At the Opernhaus Zürich, the coat check is not optional. A collective hush extends throughout the hall just before the dimming of the lights. And it may be the last opera house in the world where the overwhelming majority of patrons still dress in formal attire; I have never felt like such a slob in my khakis and untucked shirt. Yet the pomp is not without reason; I do not believe there is another opera company in the world that maintains such impressively high musical values while performing in a fairly intimate space with stellar acoustics.
I was fortunate to catch Nina Stemme’s final performance in Claus Guth’s intriguing production of Tristan und Isolde followed by a performance in the title role of Norma by Maria Agresta in a bold production by Robert Wilson.
I have been a fan of Stemme, a Swedish diva and the current reigning queen of Wagner, since hearing her Isolde on a 2005 recording with Placido Domingo as Tristan (Domingo once said “I could sing Tristan, I think, but if I did it in the opera house, it might be the last thing I ever do sing!”) Tristan occupies a permanent place in some rather lofty debates—about the evolution of music (after the “Tristan Chord,” nothing would ever be the same), about the distance between man’s ambitions and capacities (see Schopenhauer), and about German identity and (mis)constructions thereof—that I have no business getting into.
Many directors fall victim to the “black holes” of the piece and struggle to uncover and convey meaning in the opera (or perhaps they try too hard), and this leads to long evenings of parking-and-barking surrounded by a mostly barren stage. Guth has set his sights on a more “human” tale—with no love potions—close to home for the Zurich audience: Wagner’s storied affair with Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of a rich banker, who was the composer’s patron. The production is set in the Wesendonck’s Zurich villa and loosely casts Tristan in the role of Wagner, Isolde as Mathilde, and Otto, the husband, as—you guessed it—König Marke (septuagenerian Matti Salminen, scary and astounding as ever).
Yet despite any attempts to render this six-hour journey “down-to-earth,” Wagner’s music remains hypnotic as ever and transcends the physical elements that any mortal director might conjure. And when the score is given as skillful and devout a reading as in last week’s performance at the Opernhaus, music lovers are anywhere but this planet. Designer Christian Schmidt makes ingenious use of a turntable, revealing with fluidity each of the villa’s opulent rooms, and—in the third act—a deserted backdrop for Tristan’s nervous breakdown of sorts.
This was my first live experience with Stemme, so I am in no position to compare this Isolde with her many, many outings of the role in the past, and indeed I know many are eagerly anticipating her first Met Isoldes in 2016 for Mariusz Trelinski’s season-opening production. The voice is simply a force of nature—dark, yet brilliant with awesome projection. The small size of the house (1200 seats) and the walled set also helped to pump out the sound.
Her laser-targeted singing was an interesting contrast to the Brangäne of Michelle Breedt, whose mezzo-soprano projected well but was less piercingly impactful. Stemme and Breedt were in the original cast of this staging in 2008 and their comfort allowed for riveting dramatic engagement, such as when Isolde throws Brangäne onto the bed and declares, “Der Trank ist’s, der mir taugt!”—a prelude to a spine-tingling curse.
Stemme’s commanding performance is worth the price of admission, but she is far from the only vocal achievement here. The Tristan of Stephen Gould—whose Siegfried in Götterdämmerung at the Met in 2012 received mixed reviews—begins with a certain physical inertness, but by the third act he demonstrates tremendous stamina and actually manages to sing the role (including, to my ears, the notes on the page), which in its heroism manages to move an audience. No doubt the smaller house size made him less inclined to push.
It was agonizing to watch his Tristan suffer as he awaited for the arrival of the ship bringing Isolde, and his “Die mir Isolde / einzig enthält / wie wär’ Isolde / mir aus der Welt?” had the crackling intensity that fans of Jon Vickers would appreciate. His sidekick Kurwenal (Swedish “dramatic baritone” John Lundgren), by contrast, often resorted to barking, although his acting was intense and detailed.
I must also praise the male chorus for their striking appearance at the conclusion of the first act, during which we have our first glimpse of Salminen’s imposing Marke. But just wait until he opens his mouth in the second act for his pained soliloquy of betrayal, “Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das?” Marke presides over a gigantic ‘board meeting’ that at one point serves as an audience for Tristan and Isolde’s post-potion love attack.
Salminen’s slam on the table practically threw me from my seat; the Finnish bass is now drier of voice, but no less commanding, nailing notes as if with a screwdriver and his anguish is consistently palpable. The end of his soliloquy features one of Guth’s smartest tricks; the turntable rotates at just the right moment for him to step outside the dining room and ask, as a poignant aside, “Den unerforschlich tief / geheimnisvollen Grund, / wer macht der Welt ihn kund?”
As for the legendary love duet—“O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”—this is where Guth fully explores the themes of light (or rather avoiding light and day, since Tristan and Isolde’s lethal pheromones can only go unrepressed within the dark night). There is significant chemistry here, particularly as Tristan wrestles with his obsession with die Nacht in the lead-up to his duel with Melot (robust baritone Cheyne Davidson), who was in fact creeping the love scene all the while. Other impressive vocal contributions include the young seaman (Mauro Peter) with his lovely ditty about a “wild Irish maid,” which Isolde decries as mockery.
