THE DIMENSIONS OF THE SOFIA OPERA in the opera theatre of RICHARD WAGNER
“TRISTAN UND ISOLDE”, A REFLECTION ABOUT ETERNAL LOVE
CONVERSATION WITH THE AUSTRIAN CRITIC KLAUS BILLAND
In the last years, the Sofia Opera became a centre of attraction for the admirers of Richard Wagner. The reason is the consistent introduction of the Bulgarian audience into “OPUS MAGNUM”, the tetralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. The conquering adventure, which started in 2010 and continued with “Tristan und Isolde”, and in 2017 we expect in the month of July Wagner’s swan song, the festive mystical mystery “Parsifal”. The Director of our first opera theatre, Acad. Plamen Kartaloff step by step is leading performers and audience in this exceptional journey in the world of the German romanticist.
Each year the Bulgarian and foreign audience, critics and Wagnerians from all over the world climb up the highest hill of our ancient capital, in order to experience the magic of the Bulgarian Bayreuth. An event, which turned into a tradition, about which the world learnt that here, on the Balkans, one can experience the music of the revolutionary Wagner, with the special flavour of the Bulgarian spirituality and beauty.
I had the chance to be in Bayreuth at Wagner’s festivities, about which as a musicologist I wrote, I have experienced also the new scandalous productions and the reaction of the audience. I am studying the Bulgarian Bayreuth since its beginning, which started in 2010, I am experiencing also the emotions of the audience. Unforgettable memories I have about the premiere of “Tristan und Isolde” on the Sofia stage. Then loud applauses and enthusiastic exclamations “Bravo!” were filling the opera. Although late, at midnight, the overcrowded hall for long didn’t want to part from the creators of the enchanting production and the magical music by Richard Wagner, who whole four hours long filed the hearts with love ecstasy. He provoked the enthusiasm not only of our audience, but also of the keen Wagnerians, who had come specially for the event, and of members of the Wagner society. They, the Wagnerians, called “bravo” from the hall, and later from the stage. One of them said excitedly: “Wagner would have dreamt about such a spectacle, if he was alive, he would applaud the Bulgarian “Tristan und Isolde”.
I had a conversation with the colleague Dr. Klaus Billand, a well-known Austrian opera critic, member of the Music Critics Association of North America, who reflects the events of our first opera theatre. He is not only connoisseur of Wagner’s theatre, but also observer of the different interpretations on the stages from Europe to America. We were talking about the way the Sofia Opera fits into the world opera practice and into the dimensions of Richard Wagner’s opera theatre.
That is why my first question was how opus magnum, “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, of our National Opera and Ballet fits into a world context. What requires one realization of this majestic tetralogy, as a synthesis of all arts?
Klaus Billand: Before all is required an exceptionally strong personality with own vision and the courage to create the greatest challenge in the history of music, which is “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Plamen Kartaloff accepted this big challenge, which he is creating in the time. I would like to emphasize that I have seen many productions of “The Ring”, but this one is exceptional as conception and interpretation. It attracts not only the connoisseurs, but also the ones, who for the first time are meeting the complex world of Wagner.
In the production there are many associative moments, elements in which you could recognize yourself, reflect about what does it mean. Achieved is something important, a very cleared up manner of acting, incredible fantastic scenes, which are close to modern pop art. Kartaloff has managed to make this “side-split” between the vision and the messages of high art and the elements of amusement, so characteristic for our time. Regarding the stylistic, the use of technologies for the stage changes, this is a spectacle with an exceptional multimedia design, multi-layer one, difficult, but all this is excellently mastered from the point of view of technical complexity. Kartaloff managed to unite all these complex elements in a multimedia spectacle with an exact and direct message, something, which is actually the powerful suggestion of this “Ring”. This is the secret of the success of the Sofia “Ring”.
M. Manolova: The idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and the vocal symphonic poem “Tristan und Isolde” – two different artistic dimensions. Two different challenges, each one of them is a special stroke in the destiny of the revolutionary, romanticist Wagner. The key to them?
