a great deal of satire involved at the expense of the precious composer who cannot bear to see others destroy all his work and serious intentions, who also has to deal with the conflicting demands of his leading singers and their egos.

If the prologue is almost stultifyingly predictable in its high-brow cleverness and in the so-called comedy of this set-up – played out largely unmusically in near-recitative parlando – the proof of the concept is in the “opera” itself. Even using commedia dell’arte standard character type and classical archetypes, the manner in which they collide with each other brings out underlying truths about human nature in each of them, aided and assisted by the power of music, “the holiest of arts”. Thus the humble Zerbinetta, seemingly at ease and taking pleasure in the nature of love affairs between men and women, is nonetheless able to understand the deep suffering that Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, is undergoing, but although “the grief of illustrious and noble persons mustn’t be measured by the standards of mere mortals”, Zerbinetta asks, “But are we not both women?”, and she herself has been abandoned to countless desert islands. When Bacchus arrives then, himself in torment, Ariadne recognises that her suffering hasn’t been in vain, but rather leaves her born anew, with a new god to worship – not man as a god, but the love that springs up in this new ground that lies between them – and Zerbinetta smiles in silent recognition.

In some ways, the truth of Ariadne auf Naxos and the collision between life and art is borne out in the actual difficulties of its composition and the struggle between Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to strike a balance between communicating ideas through the words and expressing it in the music – an idea developed further in Capriccio – making the opera entertaining and having something important to say, while also being comprehensible. Out of the dialectic collision in Ariadne auf Naxos (and Der Rosenkavalier) of the German opera influences of Mozart’s buffa tragic-comedies and Wagner’s lyrical romanticism, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal hope to demonstrate their theory and move towards a more modern form of opera. It may not be considered as important or as revolutionary as Wagner’s theories (the musical and thematic concerns of Tristan and Isolde and Parsifal are very evident in Ariadne auf Naxos), or Gluck’s before him, and the balance between theory and practice may not be entirely satisfactory, but it would lead the way to further developments in Strauss’s career and have an undeniable impact on the modern form of opera as we know it today.

Ariadne

That the opera itself is set in the present, or in a relatively modern context as opposed to its antiquity or commedia dell’arte setting, isn’t unexpected from Claus Guth – but what is strange is that at least up until the close of the double curtains, there is never any sense of it being an opera – a compromised opera – within an opera. The meta-level of the Prologue is kept almost completely separate from the main opera (apart of course from the flawed human actors who are metamorphosed through the magic of opera into exquisite beings) and it is played completely straight, notwithstanding the fact that the setting – not an island, but a detailed representation of the famous Kronenhalle restaurant in Zurich, where Ariadne is lamenting her woes over a bottle of wine – is much too elaborate to be a small production for assembled guests at a dinner party.

Going to such detail and with such realism, one has to conclude that Guth clearly wants to make the opera meaningful to a Swiss audience, drawing lines between the aristocracy and the lower classes in the split between the serious and the comedy, between the mythological characters and the opera buffa characters, and is trying to find something relevant to the operas themes in this opera-class conflict. Perhaps a Swiss audience is able to derive some deeper meaning from this than myself, but it’s certainly a valid aim to present a 21st century take on an opera that is itself a 20th century take on older styles of opera composition, continually refreshing it and exploring the contrasts for some new resonance.

Much as I find some aspects of Ariadne unsatisfying as an opera – mostly with it trying just too hard to be clever and witty – it does at least have this to always making it interesting and always capable of revealing new ideas. If that fails – and I’m not sure it works terribly well in this case, only adding to the self-referential complexity – there is at least always the most beautiful music and singing in the monologues of Ariadne and Zerbinetta, Strauss as ever writing beautifully for women’s voices, and in particular putting some of the most challenging singing in the entire opera repertoire into the role of Zerbinetta. The singing in this production is superb – Elena Moşuc a vibrant Zerbinetta, Emily Magee a strong, elegant Ariadne, Roberto Saccà a beautifully lyrical tenor Bacchus – but then in this opera, it really can’t be anything else.

TDK’s Blu-ray of the production is fine, the transfer showing the detail in the well-lit sets. Audio options are LPCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 7.1, the surround track having the advantage of the wider range and sounding marvellous. Other than a couple of Trailers, there are no extra features, interviews or looks behind-the-scenes.

