Tristan and Meistersinger at the Erl Festival

The Erl Festival in the Inn valley among the Tyrolean foothills is now in its 18th year but the current performances of Tristan und Isolde constitute the first Wagner to be heard in the new Festspielhaus; others have taken place in the larger Passionspielhaus. The new auditorium has a sunken pit and, as in Bayreuth, it is covered – though with canvas rather than wood – to achieve an appropriate balance between orchestra and singers. It achieved its aim which was just as well since Gustav Kuhn (The Erl-King?) supplied a passionate reading of the score which might otherwise have overpowered the young singers, drawn predominantly from current and former members of Kuhn’s Montegral Academy.

Mona Somm was an impressive Isolde, full-throated, secure at the top, and with sufficient colour to contrast effectively the haughty princess and the ecstatic lover. I have never before heard an Italian Tristan, but to my ears Gianluca Zampieri’s German was good. He does not have an imposing stage presence and in the second act seemed to have been harnessing his vocal resources, but he came into his own the third act and communicated a most affecting wounded and dying hero. Franz Hawlata had, like me, travelled to Erl from Die schweigsame Frau the evening before in Munich. He was a little uncertain in some of his entries but his ability to inject heft into the Wagnerian line and emphasis into the text was a lesson for his less experienced colleagues. Hermine Haselböck as Brangaene was more soprano than mezzo, so that her interchanges with Isolde were insufficiently contrasted, but she gave a satisfying performance, as did the sturdy Kurwenal of Michael Mrosek.

Kuhn’s own staging was simple but effective even though, as in many productions, the long second act love duet was somewhat prosaic. Lenka Radecky’s late nineteenth-century costumes enriched the proceedings.

Die Meistersinger in the Erl Passionsspielhaus was not as good a musical experience as Tristan in the Festspielhaus. Placing the orchestra behind the performing arena may help the singers but some of the detail in Wagner’s amazing score was lost, and there seemed to be less rapport between the conductor and the soloists. Nor did I find Gustav Kuhn’s approach to the work as satisfying as with his Tristan: there was not the same seamless flow.

Two members of the cast were of international festival standard. Michael Kupfer-Radecky was a revelation as Sachs. Warm of voice, with a freshness that survived this killer of a role right to the end, his interpretation was multi-dimensional – wisdom, pride, petulance, jealousy, irritability, avuncularity; they were all there. The young Australian James Roser made so much of Beckmesser, sung with his bright and alluring baritone, that he evoked a degree of sympathy that Wagner is his Schadenfreude mood would not have welcomed. Iurie Ciobanu was an engaging and sprightly David, but both females disappointed. Joo-Anne Bitter’s soprano, as Eva, lost its quality when put under pressure and the Magdalene of Anna Lucia Nardi was sometimes inaudible.

Kuhn’s simple but effective production caught the right balance between comedy and the serious themes of cultural idenity and artistic creativity, but his idea of underlining the contrast between fusty tradition and  forward-looking self-expression by getting the cast to change in and out of sixteenth-century costume was overworked and too clumsy.