Klaus Billand: “Tristan und Isolde” is a very important moment in Wagner’s life; this is his personal drama, the unfulfilled love to Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his benefactor Wesendonck. In “The Ring” there is a great dynamic in the action, while “Tristan und Isolde” is something like a criminal novel. Not by chance, Wagner called his work “drama in three acts”. This is a drama for singers-actors and at that only for two main characters, altogether they are only six, but besides Tristan and Isolde the others appear only in definite moments in the dramaturgy. A piece, a great challenge, which has to keep the attention of the audience for more than four hours. Something exceptionally difficult.
Kartaloff has a different approach in “Tristan und Isolde”, but close to the one of the “Ring”. He keeps the attention with action, in which he explores the psychological state of the characters, especially strongly in some symbolistic moments. For example in Act II, before the well-known love duet, Isolde is rising above the others, an erected inaccessible figure, which communicates with no one else, but with King Marke, but when Tristan enters, she goes down and everything is already so human. They both remain alone in their love. The love duet is an imposing apotheosis of eternal love. The scene, when they raise in flight on high platforms, into another world, where they are outside of the normal world, they sink entirely in their feelings, only they and nothing else exists.
Also an interesting suggestion is the inclusion of the chorus, which is usually not seen, it is behind the curtains in other productions. Here the chorus has a function. For example in Act I the chorus springs out from different platforms, it impacts as an injection in the world of the lovers.
Kartaloff creates an influencing theatre, which isn’t a static symphonic poem about love, as usually one thinks about this work by Wagner. Here this suggestion of the unreal magical world gives another meaning.
M. Manolova: This poem about love is really with only two main characters, from altogether six ones. Out of this poem, Kartaloff makes an influencing theatre, a powerful theatrical suggestion. What is the secret of this magic according to you?
Klaus Billand: One of the secrets of this spectacle is that Kartaloff creates a visual interpretation of the musical basis. He creates one world beyond the other one, in a very theatrical manner of presentation. Everything comes from the music, in a very natural harmony with the music is the action of both lovers. A shocking contrast is for example when in Act II Melot comes from one entirely other world. There comes out a very strong contrast between both worlds – of love and of brutality.
M. Manolova: The role of Tristan is exceptionally difficult vocally, requiring incredible vocal endurance and something more. What is the impact of Martin Iliev?
Klaus Billand: This Tristan is different from those, which I have seen. Martin Iliev impacts not only with his beautiful voice, but also with the integral development of the character. This Tristan is exceptionally strong as impact. By him there is a deep inner experience, which from those low spirits in Act I /born from the death of his mother/ has a development, a change, his inner world reveals itself in a real dramatic development, from low spirits to dissolving in love.
M. Manolova: Not less difficult vocally and in acting is also Isolde.
Klaus Billand: I trusted also the young Isolde. She found a way with one beautiful Italian manner of singing to be also dramatic. Especially in Act II and at the finale. Not to speak about her brilliant heights. I cannot separate the theatrical aspect from the vocal one, the singing from the music. They complement each other, an excellent impact; it gives a lot of real life to the work of art.
M. Manolova: You said that Isolde has the warmth and the beauty of the Italian voice. Wagner’s voices are different from the Italian ones. If you have to compare the characteristic Wagner singers with what you saw here, what would you say? What is the spirit of this spectacle?
Klaus Billand: This was a lighter singing, I would say not “shouting”, dramatic singing, which I usually meet. Radostina Nikolaeva showed a technique of a high class, which keeps her so natural. Many well-known Isoldes don’t do that. Martin Iliev is a dark, imposing voice, he also doesn’t overshow, he doesn’t sing strongly. Usually the Isoldes, I would say that they sometimes “shout”, especially in Act I, and Tristan often tries in Act III with a very strong voice and much declamation to suggest his verbal and musical message. This is exhausting for the singers, as well as for the audience.
In this spectacle I had the feeling of a perfect harmony with the music. One very romantic inner experience. An overshown singing, a strong voice would have destroyed the entire impact.
M. Manolova: Something interesting and unusual – we have three Isoldes, all of them are Bulgarian singers. What is your impression from them? Usually for this title one invites the special Wagner singers.
