Wednesday, March 30, 2011

REVIEW: Tristan und Isolde by the Leipzig Opera

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre, Sunday March 20

I was surprised that the 39th Hong Kong Arts Festival's Tristan und Isolde went uneventful... Oh let me explain. You see, the last two times I saw the opera live, they were not exactly what I paid for.

In 2002, Ben Heppner cancelled in Wernicke's abstruse production for the Royal Opera House (London); instead, I got Wolfgang Müller-Lorenz. The wonderful performance of Lisa Gasteen just magnified Müller-Lorenz's shortcoming, while Bernard Haitink's remarkable handle of the piece just made me feel that it was an opportunity missed.

In 2008, Ben Heppner once again cancelled at The Metropolitan Opera (New York); this time he was replaced by Gary Lehman. Lehman's Tristan looked like Tristan. His voice was beautiful enough while his portrayal was believable. It was even more believable when in Act III, the wounded Tristan stretched out on a moving stage from the back of the stage to the front snapped and sent him head first crashing onto the prompter's box! He did continue to sing after some rest. With him were the superb Deborah Voigt and James Levine.

For Leipzig Opera's Tristan und Isolde, there was no cancellation and amazingly no accidents, despite the annoying oars lying around. I was sure, in several occasions that somebody would trip over them... oh well... Willy Decker's production was traditionally contemporary German (read boringly weird), designed to satisfy expectation of blandness.

Stefan Vinke's Tristan started off sounding nasal and weak, but quickly blossomed to a fine convincing voice that excelled in the reflective passages involving lyrical phrasing. Particularly in Act III, Vinke was dramatically effective with heightened sense of spontaneity.

Jennifer Wilson's Isolde, on the other hand, was vocally sumptuous right from the start. Top notes were fearless and unforced. However, as the night progressed, her voice showed signs of exhaustion.

Axel Kober lead the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra magnificently. The sadness and tragedy of the music were highlighted without slipping to superficial dramatic effects. The overall result was glowing and magisterial. The rest of the cast, particularly Susan Maclean's Brangrane and Matthew Best's King Marke, gave a stellar performance.

I can't help but feel proud that the Hong Kong Arts Festival has finally found the courage to premiere this work in Hong Kong (I can't believe that Tristan und Isolde was also making its Asian premiere); and they handled it beautifully. I am quite impressed with how they handled the length of the opera by providing snacks (almost a meal for me) during the interval... actually, come to think of it... I got more than what I paid for.


Tristan und Isolde
Music and Libretto: Richard Wagner
Conductor: Axel Kober
Director: Willy Decker
Designer: Wolfgang Gussman

Tristan: Stefan Vinke Isolde: Jennifer Wilson
Brangräne: Susan Maclean
King Marke: Matthew Best
Kurwenal: Anton Keremidtchiev
Melot: Jürgen Kurth
Shepherd/Sailor: Timothy Fallon
Steersman: Andreas David

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra

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At March 30, 2011 at 3:34 PM , Anonymous Dennis Wu said...

I think the Asian Premiere means Willy Decker's production but not the opera's. This is how usually HKAF boost the event!

At March 30, 2011 at 4:12 PM , Blogger SATOSHI said...

Hi Dennis! Thank you for the clarification. That makes more sense, but it is kindof weird to advertise it that way :-)


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