Tristan und Isolde
Finnish National Opera
Smith and Ammann, Tristan and Isolde in Helsinki
© Heikki Tuuli 2013
A stunning new production of Tristan und Isolde was unveiled by Finnish National Opera on May 17. Experiencing the work in this cleanly designed, intimately scaled 1,350-seat house proved a revelation. Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk seemed stripped down to its emotional essence in the minimalist staging by Elisabeth Linton, which made the most of Steffen Aarfing's semi-abstract scenery and Jesper Kongshaug's evocative lighting.
The ship, the castle and the ruins on the cliff were merely suggested in Aarfing's sets, and yet they somehow seemed fully realized. It was difficult to tell, in fact, where the sets left off and Kongshaug's lighting began, so intricate was the dance between the two. The lovers drank their potion during a total eclipse of the sun, which plunged the stage into darkness except for the halo of light that surrounded them. The effects of night, stars and flame in Act II were gorgeously presented, and the broad-daylight desolation of Act III was an appropriate contrast. Marie í Dali's costumes leaned toward the contemporary but also suggested the opera's medieval setting enough to make the total effect one of timelessness. The evening's only real misstep was the decision to have the Act III Shepherd mimed by a child and costumed to look like Death, replete with reaper.
Pinchas Steinberg led an acutely responsive orchestra, creating a thrilling sonic environment without overpowering the singers. His approach suited the cast, which emphasized lyricism rather than force. Robert Dean Smith's Tristan has become familiar the world over; Steinberg allowed him to favor poetry over power. This was all to the best, as Smith's heldentenor can take on a somewhat forced quality under pressure. Marion Ammann, with her wraithlike figure and flowing blonde hair, was the very image of a princess; she is possibly one of the loveliest Isoldes ever to set foot on a stage. Her Jugendlich Dramatischer voice was full and fresh, never tiring over the five-hour evening, and she enacted a bold, urgent interpretation of the role. Local favorite Lilli Paasikivi was a standout Brangäne, pouring forth mezzo tones of effortless beauty. Her offstage warning was a highlight. Tommi Hakala was an imposing Kurwenal, and Matti Salminen showed why, at sixty-eight, he remains one of the world's great King Markes — grave, sensitive and still the possessor of a grand, granitic bass.
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