Klaus Billand: This is really an unusual phenomenon. To cover this exceptionally difficult performance only with Bulgarian singers. Something, obviously very important for the creation of a Wagner tradition and manner of music making. The entire musical impact of the spectacle was very complex. The orchestra was making music in a light manner, without unnecessary overshowing of the loud dynamics. The dialogue between orchestra and singers in these multilayer scores also suggested the feeling of complete interdependence between the vocal and the instrumental aspect. There was a special care about the singer. Something, which confirmed that the conductor Constantin Trinks is very sensitive and experienced. The musical training by Richard Trimborn is of great importance for everything, which refers to Richard Wagner at the Sofia Opera.
The vision of the entire spectacle was very intriguing. It kept the attention during all the time. Obviously, the merit was also of the set designer Miodrag Tabacki and of the costumes by Leo Kulas. Unusual and something new was the beginning. This trailer, built up in the language of the cinema and of the plastics, was surprising. I haven’t seen a similar introduction into the plot of the most important moments, which create the idea about the background, an excellent director’s idea.
M. Manolova: You have your experience and you have gathered impressions from the Bulgarian Wagner. What do you think about this first similar journey in the world of the Lord of romanticism with his big opuses? What message does it have for our consumerist society? What does Wagner say to us, the contemporaries of the 21th century?
Klaus Billand: I can say that I know what did mean such a meeting with Wagner for example in Brazil. There was an enormous interest. Because Wagner is always modern. He was a social revolutionary, who like Shakespeare can lead a dialogue with each time. The interesting is that Wagner can be interpreted in different historical and political ages, in the East and in the West. Because in “The Ring” specially there is a great message, the message for change. People recognize that they have to fight against the evil of their time. Wagner says everything to the politicians, he gives ideas about the philosophy of ruling, necessary especially in our time.
Today we have lost to a great extent the feeling of real love. “Tristan und Isolde” is one possible answer of this problem. Of course, when it was red in depth, understandably.
M. Manolova: Why is important the role of the critique today?
Klaus Billand: The critique is very important, especially today, because usually we are used to read information about a certain event, given by journalists. While the professional critique helps the audience to reflect better on what it sees, it acquaints not only with the work, but also with its message. It offers a code for understanding of some very intelligent productions, which otherwise would stay ununderstood.
Dr. Magdalena MANOLOVA
Festive stage mystery in three acts
Libretto: Richard Wagner after motifs from the poem “Parsifal” by Wolfram von Eschenbach and “Parsifal or the Prince of the Grail” by Chrétien de Troyes or “Mabinogion”
Music: Richard Wagner
First performance: 26 July 1882 in Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, Germany
Please expect the premiere of the festive stage mystery “Parsifal”, the swan song of Richard Wagner, production of Acad. Plamen Kartaloff in July, premiere – 4 July 2017.
HUMANKIND IN SEARCH OF ITSELF
KINDLING THE FIRE OF RICHARD WAGNER’S IDEAS
The past twentieth century was the time of the dynamic giving of new meaning of the traditions of the 19th century. A time of creative rebellion and revolutions, which transformed the concepts about the world, of how we understand the play of life, a time, which not by chance gave birth to the idea of homo faber and the playing man – homo ludens. A time, which changed the known concepts about the world, when the humankind projects itself in the new dimensions of the terrestrial and cosmic march to the future. In search of itself, the human being more and more feels need for those, who are heralds of spirituality, knowledge, which humanizes and gives possible directions towards the future.
Once Karl Marx said that wherever one goes, everywhere people speak about Richard Wagner, the revolutionary in life and in the history of dramma per musica, the opera theatre. The revolutionary, whose vision of the world in his creation “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and in his swan song “Parsifal” comes to life with full power in our perplexed world, they suggest for us where to go, what could we expect, if we don’t realize our self-destruction.
Here, on the Balkans, was found an ideologist, who has the courage to accept the challenge of the Wagner’s ideas and his saga – “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, to turn it into an event not only for our geographical width, but also for the connoisseurs Wagnerians from different geographical widths – from Australia and America to Europe. This is the stage director and the Director of the Sofia Opera, Acad. Plamen Kartaloff, the steersman of the ship in the not easy sailing to Richard Wagner, who believed in the abilities of his ensemble and in the mission of this journey for our time. As architect of this complex construction, he knows the “material”, with which he has to work, he knows how to use it and build it in in the complex construction, how to overcome the deep-seated habits, in order to build up the majestic temple of the knowledge about humankind, which alienated itself from itself, standing on the threshold of the uncertainty of the near future. He selected connoisseurs, experienced steersmen, who would take across the participants in this rough sea of obstacles. He has the courage to enter into the adventure young, unexperienced, but with qualities of heroes – singers, who accept the challenge and make it their own unforgettable experience.
