Wednesday, May 06, 2009

A Lotta Night music

After Bremen, Sam went to Cologne to see their controversial new production of
WAGNER: TRISTAN UND ISOLDE
Cologne Opera
3 MAY 2009


The once mighty Cologne Opera has been having a tough time of late. This season the company has met with much printed and public disapprobation. In the latest scandal, the premiere of a new Samson et Dalilah, set for 2 May, had to be postponed a week. The originally announced Dalilah quit, after finding the production -- reportedly redolent with violence and rape -- too distressing. Her replacement dropped out at the last minute, citing illness.

On the following afternoon, I arrived from Bremen, just in time to witness the specter of another roundly heckled new production on the boards of the opera house. Few, it seems, liked David Pountney's setting of Tristan und Isolde when it was unveiled back in March. Even fewer liked the principals. Not much could be done about the production, but several cast changes were effected, and the show has been going on with hastily engaged replacements. The performance I was now witnessing sort of amounted to a somewhat newer new production of Tristan.

Since I was not present at the premiere, comparisons are not just odious but impossible. Pountney certainly has his detractors, but I certainly have been subjected to productions of Tristan that struck me as far worse. The only substantive objection I have to Pountney's staging is its visual disconnect between the middle and outer acts. Designer Robert Israel sets the first act with a grey ship on a grey Irish Sea. The last act is set in a similarly grey-hued cemetery. The second act, however, looks like an outsize fun house you might find in the toy section of a department store-- bright colored slabs of geometric constructs, strewn about a slowly revolving turntable.

None of this bothered me in the slightest, because nearly everything else about this performance was so surprising, so bodacious!
Swiss soprano Marion Ammann was a last-minute replacement, but she looked, moved and above all sounded as though she had been the chosen Isolde all along. But be warned -- especially those awaiting the Second Coming of St. Birgit: Ammann is different and quite possibly a throwback to an earlier epoch. How such a solid but beautiful sound can emanate from such a slender, willowy torso is truly a wonder. And, ah, the sweet sorrow that informs her glance as her tall, tortured Isolde remembers how she became powerless to prevent herself from dropping the sword, as she tried to kill Tristan: simply haunting. Those who recently heard Irene Theorin at the Met might summon comparisons, but Ammann is warmer, more vulnerable: Germaine Lubin resurrected.

Ammann also had the good fortune of playing off American Robert Gambill, another replacement whose grandly nuanced Tristan sounded and acted as though weeks of rehearsal had come to satisfying fruition. Gambill is a Tamino-turned-Tristan, who I first heard as Siegmund about eight years ago. He looks like a leading man and moves graciously. His voice has heft and stamina, but it tends to recede as it ascends beyond F, which puts a clamp on the tone, where it ought to open out. Nonetheless, Gambill shows signs of neither wear nor tear, as he finds himself in what appears to be a golden period of his career.

Some years ago, when Soviet mezzo-soprano Elena Obratztova took the Free World by storm, I wondered (perversely) how she would sound as Brangäne. Now I know. But putting it this way does disservice to both Obratztova and a diminutive, Lolita-looking singer named Elena Zhidkova. How often can you describe a singer portraying Brangäne as "hair-raising?" As big-voiced as Amman and Gambill are, Zhidkova's is by far bigger and ballsier than you're likely ever to get without invoking Sigrid Onegin. And like Onegin, she is also capable of mystical subtlety, as evidenced in her exchanges with Ammann. So mind your backs ladies, and I mean YOU -- Olga, Ewa, Larissa, Magdalena et cie: this one's for real and her handlers are comin' straight atcha!

Thomas J. Meyer was a virile sounding Kurwenal, Gerardo Graciacano a malicious Melot and Alfred Reiter an unusually introspective King Marke.

The performance was ultimately made cohesive by the direction of Markus Stenz, the Cologne Opera's music chief, who induced the kind of orchestral tension that I have come to expect mostly from much older Wagner conductors. He shows the kind of innate understanding of this work, at which recordings under great conductors hint, but never teach. Too bad, he chose to perform it with standard cuts -- no Tag und Nacht, etc.

Whoever played the English horn solo (no program credit) in the third act was marvelous.

The takeaway: Forget about the noise surrounding this production. This performance ranks among the all-time top five of the 40-odd Tristans I have attended thus far. The other four? Don't ask.

© Sam Shirakawa

Tristan Production Photo courtesy of Opera Cologne (© Klaus Lefebvre)

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