OPERA NEWS - Tristan und Isolde
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In Review > International

Tristan und Isolde

FLORENCE
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
5/11/14

In Review Florence Tristan hdl 714
Kerl and Braun, Tristan and Isolde in Florence
© Simone Donati/TerraProject 2014

The May 11 matinée of Tristan und Isolde — the final show of the inaugural production of this year's Maggio Musicale Fiorentino — was also the last performance conducted by Zubin Mehta at the Teatro Comunale, which has housed the principal events at Italy's oldest festival since 1933. Mehta has been a frequent presence at the theater since he became the festival's music director in 1986. In the fall, the Opera di Firenze (as it is now called) will move definitively to its new house a few hundred meters away. It was thus a moving occasion for Florentine habitués, who greeted the seventy-eight-year-old maestro and the orchestra with ovations at the beginning and end of every act. 

The cheers were not undeserved, for the orchestral playing was warm, supple and focused in every detail, the pacing of the work persuasive from start to finish and the rapport between stage and pit unfailing, in spite of the vocal difficulties of some of the singers. It was, however, a somewhat crepuscular reading — as if filtered through memory rather than directly experienced here and now — which reached an apex of eloquence in King Marke's monologue in Act II, in which Danish bass Stephen Milling offered the best singing of the afternoon, lending sculpted density to every phrase. 

The production — directed and designed by Stefano Poda — also suggested an atmosphere of twilight serenity; its sense of oriental ritual was emphasized by the oblique lighting, by the slow-motion movements of numerous extras and by the dominant image in all three acts — an unceasing cascade of rice onto a hillock at the center of the stage. There was also a suspended platform that suggested the deck of the ship in Act I and offered an imposing launching pad for Isolde's "Liebestod" in Act III. 

In visual terms, the effect, if unvarying, was never less than pleasingly tasteful, but strong emotional engagement with the characters was hardly favored. (In a program note, Poda claims that Wagner's drama "is not a love story" and that the two leading characters are "already dead" at the beginning of the opera.) One could sense, for example, that Lioba Braun, the Isolde, possessed a strong stage presence, but the lighting was too dim for the character's emotions to be visible on her face. Vocally, she managed the role without embarrassment but without conveying much of the youth or beauty of the Irish princess; her voice turned sour and unsteady when it rose at forte above the staff. The lack of physical contact with both Isolde and Kurwenal made it difficult for spectators to share the emotional life of Torsten Kerl's Tristan. His voice sounded in healthier condition than Braun's and was pleasant enough in quiet passages, but when projected forcefully, it sounded unvarying in color. The sense of virile communion with Kurwenal was undermined by the infelicitous vocal estate of the experienced Wagnerian baritone Juha Uusitalo. 

Julia Rutigliano's Brangäne also lacked warmth and solidity of tone, and the haunting urgency of her nocturnal warning was diminished by the presence of irrelevant extras onstage. Kurt Azesberger's Melot, on the other hand, was musically well-focused, and his wounding of Tristan was skillfully contrived. Italo Proferisce proved a sturdy Steuermann, but Gregory Warren sounded uncertain in line as the Sailor and the Shepherd. spacer

STEPHEN HASTINGS

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