One of the masters in this difficult journey is Maestro Richard Trimborn. The world-known music pedagogue, whom the European critique defines as “the best trainer of Wagner’s works in the whole world”. The German Maestro is consultant at the Opera in Bayreuth, the opera houses in Düsseldorf and Kiel, he has worked with the great conductor Valery Gergiev of the Mariinsky Theatre, he has been invited all over the world. Not just because he is one of the last great connoisseurs of the German music and Wagner, but because in spite of his age he is tireless in his work. The young singers take him as the “extraterrestrial” magician. After the grandiose project of the Sofia Opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, after “Tristan und Isolde” in expectation of “Parsifal” I had the pleasure to talk with the Maestro about this challenge, with different character from the experience until now.
When in 1988 I saw and experienced the scandalous production of Harry Kupfer in Bayreuth, I talked with some of the creators, with Wagnerians, critics. This was the time, when the cult to Wagner’s traditions was already destroyed, when standards changed not only in the productions, but also in the musical interpretation. Almost 30 years after this experience of mine, I followed the entire process of the creation of “The Ring” by the Sofia Opera.
I know from inside the opera theatre, which Plamen Kartaloff is creating with the Sofia Opera already fast 20 years. After the intriguing path of Maestro Kartaloff and his ideas about the opera theatre, I am examining the challenge Wagner as result of everything, which happened until now and as coming true of the Maestro’s dream, which kindled by his experience of Wagner in Bayreuth in his early age to create the Bulgarian Bayreuth. I know from close the kitchen of the walked way, the generations of singers, conductors. Wagner shows me the new face of known things, what is possible to achieve and comprehend, when the knowledge and the will for creation of Wagner’s saga are convincing and consistent.
In my conversation with Maestro Trimborn it was interesting for me to understand how does one work with the young Bulgarian artists, who have to be introduced in one difficult and unknown for them practice, such as Wagner’s theatre. The aura of Maestro Trimborn, who despite of his age, was nearing 80 years at the beginning of the Bulgarian Bayreuth, and now already is nearing 90, is amazing. As if the tiredness from the daily work, which starts at 9.30 h in the morning, and since ten hours he is at the piano, in order to “train” the singers until 17.30 h with a short break, and around 13.00 h he suddenly disappears, when he started speaking about his work. The way in which he speaks reminds me of the style of the professors from my Czech studies, specialty Musicology.
Maestro Trimborn is illuminated by the spirit of the time, when the encyclopaedic knowledge and style suggest the idea about the time, which, although so distant from us, turns into present; they give meaning to the primordial laws of being.
The tertralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen” is a political saga about the destruction of human society, of dark collision and blood fights between clans, told in four evenings.
The beginning is given still with the first one, with “Das Rheingold”. It is a symbol of wealth, stolen because of greed, avarice and fight for might and power. Out of a free world of universal harmony of nature is born the evil spirit of destruction, envy, violence and greed for power.
IN SEARCH OF THE TRUTH ABOUT WAGNER WITH
THE “EXTRATERRESTRAIL MAGICIAN”
MAESTRO RICHARD TRIMBORN
“We are seekers, we are searching in a garden of endless secrets, which we must unriddle, if we want to live”.
My first question to Maestro Trimborn is about the way walked, when started the work on “The Ring” and after that on “Tristan und Isolde”.
- What kind of difficulties did you have with the singers, what kind of challenge was for them the acquaintance with Wagner’s opera theatre, what perspectives did you see in this long journey, which continues already fast eight years? Now you are working with them on “Parsifal”.
- I had no difficulties, the singers are fantastic, emotionally true, they want and love Wagner’s music. Wagner’s music is an entirely new perspective, which leads them much far away vocally from the usual opera perspectives.
