Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tristan via Monorail

Sam is on to Wuppertal to see yet another Tristan und Isolde:

24 MAY 2007

Wuppertal has a brand new opera house. Well, almost brand new. The theater building underwent a major overhaul during the past several years at the cost of a gazillion euros and re-opened last autumn. The renovations have produced a brightly lit creme and gold auditorium of about 800 seats, distributed over the progressively widening parquet and two steeply raked balconies. All price ranges have democratized views of the stage.

The acoustical characteristics struck me as typical of newly constructed spaces meant for music: generous reverb and rapid response from top range to bottom. The litmus test, though, is whether the acoustics amplify the singers over a large orchestra. Few works are better suited to providing the tough questions than Tristan und Isolde, which I heard this past Sunday. The house passed the test admirably, at least from my seat in a box at the side of the first balcony: The voices thrust forward over the pit, even when the orchestra was going full-tilt. The ambiance, though, tends to favor male singers.

The acoustical qualities of the house came into sharp relief for me, as I was listening to Marion Amman as Isolde. A couple of weeks ago, I heard her in the same role in Cologne, where she simply sounded better -- bigger, brighter, a more varied timbre in the upper middle register -- aural peculiarities that have nothing to do with how she was singing, which was superbly. Amman is a singer to be reckoned with no matter where she performs.

The acoustical quirks of the house were especially unkind to Anette Bod, whose Brangäne seemed acidic at the bottom and shrewish at the top. Her dark mezzo has size, and she has abundant musicality going for her, but her sound in Wuppertal struck me as hectoring rather than heartening. Maybe elsewhere...

On the other hand, the acoustics seemed to caress John Uelenhopp's unhappy Tristan. His is not the most beautiful voice you're likely to encounter in the role, but it projects boldly under pressure, retains its virility in soft passages and, most importantly on Sunday, did not tire in the fevered throes of Tristan's third act mad scene.

Kay Stieferman as Kurvenal also benefited from the ambiance. His baritone is a powerful engine that also yields rich subtleties, though the lower end of his range has yet to come fully into its own.

As King Marke, Gregory Reinhart delivered a compelling oration in the second act.

The backstage area has undergone a complete update too, but producer Gerd Leo Guck, who is also General Manager, apparently decided to abjure a splashy display of the theater's state-of-the-art technical facilities. Instead, his designer Roland Aeschlimann provided him with literally a blank page -- a series of stark black-white rectangular frames, one behind another. No hint of place, except from subtle lighting changes dominated by shades of blue. For some reason, the characters are dressed mostly in muted Japonaiserie costumes by Andrea Schmidt-Futterer. But in a jarring costume switch, Isolde shows up to bid Tristan farewell dressed in a black haute-DDR evening gown.

I don't get it. Are we meant to be in Cornwall, Kareol, Kanagawa or Karl-Marx-Stadt? But I also admit, that the production is attractive and doesn't get in the way of the music.

Speaking of which, the performance was delayed for nearly 40 minutes because conductor Toshiyuki Kamioki was caught in traffic. It's a miracle that the show got started at all, if he drove as slowly as he led parts of the first and second acts. As noted by one critic, who wrote enthusiastically about the premiere, Kamioki not merely conducted, but celebrated Tristan. That was obvious from the belated start. But if there's a line separating celebration from self-indulgence, Kamioki crossed it by a kilometer. The sluggishness that crept in during those doncha-just-love-it? passages didn't bother me as much as his stop-light running races to get to the next Big Moment. Oddly enough, though, he managed to create remarkable tension in some spots. But Kamioki reveals himself still in the formative stages of an interpretation-in-progress.

Absent a ragged entrance here and there, the orchestra played for him with polished verve.

Again, no program credit for the English horn soloist, who played with reedy passion. Can't the musician's union do something about such omissions?

And now a confession: the really really fun part of visiting Wuppertal for the first time, was discovering the monorail that took me four stops from the main train station to Adlerbrücke, where the opera house is located. The Schwebebahn runs through most of the city, hovering over the (river) Wupper for much of its eight-mile route. It was designed by Eugen Langen, known best for his part in developing the gas engine, and completed in 1901. It's the oldest monorail system in the world and is unique in Germany. It suffered massive damage during the Second World War, but it was hastily rebuilt and has operated almost continuously ever since. If your travel plans take you through the Ruhr area this summer, a stop in Wuppertal is well worth a detour, just to take a ride over the city on its Schwebebahn. The whole trip takes only a half hour and costs less than two dollars per person.

© Sam H. Shirakawa

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