A Tristan und Isolde Where King Marke Provides the Music-gasms?

Nylund, Kaufmann, Nelsons and Zeppenfeld
The hottest ticket in town this opera season was no doubt the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of the second act of Tristan und Isolde. By 8:00 Carnegie Hall had turned into several snaking crowds of ticket holders, bathroom visitors, scalpers, all converged into an auditorium that all of a sudden seemed tiny and cramped just because of the sheer volume of people present. The ambience of the audience resembled My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte:
Ladies and Gentlemen 
 Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here 
 Ev'ryone who should be here is here. 
 What a smashing, positively dashing
 Spectacle: the Tristan op'ning night.
The hype was for several reasons: the elusive tenor Jonas Kaufmann was actually fulfilling his engagements (who would have thought I'd see him TWICE this year?), Andris Nelsons is a buzzy, rather hyped conductor, and Wagner ever since Peter Gelb took over has occupied less and less of a place in the Met's repertoire.

So, did the performance live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. For those who wanted a Wagnerian music-gasm where you were just in ecstasy at the intoxicating beauty of it all, those hopes were dashed by Nelsons' conducting. During "O sink' hernieder" he left Jonas Kaufmann (Tristan) and Camilla Nylund (Isolde) do all the heavy lifting as his conducting sunk into a total stupor. Wagner's music actually imitates a sexual encounter that gets more and more frenzied, and ends with an abrupt coitus interruptus when Melot and Marke walk in on the lovers.  Nelsons put on quite a show -- he was vibrating and emoting a bunch from the podium but his actual conducting was sluggish and monotonous. I think he was going for that hypnotic mystical von Karajan sound-scape. With Nelsons none of this came across. He had three modes: slow, slower, and slowest.

The original Tristan and Isolde, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds
The evening's other limiting factor was the pair of lovers. This, by the way, was the first time I ever heard the first half of the duet note complete. The live performances I've attended have made a big cut after Tristan's entrance. Camilla Nylund has one of those voices that's perfect for Elsa, Elisabeth, Eva, maybe Sieglinde? Her voice is a large lyric. She's not a dramatic soprano. When she's not pushing for sound her timbre is quite lovely. Alas Isolde requires more heft than Nylund could provide, so she resorted to some occasional shrieking and the voice turned squally. She's a very musical singer and I'd love to hear more of her. I just don't think Isolde is her role.

Jonas Kaufmann is one of my favorite singers. I don't mind paying through the nose to hear him.  Alas, his voice does not live in these heavy-duty helden-tenor parts. He's a fine Parsifal, Siegmund and Lohengrin, but despite the baritonal timbre the voice is too soft-grained to give Tristan's music its full impact. Because he too is a very musical singer he was always riveting to listen to but you could see the strain in his voice as he pushed for more volume over the huge Wagnerian orchestra. His face turned beet red, the veins of his neck popped out, and he took more and more swigs of water.

The setup for the Liebesnacht was also very awkward. Nylund was on one side of the podium, Kaufmann on the other side, so their acted out "passion" was limited to a few bashful smiles between the two singers. I wonder why they grouped them this way, as there was plenty of room onstage. Both of them were also glued to their music stands. As might be expected Nylund and Kaufmann did better in the "O sink' hernieder" section of the Liebesnacht than the more stentorian "Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!". They're both lovely singers, and their voices blended beautifully. I just don't see them doing a full-length Tristan (as Kaufmann apparently plans to do). They're not Flagstad and Melchior. With that being said I am very happy I heard them last night.

The veteran mezzo Mihoko Fujimura has a large, plummy mezzo that belies her petite figure. Brangäne's drug-like warning is actually my favorite part of the entire opera, and Fujimora did this gorgeous music justice. (This whole passage shows Wagner's genius: Brangäne is "warning" the lovers but with music so intoxicating it sounds like a siren song. No wonder the lovers don't heed the warning.)

And then Georg Zeppenfeld showed up as poor cuckolded King Marke and brought the house down. This is actually only the second King Marke I've ever heard live. At the Met I've always heard René Pape. I'd seen Zeppenfeld in several videos but nothing prepared me for what his voice was like live in the flesh. Zeppenfeld's bass has that wall of sound that cut through the orchestra, through the auditorium, through my body. His voice had so much impact I could feel the vibrations in my seat.  And what an interpretation of a monologue that usually has me checking my watch. He exuded so much gravitas and his pain and disappointment was so acute. He got the kind of screaming bravos from an audience that had experienced a true Wagnerian music-gasm. What a VOICE.

And I'd be remiss not to mention Rees as Melot. The best actor of the evening was actually Rees. He was foaming at the mouth at Tristan's betrayal and acting as if this were a fully-staged performance.

At the end of the evening the audience was raucous. Zeppenfeld got a screaming ovation, Fujimora got a warm appreciation, Kaufmann and Nylund got a whole florist shop's worth of bouquets, and despite the imperfections everyone walked out with that kind of excited, drugged feeling that only Tristan can bring.


  1. Many, many years ago, I saw Vickers as Tristan and Gwynne Howell as King Marke, and it was the most heartbreaking performance of King Marke I ever saw, literally had me in tears. Howell is still with us, but has long since retired....this performance has remained seared into my memory for ever.

    1. Thanks for the memories. Who was the Isolde? Nilsson?

  2. Ivy, I went to a Singers Round Table presented by the Boston Wagner Society before the Boston performances last week. Zeppenfeld has a marvelous speaking voice as well. He has sung this role many times at Bayreuth and other places. They were lucky to get him. I didn't attend the performances here because I had other things both nights, and because although the 2nd act is my favorite act, I really want to hear the whole thing. But the audience reaction here was the same as what you experienced. Oh, and by the way, Mr Kaufmann was not available for the Round Table.

    1. I have seen Zeppenfeld in videos but it didn't prepare me for the sheer impact of his voice live.

  3. I saw this in Boston, and pretty much agree with everything, although I was more enthusiastic about Nelsons' conducting. The Liebesnacht started a bit too slowly for my (and the singers') taste, but the tempo was more conventionally moderate later on.

  4. I don't understand why people like Zeppenfeld in this role. Since I wasn't there and had to do with the broadcast, no big bass gasms got through, only his very fuzzy pitches and his barking phrasing. To my mind, there may be several approaches to an effective King Marke, but none of them include pitches approximate enough to muddle the musical impact of the shifting harmonic content in Marke's lines. Music 0, basses 1.

    1. I suppose the reception of this performance depends on one's preconceived expectations for Tristan. Nelsons emphasized more of the orchestral details and less of the uniform ecstasies. (Regardless of the massive Tristan press, I have little interest in extended ecstasy in Act 2, partly because I think that -- if that's what Wagner was aiming at, I kind of feel he failed...) Of the principals, Kaufmann was by far the most effective singer, as far as I'm concerned. His phrasing was lyrical and welded long stretches of music together with fantastic dynamic control. The pitches were gratifyingly on the mark, and phrase details were minutely shaded. It was an unusually melodious Tristan, done with chamber musicianly restraint. (Kaufmann saved the fortes for selected spots, and really let loose with the heroics only at the very end.) I can't say how his voice carried in the hall.


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