There are no such characters as in “Tristan und Isolde”, “Parsifal”, as Wotan, Siegmund, Brünnhilde, Sieglinde in the usual opera titles. This is what inspires, provokes joy by Wagner’s music. During the communism it wasn’t performed. This is why Wagner was an unusual adventure. “The Ring”, “Tristan und Isolde” and now “Parsifal” to be performed is not a difficulty, some kind of different load for the soloists, but just a release. Each singer and I personally were feeling joy at the rehearsals and the studying.
- What is the different at your work with the ensemble of the Sofia Opera from your experience with the other theatres?
- Already eight year I am working Wagner, this is the reason to be here. It was born an unusual Wagner atmosphere in the whole ensemble, I would say that the basis was created, the ground for the future work. This is a big advantage of this theatre that all singers are always available. Not like it is usual today to go around the world. They, the singers, are always here, they work excellently.
One must not make the mistake to accuse a singer, if he didn’t have enough time to learn the parts and to digest them. In the long process of assimilation of the material, one part grows up as a natural flower from the earth.
Actually, this concerns all other composers – Verdi, Puccini, Mozart. If someone thinks that for one week or two it is possible to learn the part and go out on stage, it isn’t serious. Because these parts are a special boomerang. The singer falls often automatically in crisis. So that something normal for these parts is to work one year, continuous work. Breaks can be made and again on work, this way the zero limit becomes higher and higher. This means that the singer grows in a natural way, and not under pressure.
- What is the philosophy of Wagner in “Parsifal”, his swan song, which he defines as a festive mystical spectacle, a religious ritual?
- This is something more than a festive spectacle, this is his testament. He is looking for the connection between Christianity and Buddhism. At the end of “Parsifal” he says during the magic of Good Friday – “This, which lives and again comes to life”, this is the reincarnation. Kundry in a previous life had made something bad and now she must repent, expiate it, work out her karma. This is the deep meaning of “Parsifal”.
- What is the special challenge of these scores, of this transcendental music?
- To be listened, and because the music is of genius, it unfolds a magic. We enter into the magic of Good Friday, the audience doesn’t realize that these are four hours music. The spectators find themselves in the magic of Good Friday and they don’t think about these four hours. The listener listens the nature revived again, one cosmos, which springs up again. All kind of questions about the duration of the music are irrelevant. The music is listened and above the listening is the message. It gives expression of the joy, it shows the sorrow, shows the hate, the music shows also the love, the poetry, the chaos. It shows the whole circle of human thinking, but this happens only to the people, who receive inspiration from heaven. They have felt it and they have only the task to express it. This happened only to one genius, to Wagner.
- You have been working already eight years with the Bulgarian singers, how did they grow in the not easy process, what kind of more different experience they did they gain from what they learned?
- This has nothing to do only with Wagner. This happens at each good music, because we are seekers. We are looking for the truth in the tones, which are created by a divine genius. Our task and my experience during these 60-70 years is to seek incessantly, to discover the unknown. The gladness is exceptionally big after so many years. One can still find something new. This is valid for Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, for each music. The task of a musician, who exercises, is the seeking. Every soloist knows it. We are searching in a garden of endless secrets, which we must unriddle, if we want to live.
- I would like to thank you, because people started talking about the Bulgarian Bayreuth on the Balkans.
- I would formulate it in another way. Bayreuth is not Bayreuth any more, for me Bayreuth is a catastrophe. When we here are doing something, I would say that the spirit of Wagner is with us. I would like to ask Wagner about what we are doing here:
“You, crazy Maestro, are you happy about what we are doing here?”
I believe that he would say “yes”. If I ask whether the Maestro is happy with Bayreuth, now the answer would be “no”. Because Bayreuth, what Bayreuth is still doing is the orchestra and the chorus and some soloists. The stage interpretation for me is catastrophic.
- You transfer your experience in many other opera theatres in the world. Why Wagner is necessary today?
- This must reply the audience, which comes with thousands. People all night long are waiting in front of the ticket box, why so much inconvenience? The answer is: Wagner, this is good music, regardless whether contemporary or old. Everything is very simple.
Dr. MAGDALENA MANOLOVA