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     Cheryl North :: Reviews

Stuttgart Reveals a New Way to Envision Tristan und Isolde

Review of the Stuttgart Opera Performance from Cheryl North's Classical Music Column in the Oakland Tribune and other papers of the Alameda Newspaper Group, October 22, 2004, under the headline above. A correction regarding roles of the directorate of the Stuttgart State Opera has been made to the version published in the newspapers. Thanks to Thomas Koch of the Stuttgart Opera for providing this correction in material attributed to him.

By Cheryl North

WHEN the curtain rose Sunday after only a few bars of the prelude to Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore. But I also thought that just maybe it could have been San Francisco.

It was neither. I was actually in the elegant, old-world style Stuttgart Opera House in Germany, where Pamela Rosenberg, the San Francisco Opera's general director, once co-presided with Klaus Zehelein in the general directorship of the Stuttgart operation. (Zehelein, now the company's sole general director, is contracted as such until 2006.)

Stuttgart's curtain rose to reveal a stark, dark stage animated only by a massive wedge-shaped gun-metal gray construction jutting forward from stage left. A backdrop or sorts, it looked somewhat like the pointed prow of a big ship -- or a modern art suggestion of a promontory on the coast of Cornwall (where the opera is set).

As the famous Prelude progressed, men in black suits, white shirts and ties came in twos or threes from the wings and took what seemed to be random positions all over the stage. Two women eventually joined them. A tall Teutonic-looking redhead was dressed in a close-fitting red, street-length dress topped by a red cardigan that didn't quite match. The other was quite short and a bit round, with a girlish-looking black pageboy hairdo. She was dressed in a black tunic affair over pants. One of the men came forward from the onstage crowd and took a position on the left-front apron of the stage, close to the audience. Dressed totally in black, his head shaved, his moustache and beard grizzled, he seemed set apart from the rest. Another strode authoritatively to a central part of the stage. Clad in an all-over beige outfit, he stood in stark relief from the denizens behind him. The Prelude, beautifully played by the Orchestra of the State Opera of Baden-Wuerttemburg from a pit deep beneath the stage, was directed by Lothar Zagrosek.

As the music continued, the occupants of the stage stood mostly motionless, with only an occasional man moving from one place on the stage to another. Moments passed. Finally, the black-clad man with the grizzled beard staggered back from the apron toward the wedge construction and fell to the floor. The lighting changed so that his inert shadow was projected within a brightly lit circle onto the side of the wedge. The words "Wo bin ich?" ("Where am I?") were projected below his shadow.

As the resplendent Prelude continued, a few questions and a lot of puzzlement zinged about in my head. Finally it became clear that most of the men onstage were the chorus; the black-clad man was Tristan; the beige-suited fellow was King Mark; the Lady-in-Red was Brangane and the short dark-haired lass was Isolde.

During the course of the opera (almost five hours), all the stage movements by soloists and chorus were minimal, performed almost in slow-motion. Initially, the whole thing seemed more like a quirky concert version of Tristan than a fully staged opera.

So why on earth was I so mesmerized? For beginners, the musical values were stunning.

Isolde, sung by Gunnila Stephen-Kallin of Sweden, had a voice that cut like steel through the broad 1,396-seat theater. Although Stephen-Kallin couldn't be much taller than 5 feet, her soprano is of Amazonian proportions. Smooth, unerringly pitched, it possessed a melting warmth as well as piercing brightness. I've not heard a better Wagnerian soprano. Some old-timers compared her vocal instrument to that of Kirsten Flagstad.

The Tristan, Gabriel Sade of Romania, similarly sang with near-Olympian strength and beauty. He did not falter even a quarter-tone during his long siege of singing in the final act. King Mark, Attila Jun of South Korea, employed his huge baritone in the last act for his deeply moving aria of betrayal and loss, while German mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster sang Brangane with mighty voice and emotion throughout.

In short, it was the most effective, riveting performance of Tristan und Isolde I've seen anywhere.

But it differed from anything I've seen because of the way it was staged: unconventional with a capital U. The near static stage movement seemed to sensitize one's consciousness to be tuned to the tiniest, most subtle onstage movement or light change, allowing the music to assume an almost engulfing power.

It also resulted in the most convincing, erotic stage realization of love. The riveting love scene began with Tristan and Isolde standing side by side in a moonlit forest-like setting. Finally, amid the music's rising crescendo, Tristan tentatively touches, then finally encloses, Isolde's hand in his. His hand slowly caresses her arm. They stand quite still, with only his left hand and her right caressing. This minimal but meltingly tender movement continued through the earth-shaking, climactic Liebestod (love-death) music. The curtain dropped as the music reached its explosive climax. Trying to figure it all out, I reasoned that this kind of stage treatment cannily allowed the music itself to enact all the implied action -- and it did so with a power far deeper than is possible with merely physicality.

But how did Stuttgart happen onto such a success? During an earlier interview, Thomas Koch, the Stuttgart Company's spokesman, helped answer my question. "Much of the credit is due to the work of the dramaturg," he said. "Juliane Votteler is the dramaturg of Tristan, the chief dramaturg of the Stuttgart State Opera, and a member of the opera directorate working closely with Klaus Zehelein, the general director. The other members of the directorate are Eytan Pessen, who also contributes greatly to the casting and ensemble management, Lothar Zagrosek, the general music director, and Doris Szenczer, the chief planner."

Noting that dramaturgie was first mentioned by the early 19th-century German writer Gotthold Lessing, Koch defined a dramaturg's function as an exceedingly "careful reading of a work of art." "A dramaturg," he said, "strives to put himself in a state of innocence as he approaches each piece. He tries to ask the very most basic questions, especially about the elements that are undefined. His job is to try to get very deep into the basic architectural elements of the piece. This often results in a staging concept that involves some added elements to the production."

An example quickly came to my mind: San Francisco Opera's use of two dancers, in addition to singers, to illustrate the unspoken desires and fantasies of the two main characters during its recent production of Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen.

This in-depth staging and interpretation "takes opera beyond the merely culinary. It adds the component of reflection, even application," Koch said. "It's also quite a German thing." After he recited facts and figures testifying to the fiscal success of the operation, I was convinced that it all somehow works -- at least in Germany.


Stuttgart State Theater, Home of the Stuttgart State Opera

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