Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, 18 March 2007.
The opera house in Toulouse is the Théâtre du Capitole. This forms part of the enormous Town Hall, built 1750-3, which dominates one corner of the huge Place du Capitole in the centre of the City, now covering a convenient underground car park. The commodious 1550 seat auditorium has an old-fashioned, traditional atmosphere suited to the enjoyment of nineteenth-century opera, particularly Wagner. The surroundings are austere with limited bar facilities.
This was our fifth opera visit to the region since 1999 where we stay with hospitable friends who are restoring a large house situated mid-way between Toulouse and Carcassonne, which could now accommodate in comfort the party of eight who assembled for a weekend in March to see the new production of Tristan und Isolde, directed by Nicolas Joel. Since 1990, Joel has been directeur du Théâtre du Capitole. The production had added interest in that in 2009 Joel will leave to become head of l’Opéra National de Paris (Opéra Bastille), much to the dismay of his many admirers in Toulouse. Our previous visits had been to see the Ring cycle, three directed by Joel (die Walküre, 1999, Siegfried, 2002, Götterdammerung, 2003) and a disappointing, knock-about Das Rheingold with a different director in 2001. In this Tristan , it is pleasing to meet again singers who impressed in the Ring. Alan Woodrow (Tristan) sang Siegfried in the Ring and Janice Baird (Isolde) was Brünnhilde in Siegfried and Götterdammerung, Kurt Rydl (Mark) sang Hagen.
In his Ring, Joel showed himself to be a director not afraid to add his own lateral interpretation to Wagner, in that case a theme of encroaching industrialisation: Fafner inhabits (or even is) a gigantic ventilation duct; the view across the Rhine is of an industrial landscape. I remember the production for a definitive Mime played by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (excusing his riding a bicycle) with exactly the right mixture of evil and the ridiculous and for the correct metallurgy in reforging the sword. The singing was superb and one’s attention was gripped throughout.
We should have been forewarned that this Tristan would not be straightforward. It is distinctly odd! When the curtain goes up on Act I, we are on the heaving deck of the boat bringing Isolde to Cornwall, but, far from being dressed for the rough transit of the Irish Sea, Isolde appears in what, I am told, could have been a Dior wedding dress, except that the skirt was slit to the thigh revealing a scarlet stocking-clad leg. She is accompanied by a butch Brangäne (a new concept for me - am I just naive?) who is similarly inappropriately dressed. The men on board appear more equipped for a cruise. It is clear we are not in for a simple retelling of the Tristan legend. This is confirmed in Act II, where King Mark and his court are not dressed for hunting but as if for an informal evening in an officer’s mess. Superficially the plot is followed. In Act I, Brangäne first pours poison into two goblets then pours this away and, without rinsing them out, refills with l’elisir d’amore. Following the passionate duet in Act II, Melot rushes in and symbolically points his sword at Tristan who falls as if wounded. Of the music one has no complaint. The orchestral sound, under Pinchas Steinberg, swept us along, as it should; the singing was uniformly impressive with the voice of Janina Baechle as Brangäne particularly grabbing the attention.
As is almost invariably the case when a director is imposing his own interpretation on an operatic masterpiece, there comes a point, about two thirds or three-quarters the way through, where he runs out of ideas and the composer’s genius takes control. In this production this occurred at the beginning of Act III, when Tristan, in his monologue, and with Kurvenal (Oliver Zwarg) are allowed to act out their parts as the composer demands. What a difference! It is as if the singers are released from straightjackets imposed by the director – this release raises the standard of performance to the highest level of interpretation. Alas, this does not last. One felt extremely sorry for Janice Baird who is constrained to sing the Liebestod almost motionless in a concert performance, now dressed completely in scarlet. It is regrettably this image rather than the sound of her singing which lives in the mind. No wonder the conductor appeared in a foul humour while taking his curtain calls.
What was the director trying to achieve? Was it to present the story of Tristan and Isolde as a tale of everyday adultery in the life of the Court with the passion and the drama of Wagner forming a mere allegorical background? What could have been, with the musical and vocal resources assembled, was only fully revealed in the first part of Act III. One was initially intrigued by this production but ultimately it diminished rather than enhanced one’s appreciation of Wagner’s creation.
These excursions to Toulouse have enabled us to get to know something of this fascinating region of southwest France, thanks to the generosity of our hosts. Specially memorable from previous visits are a day on the Canal du Midi, ending with dinner in Castelnaudary, self-styled ‘Capital of Cassoulet’, sampling this regional speciality requiring to be washed down with copious quantities of local wine, and a visit to the incomparable Cathedral at Albi, with its internal chapel of Saint Cecilia, next door, incongruously, to the Tolouse-Lautrec museum. On the present occasion we made an excursion to Castres, rival to Albi and where houses along the river Agoût have been used in the textile and tannery trades since the ninth century. Our guide explained the early Cathar influence and the long history of catholic-protestant tensions centred on the town while giving us a tour of many remaining sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings, with streets still labelled in French and Occitan. However, perhaps the greatest interest was in visiting the musée Jean Juarès, dedicated to this native of Castres, and dispelling our ignorance of a founder of French socialism whose name adorns so many Boulevards throughout France.
23 April 2007