December 20, 2014
Barenboim unerring in short Tristan at Colón
For the Herald
As part of the Barenboim Festival, the Colón is offering performances of a heavily curtailed concert version of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. They are included in the four opera subscription series. I am of two minds about this event: on the one hand we heard a valuable Wagnerian concert; on the other I find it a serious mistake.
The Colón is supposed to be one of the major opera houses of the world; to merit such a concept it surely must have in every season at least one opera of the three greatest opera composers: Verdi, Wagner and Mozart. But after 2011, when we were offered Lohengrin, the Colón has mistreated Wagner: in 2012 we had the horrendous Colón Ring (16 hours reduced to seven); in 2013, the year of the bicentenary of Wagner’s birth, nothing at all; and now, a concert version with roughly 40 percent of the music of Tristan.
As things stand today, the Colón is heavily below a reasonable commitment to Wagner’s essential production: no complete Ring since 1967; last Mastersingers, 1980); Parsifal, 1986; Tannhäuser, 1994. The matter is less serious in the case of Tristan, since the last was in 2000, and those that went to the acceptable Tristan of La Plata’s Argentino (2011) satiated their Wagnerian thirst. But in fact at the Colón, although it revived this great lyric drama during the last half century also in 1966 and 1977, the only memorable one was the 1971 combination of Nilsson and Vickers, conductor Stein.
This time Daniel Barenboim conducted his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a concert version including the Prelude to the First Act, the whole Second Act and Isolde’s Love-Death. An uncut Tristan with rather fast “tempi” lasts four hours (like Böhm’s Bayreuth performance with Nilsson and Windgassen).
Generally the Colón has cut about 10 minutes of the great Love Duet of the Second Act, and 10 more minutes during the immense delirium of Tristan in the Third Act. Paradoxically, this time we had at least the advantage of hearing the complete Love Duet, even if I admit that the complaint about the Day (for the Night protects them, the Day breaks their intimacy) isn’t the best music of the score.
There is a precedent for a concert version by a visiting company: Barenboim’s Aida with La Scala forces; but then we had the whole opera. This maimed Tristan didn’t satisfy me, even if the singers recruited have had long and important Wagnerian careers and Barenboim is certainly a devoted interpreter of the highest caliber.
As he did in Aida, Barenboim placed his singers in a raised platform behind the orchestra; it worked well acoustically. But I have heard other unstaged operas where the singers are placed closer to the audience and in front of the orchestra and it sounded better.
As to the performance, I give pride of place to the orchestra and Barenboim, and to a splendid bass (perhaps the best nowadays) singing King Marke: René Pape making his long-awaited local debut. The conductor obtained from his orchestra a true Wagnerian sound, with beautiful string ensemble and admirable soloists as the bass clarinet player. The music surged and blended with the voices as if they were one. And Barenboim’s choices of tempo and phrasing were unerring: after all, he holds the record in the number of presentations of Tristan in Bayreuth. And there are splendid DVDs with both Meiers, Johanna and Waltraud.
I have to say it, Waltraud Meier is no longer in her best voice; she sang here as Fricka back in 1981 at the start of her great career but later on we missed her halcyon years. A dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerite, she was certainly authentic in her phrasing, but the beauty of her timbre has diminished and the highs are troublesome. Her Tristan, Peter Seiffert, made his local debut. He is one of the few reliable Heldentenors and I enjoyed back in 2009 his Berlin Tannhäuser and Viennese Lohengrin; a huge man, he sings with fortitude and good timbre, although he lacks the intensity of interpretation of Vickers.
Ekaterina Gubanova is a young Russian mezzo of ample and pleasant tone; she showed her mettle years ago as Amneris in the afore-mentioned Aida, and now she adapted well to the German style with a very competent Brangäne. But the great voice and style was Pape’s, admirable in such varied roles as Filippo, Boris or Marke; this was noble, expressive singing of the highest level.
Melot was sung with firm tone by tenor Gustavo López Manzitti in a part that can also be sung by baritones. I missed Kurwenal’s Rette dich, Tristan (“Save yourself, Tristan”), his only phrase in the Second Act but an important one; why eliminate this character when it could easily have been sung by one of our local baritones?