Scala, Milano, December 20th. Production: Patrice Chéreau. Cast: Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Ian Storey (Tristan), Michelle DeYoung (Brangäne), Gerd Grochowski (Kurwenal), Matti Salminen (King Marke). Conductor: Daniel Barenboim. Further information here
Miracles of every size happened at La Scala yesterday evening: Beginning with my barely adequate seat in the second row in a box being transformed into a first-rate seat, when the people seated at the first row left after the first act. As it seemed, quite a few people don´t seem to go to La Scala to actually see the opera, in which case it is perfectly understandable that 5 hours and 30 minutes of Wagner may seem a bit excessive for showing off your clothes in the two 40-minute breaks. Just before the third act, I counted 11 completely empty boxes in the opposite half of the auditorium – slightly annoying, considering this entire Tristan and Isolde run was sold out in less than 2 minutes.
In brief: It a was a truly magical evening of the kind I´ll probably only experience a handful of times during my entire lifetime, if I´m lucky. The combination of Chéreau, Barenboim and Waltraud Meier was profoundly moving and even exceeding my wildest expectations.
First, Waltraud Meier: She simply doesn´t have any rival in the world as Isolde. I could try objectively to describe some of what has by other been described as her vocal shortcomings, however once she appears on stage and starts to sing, all these things cease to matter: Her committed acting and profound understanding of the part is immensely moving, overriding whatever vocal issues one may have with her - she simply commands the stage from beginning to the end completely without competition today – just listen to Isolde´s Narration and Curse from the 1st act. Or the intensity of her Liebestod, which paralyzed the entire house. I´ve never experienced anything like it. I actually managed to walk into a mirror on my way down from my box seat (well, it DID look like the staircase).
And Patrice Chéreau´s production was completely breathtaking: The sinister walls, the ship and the simple clothing provided the perfect neutral backdrop for this tragedy. For Chéreau´s true strength lies in making the characters come alive, in creating those grand emotional tableaus. The scenes between Siegmund and Sieglinde in his 1976 Walküre comes to mind, since basically it is the same thing he does here: Create tremendous emotions by the detailed stage direction in which scenes of epic beauty filled with real human emotions are the cornerstones. And his take on the story is the only way it makes sense: There is, of course, no love potion. By believing to be dying from the death potion, Tristan and Isolde admit to their feelings to each other, present (just as in the text) from the start.
Chéreau´s images just lingers on for days: The way Tristan touches Isolde's hair when she asks for revenge - the way Tristan grasps Isolde´s dress after drinking the potion - how the sailors remain frozen when Tristan and Isolde embrace - how Tristan and Marke embrace after the discovery of the couple - Marke desperately holding Isolde back when Tristan is fatally wounded - the blood trickling down Isolde´s chin during the Liebestod – I could go on. Moving beyond words. And by not making this a chamber drama, but placing additional non-speaking characters around the protagonists, Chéreau adds an extra dimension to the drama.
Last in this magical trio, Daniel Barenboim – both epic and dynamic conducting, never loosing the structure of the piece. The Scala orchestra doesn´t (yet) react with the same precision as they do in Berlin, but the sound was glorious. Interestingly, Barenboim´s approach here seemed more Italianate (emphasizing the grandness of the score rather than the usual string dynamics) than I´ve heard him do previously. Curiously Barenboim chose to place all brass and woodwind in the right side of the pit. I was sitting right above the brass section, but the acoustics seemed to balance out nicely. Of course, you´d be tempted to say, he conducted without a score. And is so familiar with Waltraud Meier´s Isolde (they probably have performed it more than 50 times together) that he´d sit down and drink a glass of water while she was singing and saved the standing up and clearly marking the beat for Ian Storey´s passages (where it was clearly needed).
For quite some stretches Barenboim doesn´t even mark the beat and just lets the orchestra play, pointing at various groups of players at a time. Amazingly, the first thing he did after both the 2nd and 3rd act was to immediately go down to one of the string players to have a lengthy discussion with him about some aspects of the score.
Waltraud Meier´s Isolde could fall in love with. Particularly his third act was moving. And I cannot readily think of any of the contemporary Tristan´s that would have been as or more convincing physically. For that, I´ll gladly accept his vocal shortcomings.
At least when René Pape is not around, Matti Salminen is the optimal King Marke. He has exactly the right mixture of a both grand and sorrowful presence, as well as a voice in fine shape making a quite touching monologue. Gerd Grochowski was fresh-sounding as Kurwenal, but his voice seemed rather small. The only one that actually did disappoint was Michelle DeYoung´s shrill sounding Brangäne. But she could not take anything away from the magnificent achievements of the others.
A truly grand operatic evening. I sincerely hope I´ll live long enough to experience something like it again.