Opera + Classical Music Reviews

A tale of two operas: Bavarian State Opera’s Seraglio is muddled, but its Wagner is incandescent

9 & 10 April 2023

Returning to the theatre where it premiered, this proved to be a Tristan und Isolde for the ages.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Bavarian State Opera, so the chance to spend Easter in Munich and see Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) as well as Tristan und Isolde on consecutive evenings, was an opportunity not to be missed. Mozart’s early singspiel had never registered on my operatic radar, so this was a first for me. I’ve seen Wagner’s masterpiece, however, many times – but not since 2016 in Daniel Kramer’s disastrous staging for ENO – but seven years later there was the additional thrill of seeing this opera in the actual opera house where it premiered in 1865. 

Martin Duncan’s staging of Mozart’s dubious tale of a couple of ladies who are abducted and find themselves in a harem is now 20 years old, and while there can be no denying that it looked ‘fresh’, his decision to take the ‘spiel’ out of the singspiel and replace it with a narrator robbed the work of its raison d’être, and rendered the singers as mere ciphers. Shorn of their dialogue, they were left suspended in mid-air, literally, for most of the evening as they dutifully sang their arias and looked awkward as the narrator commented on the action.

Ultz’s designs, which consisted of a series of primary coloured sofas which were suspended in the air, and moved horizontally across the stage and sometimes vertically, only compounded the one dimensional nature of the staging. This elaborate apparatus forced all the singers to sing out front rather than to one another, and after a very short time it became wearisome. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be locked in Habitat on a bad trip, then this was it.

Having a decent grasp of what was going on was confounded by the fact there were no surtitles either for this opera, which made for a long and confusing evening. Musically, things were in safer hands, as conductor Giedrė Šlekytė led a sprightly, period informed performance from the raised pit, and secured idiomatic playing from the slimmed down orchestra. Nadezhda Pavlova was a forthright Konstanze, who coped admirably with the fearsome coloratura in her showpiece aria ‘Martern aller Arten’ while Caroline Wettergreen displayed a bright, radiant soprano in the role of Blonde.

The men fared less well, although Alasdair Kent as Belmonte certainly had a decent stab at Mozart’s fiendishly difficult vocal writing. Less would certainly have been more if Patrick Guetti hadn’t sung at a relentless forte for most of the evening. There can be no doubt that he has a great, sepulchral bass voice, but his portrayal of Osmin needed more light and shade. Jonas Hacker was a winning Pedrillo.

“…the chance to… see Die Entführung aus dem Serail as well as Tristan und Isolde… was an opportunity not to be missed”

Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde (Photo: Wilfried Hösl)

The next evening, Krzystof Warlikowski’s staging of Tristan und Isolde returned with a mostly new cast following its premiere in 2021 when Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann sang the lead roles for the first time. Given his track record as a director who manages to be obtuse and illuminating – often simultaneously – it’ll come as no surprise that Warlikowski’s take on Wagner’s monumental tale of doomed love was unconventional. Having said that, there was an authenticity to his approach that was very moving, even where he seemed to be working against both the music and the libretto, adding a level of depth and detail that often took the breath away because of its audacity.

The staging also looks fantastic, thanks to Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s single set which transforms through Felice Ross’ beguiling lighting plot and Kamil Polak’s breathtaking video projections from a ship’s stateroom in the first act,  to mannequin infested wilderness in the last. Indeed, I can’t recall video playing such an integral and significant role in any previous opera production I’ve seen – here adding an intriguing layer to the drama.

Of course, the two lovers never actually touch – their passion rendered here as an existential crisis – yet their lack of physicality only seems to heighten the tension between them. While there were elements in Warlikowski’s staging that I couldn’t fathom, it didn’t seem to matter given the unswerving conviction of his approach.

Harteros was due to reprise the role of Isolde in this run of performances, but called in sick, so was replaced by Russian soprano Elena Pankratova. Having heard Pankratova as the Dyer’s Wife (Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera) and Kundry (Parsifal, Deutsche Oper, Berlin), I knew she would bring gleaming high notes and radiant tone to the role, but nothing could have prepared me for the sheer musicality of her performance. Yes, those blazing high notes, shot through with steel were astonishing in their brilliance – her Act I curse was one of the most thrilling I’ve heard – yet she was still capable of plenty of exquisite, velvety singing in the middle register. You’d have to go back a long way, maybe to Anne Evans in the ‘90s, to find an Isolde who paid such scrupulous attention to Wagner’s dynamic markings and phrasing. By anyone’s standards this was majestic Wagnerian singing, Pankratova capping her performance with a transcendental Liebestod.

As Tristan, Stuart Skelton sang heroically and, like his glorious partner, observed Wagner’s instructions to the letter. Whilst he rose to the challenge of the second act love duet, it was clear that things were not right in the last act. He seemed to be struggling with the notes – his voice plainly not doing what he was asking of it – making Tristan’s delirium and hysteria appear all the more worrying. Given he had to pull out of the premiere of Beowulf with the BBCSO recently, let’s hope the problems here were just a passing phase, and a result of that illness. 

The supporting cast was as good as you could wish for. René Pape was restored to vocal health following a disappointing Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte at The Royal Opera, giving a tour de force performance as King Marke, eloquently and ravishingly sung. American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was a glorious Brangäne, filling out Wagner’s vocal lines with her plush, rich, warmly burnished mezzo voice, whilst Iain Paterson was a forceful, yet compassionate Kurwenal. 

In the pit Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha caught the ebb and flow of the work to perfection and led a propulsive, yet never hurried account of this glorious score. He was rewarded with exceptional playing from the orchestra, with each section covering itself in glory – I’ve never heard better offstage horns in the second act. The excitement of hearing Tristan und Isolde in the theatre where it premiered was palpable, and this performance, both musically and dramatically was one of the finest performances of this opera in my operatic going experience. There are further performances in July as part of the Munich Opera Festival, when Anja Kampe sings Wagner’s Irish princess and Wolfgang Koch, Kurwenal – the rest of the cast remains the same.

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A tale of two operas: Bavarian State Opera’s Seraglio is muddled, but its Wagner is incandescent