Tristan und Isolde/ Otello, La Fenice Theatre, Venice

With next year marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Wagner and Verdi, La Fenice diplomatically opted to open its current season with an opera by each composer. Tristan und Isolde and Otello are both challenging masterpieces and staging two operas of this magnitude within days of each other is in itself no mean feat.

Whether or not you believe that Wagner changed the course of modern music with his “Tristan” chord, the opera does contain some of the most rhapsodic and sensuous music ever written. Therefore Scottish director Paul Curran and set and costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins wisely chose a simple but striking backdrop, subtly lit by designer David Jaques, that intensified the claustrophobic nature of the Wagnerian landscape these characters inhabit.

More important, this refreshingly uncluttered approach placed the music at the heart of the production, allowing the orchestra, under conductor Myung-Whun Chung, to explore the full spectrum of Wagner’s ravishing score. The intimate acoustics of the theatre were also a gift to the fabulous line-up of singers. Ian Storey (Tristan) and Brigitte Pinter (Isolde) were convincing as the ill-fated lovers, their big, powerful voices soaring over the pit. Curran’s decision to play up their antagonism towards each other when the opera opens, made the moment they fall for each other at the end of Act 1 even more dramatic.

Surprisingly, some of the strongest emotional moments in the opera came from Tuija Knihtilä as Isolde’s maid Brangane, and Richard Paul Fink as Tristan’s servant Kurwenal. Not only did they give stunning performances, both vocally and dramatically, but they also demonstrated a more realistic and deeper felt love than the all-consuming and, ultimately, destructive passion between Tristan and Isolde.

Apparently Verdi cried after seeing Tristan and Isolde and when he came out of a long retirement to write Otello, still felt Wagner’s influence – there are echoes of the Liebstod in the duet between Otello and Desdemona. Once again, the music was crisply delivered by La Fenice’s orchestra under the baton of Myung-Whun Chung, although director Francesco Micheli adopted a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to this production. Gregory Kunde in the title role was “blacked up”, while Desdemona’s (Leah Crocetto) virtue was overplayed – she had a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary in the bedroom and was strangled with her rosary beads. Kunde’s performance was formidable, as was Lucio Gallo’s silver-tongued Iago in this tragedy – which made the director’s romantic ending between Otello and Desdemona all the more curious.

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