Passenger Mieczyslaw Weinberg – The Passenger

Bregenzer Festspiele, 2010 | Teodor Currentzis, David Pountney, Michelle Breedt, Roberto Saccà, Elena Kelessidi, Artur Rucinski, Svetlana Doneva, Angelica Voje | Unitel Classica - NEOS

Is an opera dealing with Auschwitz automatically worthy of acclaim simply through its dealing with a subject that can’t help but be powerful and emotive? Or are some subjects are just so taboo that they shouldn’t be turned into art, since any attempts to do so will almost certainly diminish them? The approach to Schindler’s List, for example, with its theatricality, its glossy, immaculately-lit and carefully composed cinematography, is certainly questionable, as is the means through which Spielberg chooses to approach the Holocaust, but surely even dealing with the subject and bringing awareness to a wider younger audience has its merit? Written in 1967-8, it’s taken over 40 years for Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera The Passenger to receive its World Premiere at the Bregenzer Festspiele in 2010, and on the basis of this remarkable production, it seems that opera is the perfect and perhaps the only art-form really capable of dealing with the complex questions that the subject give rise to.

Dealing with events that took place in Auschwitz from the perspective of looking back on what happened, those questions relate here to the issues of guilt and conscience, specifically over the involvement and culpability of ordinary German people in the atrocities committed during the war in the Nazi concentration camps. The subject is raised as a German official, Walter, is about to set sail with his wife to take up a diplomatic post in Brazil during the 1960s. His wife, Lisa, becomes upset however when she sees a passenger on the ship, a woman who reminds her of a dark episode in her past that she has never told her husband about. The woman reminds her of Marta, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz, where Lisa was an SS camp overseer.

This is an extraordinary subject to make an opera about, and, as you would expect, it’s treated with the utmost seriousness and gravity and has the potential to be deeply upsetting, the imagery and the setting taking on further significance through its performance in Austria, close to where similar events took place in the past. More than just dealing with the subject in a grim manner – which is easy enough to do through the dramatic situation alone – Weinberg’s The Passenger brings an incredibly more powerful dimension to the subject by making everyone, Nazis and Jews alike, sing. The power of the singing voice can be taken for granted in an opera, but rarely has it been aligned to a subject that is so emotive in its own right, and it serves to intensify both the evil pronouncements of the Nazi camp attendants as well as the laments of the prisoners. But it also has relevance to the story – yes, even in Auschwitz, music was played, and the image this evokes is truly pitiable.

Passenger

The libretto by Alexander Medvedev, based on a novel by camp survivor Zofia Posmysz (the only one of original writer involved in the opera still alive and present at this performance), manages to evoke these deep and dark sentiments through disturbing poetic imagery (included in full in an accompanying booklet and well worth reading on its own) of the “Pitch black wall of death, the last thing you saw before oblivion“.  That brings to mind the “huge black wave” of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and the influence of Shostakovich is evident also in the music.  Weinberg’s extraordinary arrangements include jazz, swing music, waltz and simple theatrical accompaniments but it also has folk laments and dark jabs of strings, woodwind and percussion that underscore emotions of a kind that are rarely, if ever, dealt with in opera. Libretto and score combine then to get to the heart of the subject in the most direct and powerful manner, questioning the attempt of Lisa and Walter to wipe away the memory of the past and move on with their lives, comparing it to the Nazi’s looking for an easy solution to dispose of 20,000 bodies a day. This horrifying concern over practicalities seems to dominate over guilt and conscience and over any deeper consideration of what those actions mean.

The staging at Bregenz is remarkably effective, with incredible multi-level set designs that keep the action fluid, retaining the connection between past and present, the ship above the concentration camp below – an arrangement that culminates in Lisa’s spectacular metaphorical descent into hell. It’s the genius of the opera also that it primarily considers the subject from the viewpoint of Lisa, a former SS Overseer in Auschwitz. It takes in not just those who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis, but also necessarily takes into account the people who carried out the atrocities, and tries to consider how they can live with themselves afterwards. Forgiving and forgetting, however, is not an option.

The video quality of the Blu-ray release is superb – possibly the best I’ve seen in High Definition – the whites and creams of the ship scenes contrasted with the sepia tones in the Auschwitz scenes, which show remarkable detail for being so dark. The audio is not perfect on account of it being a live performance and with the difficulties of setting up microphones. The music booms and is a little echoing in places, occasionally overwhelming the singing, but more often it’s clear enough to hear the detail and the colour. There is only one track, DTS HD Master-Audio 5.0, which is centrally focussed, but it downmixes to stereo quite well for those with only a 2-speaker option. Subtitles are in German, English, French, Polish and Russian, with an additional Multilingual option for the libretto which uses several languages. A superb half-hour documentary ‘In der Fremde’ covers the background of Weinberg and the history of the opera, including an interview with Zofia Posmysz.