Tristan in Vienna is always a shipwreck

Tristan in Vienna is always a shipwreck

Comment Of The Day

norman lebrecht

April 13, 2022

Comment of the Day comes from our Vienna-based critic Larry L. Lash:

Having reviewed the last two new productions of “Tristan und Isolde” at Staatsoper, I beg to differ.

Isolde places a (memorable) curse on Tristan in Act I, and it’s apparently held quite well in Wien since the work’s local premiere in 1883.

In 2003, Günter Krämer’s contract was torn up after his attempt to replace the August Everding production from 1967. In those days, Staatsoper sat critics all together, in Parkett links, Reihe 12 (I don’t know if this practise holds since I eventually requested a seat from which I can look down on the stage; as I am rather short and my view was always obstructed). Of course, critics don’t boo – we are supposed to use our words and trust our editors to get out news, be it good or bad (I have broken this rule only once, by booing my head off at a Salzburg premiere). But in a concerted effort during the curtain calls, we rose as one and turned our backs to the stage when Krämer came for his bow.

I had to attend another performance in the following years, to report on a major cast change and/or role debut. The person next to me saw me jotting down notes during the first act and, at the Pause, asked me if I could explain what we were seeing, specifically the location (“Where’s the ship”?). I replied that it was either an upscale sushi bar or perhaps the emergency entrance at a private hospital.

In 2013, when the Krämer production went on the trashheap and the McVicar opened, I ran into a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen in several years and the first word, simultaneously, from both our mouths was “Melancholia”! From the second the curtain rose, it was clear that McVicar was a fan of Lars von Trier.

Thankfully, I only had to attend the opening and never go back, as I saw not one original idea, and some rather lacklustre and nerve-dulling scenery (I wish there was someone around to explain to me where we were in Act II). In my experience, McVicar (ictured) has one basic idea and merely puts some spin on it to (hopefully) identify the place and time.

Despite having a more varied palette than McVicar, Bieito’s constant factor is that there will be something to offend everyone. Now that I am (mostly) retired, I choose to avoid his productions (as I do with several other Regisseurs).

Had there been any question, I would still skip this run of the production. Martina Serafin gave us all good reason when she squawked her way through the “Liebestod” at last year’s season-preview press conference; has there ever been a more boring Heldentenor than Schager, whose theatrical behaviour makes Jess Thomas look like the Daniel Day-Lewis of the opera stage?


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Mass turning of backs to the stage sounds like an interesting alternative to booing.

    However, one is reminded of Hirohito’s visit to the UK in 1971. Former POWs secured a prominent position and briefed the media that they would do this as Hirohito passed in the state procession.

    It looked most impressive on the news. Alas, Hirohito took it as a sign of respect. As he had been an official god up to the surrender, Japanese citizens were expected to avert their gaze in his presence.

    • guest says:

      Not purchasing a ticket sounds even better. An empty house can’t be mistaken as a sign of respect, not to mention the lack of revenue that comes with an empty house.

  • Michael says:

    How disappointing that this article could not have waited – and been informed by – the first night of the production that has triggered the current discussion, which is tomorrow 14th April.

    As Mr Lash now chooses to avoid Beito productions, I look forward to reviews from critics who do not rule out attendance at performances by directors they don’t like.

    • guest says:

      “who do not rule out attendance at performances by directors they don’t like”

      Everybody is entitled to their preferences. What _you_ aren’t entitled to, is moan about other people not sharing yours. I hope someone takes you task next time when you decide to skip an opera performance based on _your dislike_ – be it singer, conductor, or director related. Or are you attending indiscriminately _all_ opera performances the Vienna State Opera offers in a season? Whoa, this is a tall number, considering the length of the season. You must have time on your hands, and a very thick wallet. And what about the performances at Theater an der Wien? Do you attend those too by cloning yourself? If not, what’s your rationale for skipping them?

  • John Borstlap says:

    The attempted Viennese premiere of Tristan in 1862-64, after 70 rehearsels and during strategic colds by the lead singer Alois Ander, gave the label of ‘unperformable’ to the opera.

    It was a terrible disaster for Wagner, who had set his high hopes on the presentation, and had lived on credit in Vienna during the preparations, based upon performances and success. After the cancellation he had to flee the city and his appartment was seized by the creditors, who left the hundreds of bottles of champagne in the cellar untouched, thinking this could not possibly have bought by Wagner. Actually, they were – also on credit.

    However, Hans von Bülow managed it in 1865 thanks to the King of Bavaria who funded it. Since then, the work has disrupted many nerves, inside and outside the music world.

    Yet, the staging as such is not difficult at all since there are no ‘impossible’ visual fantasies in the plot and hardly any scene changes. So, directors should simply respect the original character and work from there, to give the inner narrative and the music all the space they need.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    How was Schlager’s singing? Who cares about his acting, when Bieito’s direction is so abysmal?

  • A.L. says:

    Mr. Lash strikes me as the kind of critic that classical music needs these days and that has largely disappeared. Any chance the NYT will consider replacing their new “chief Metropolitan Opera propagandist” with Mr. Lash? Come out of retirement!

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Does the NYT need a critic willing to write about a production he refuses to see?

      • John Borstlap says:

        Often, review are written without the critic hearing or seeing what’s on the stage, in spite of being there.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Reminds me why I prefer to listen to ALL operas with my eyes shut, and just enjoy the music and the singing. It’s the MUSIC that survives over the centuries, not the wretched attempts by stage managers to “do something different”.

    • SMH says:

      Well it appears you miss the point of opera entirely.

      • John Borstlap says:

        No – it is indeed the MUSIC which carries the art form. But since the visuals are the other half, the ideal is to have both of them. To have only the music, is an emergency soution.

        In opera, what we hear is the inside of what happens, what we see the outside. The inside is what we feel, the outside what we see. Yes, it is as simple as that, and yet, it seems to be very hard to understand for lots of professionals. So, it is not two halves that are equally important – the inside is more important than the outside, but the outside has to be in harmony with the inside.

        To produce beautiful and meaningful works in ridiculous and distorted productions, is like pouring excellent wine in as ridiculously ugly packaging as possible.

    • Novagerio says:

      Harry: then, why did Wagner say “Kinder, schafft neues!”…?

      • John Borstlap says:

        RW knew that ‘neues’ actually meant: ‘persönliches’, and he thought that nobody would ever equal him in creating something thoroughly personal as his own art. So, he could feel superior. Also it was a sneer on Brahms and everything Brahms stood for – being seen as ‘conservative’. But B was as personal as W, in his own way.

        When, in his later years, he heard Liszt working on his (Listz’s) late piano works, which were ‘newer’ than anything W wrote, he thought Liszt had gone senile.