The orchestra had a great night and Maestro John Fiore ably supported his singers, never drowning them out —apparently unlike Bernard Haitink in a recent revival of this production. During the curtain call following the second act, it was lovely to see two musicians remain after the pit had mostly emptied out—one applauding, and the other with her arm around her colleague, both obviously moved by the Gesamtkunstwerk of which they were small but integral parts).
Tristan und Isolde is often described as “intoxicating”—for audiences in addition to its protagonists—but perhaps its appeal derives more from our subconscious longing for Isolde’s powers and our identification with Tristan’s avoidance of day (i.e. reality) at all costs. Audiences can also connect with the King, whose appearance of awesome power is sharply contrasted by the futility of his attempts to wake up the dying Tristan—“Erwache! / Erwache meinem Jammer”—shortly before Isolde’s profound Liebestod—builds a bridge between this world and the next.
I am reminded that the entrancing musical ideas behind this climax were previously explored in “Träume,” one of Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, set to a poem by—you guessed it—Mathilde herself. It would be difficult to imagine her singing the Liebestod to Wagner, and thankfully nor does Guth’s concept extend this far. Yet in the end we are left with a deeply engaging and transcendent Tristan und Isolde.
After a six-hour journey as heart-wrenching and mind-blowing as Tristan und Isolde, one would typically take some time off to recuperate. Yet I was not going to miss the chance to see the next evening’s performance of Bellini’s monumental Norma, in a striking production by avant-garde American director Robert Wilson, conducted by Zurich’s music director, Fabio Luisi—the Met’s Principal Conductor.
Norma is certainly one of the jewels of the bel canto repertoire, with a title role so difficult that soprano Lilli Lehmann once said that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhilde roles in one night would be easier than a single performance of Norma. As she put it, “When you sing Wagner, you are so carried away by the dramatic emotion, the action, and the scene that you do not have to think how to sing the words. That comes of itself. But in Bellini, you must always have a care for beauty of tone and correct emission.”
That Norma is vocally taxing is not without dramatic intentionality—as high priestess of the Druids, she carries awesome power and is not hesitant about deploying it against the invading Romans. Yet she reserves the plurality of her fire not to chart a path forward for her nation, but rather to exact revenge against the unfaithful Pollione (a Roman, the enemy; this is not unlike West Side Story) who tries to run off with the priestess Adalgisa. As solos, duets, and trios come and go, the stakes heighten to the point where Norma considers killing her and Pollione’s children, though she ultimately decides to make the ultimate sacrifice and takes responsibility for breaking her vows and becoming entangled with the enemy.
Wilson—famous for Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach—remains à la mode in this part of Europe, and this production of Norma (first mounted in 2011) employs some of his characteristic “abstractionist” techniques, namely rigidly stylized scenes, highly detailed lighting, and stark projections. Singers typical hold their arms in Kabuki-style positions, and this quickly grows tiresome.
Italian soprano Agresta took on Norma. Her “Casta diva”—the famed first act aria in which she begs the “chaste goddess” to bring heavenly peace onto the earth—was stirring and captivating, to be sure, but it seemed she was reigning in her voice so much, that she in fact lost control of the sound, leading to some fuzzy coloratura and missed high notes near the end. Once she discovers she has been the victim of deception, she unleashes the full force of her vocal resources and the results are more far more exciting, especially in the famous act 2 duet with Roxana Constantinescu’s Adalgisa, capped by “Mira, o Norma.”
Constantinescu, a Romanian mezzo, is undertaking a major career move here, her other recent engagements being concentrated around Mozart and Rossini. In spite of the restrictions placed upon her in Wilson’s production, she stole the show because she engages with her character’s painful innocence and she connects with her text. Every consonant is propelled by intentionality. And she is striking in an orange dress (costumes by Moidele Bickel) to foil the deep blue one worn by Norma.
The men were a mixed bag. Wenwei Zhang was positively thunderous, with a smooth, round bass-baritone. Yet Marco Berti as Pollione seemed to be somewhere “else.” Perhaps he was responding to directorial guidance, but he was about as vivacious as an anvil, with ringing high notes but no apparent attempt at phrasing or dynamic control.
Successful bel canto calls for a conductor with the right blend of mastery (of the score) and humility (recognizing that the singers are the first priority), and Luisi makes all the difference. He is there with his singers at every turn, though he certainly does not neglect orchestral details either. The cut-offs were razor sharp. Some might prefer a more emotional, expansive form of conducting in this repertoire, but I found Luisi’s approach highly effective.
One of the few set pieces in this production (design by Wilson and Stephanie Engeln) is a crystal of sorts that represents Norma’s lair. The second act set is particularly eerie, with a double runway with one of Norma’s children seated on each end. The sparse overall design allows audiences to concentrate on the tense interpersonal dynamics at play, though the atmosphere seems somewhat extraplanetary and thus difficult to navigate as an audience member.
Norma left me with several questions as I tried to grapple with the title character’s decision to have her own life be ended on account of her misdeeds rather than send Pollione directly to the flames.
Interestingly, the men in Norma and Tristan und Isolde—not to mention the latter’s composer—all had to walk away from the women in conflict. My snowy walk away from the Opernhaus was certainly less dramatic, but there was most definitely a tinge of nostalgia. I will be back, Zurich!
Photos: Suzanne Schwiertz