“In the last five years, the Sofia Opera became an attractive centre for the admirers of Richard Wagner. The reason is the gradual acquaintance of the Bulgarian audience with his “opus magnum”, the teralogy “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Each year the Director of our first theatre, Acad. Plamen Kartaloff, was leading step by step the performers and the audience in this unusual journey in the world of the German romantic.” This way begins an interview of Magdalena Manolova with Klaus Billand, a music critic from Austria. In it he expressed a high opinion of Acad. Plamen Kartaloff’s productions – “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and “Tristan und Isolde”. This opinion is not only of the Sofia Opera and ballet, but also of the Bulgarian culture before the world.
Here is the rest of the interview:
“Each year the Bulgarian and foreign audience, critics and Wagnerians from all over the world climbed the highest hill of our ancient capital to experience the magic of the Bulgarian Bayreuth. An event, which turned into tradition, about which the world learned that here, on the Balkans, one can experience the music of the revolutionary Wagner, with the special flavour of the Bulgarian spirituality and beauty.
One of the specialists and critics, who reflect on the events of our first opera theatre, is the well-known Austrian opera critic Dr. Klaus Billand, member of the Music Critics Association of North America. He is not only connoisseur of theatre of Wagner, but also an observer of the different interpretations on the stages from Europe to America. One possibility for us to understand how the Bulgarian dimension and achievement fits into the world opera practice. He is here also for the premiere of “Tristan und Isolde”.
That is why my first question is how opus magnum, “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, of our National opera and ballet fits into the world context? What requires the realization of this majestic tetralogy, as synthesis of all arts?
First of all, what is required is an exceptionally strong creative personality with own vision and with the courage to create the greatest challenge in the history of music, such as “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. Plamen Kartaloff has accepted this great challenge, which he creates in time. I would like to emphasize that I have seen many productions of “Der Ring”, but this one is exceptional as concept and interpretation. It attracts not only the connoisseurs, but also people who are meeting for the first time with the complex world of Wagner.
In the production there are many associative moments, elements, in which one can recognise himself and reflect on what does it mean? Something very important was achieved. One very cleared up way of play, 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 entertainment elements, characteristic for our time. Regarding the stylistic, the use of technologies for the different stage transformations, this is a spectacle with exceptional multimedia design, multi-layer, difficult, but all this is excellently mastered from the standpoint of technical complexity. Kartaloff has succeeded to unite all these complex elements in a multimedia spectacle with an accurate and direct message, something, which is actually the strong suggestion of this “Ring”. This is the secret of the success of the Sofia “Ring”.
The concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and the vocal symphonic poem “Tristan und Isolde” are two different creative dimensions. Two different challenges, in which each of them is a special characteristic moment in the destiny of the revolutionary and romantic Wagner. Which is the key to them?
“Tristan und Isolde” is a very important moment in Wagner’s life: this is his personal drama, the unrealized love for Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of his benefactor Wesendonck. In “Der Ring” there is much dynamic in the action, while “Tristan und Isolde” is something like a crime story. 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. The characters ate six in total, but except Tristan and Isolde the rest appear only in precise moments in the dramaturgy. It is a piece, a great challenge, which has to hold the attention of the audience for more than four hours. Something exceptionally difficult.
Kartaloff has a different approach in “Tristan und Isolde”, but it is close to that in “Der Ring”. He holds the attention with action, in which he develops the state of mind of the characters, especially strongly in some marking moments. For example in Act II, before the well-known love duet, Isolde raises above the others, one erected inaccessible figure, which communicates with no one else, but with the King Marke, but when Tristan enters, she goes down and everything is already so human. Both are left alone in their love. The love duet is an impressive apotheosis of eternal love. The scene of their raising in a flight on high platforms, in another world, where they are beyond the common world, they immerse entirely in their feelings, what exists is only they and nothing else.
Another interesting suggestion is the including of the chorus, which is normally 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 of different platforms; it has the action of an injection in the world of the lovers.
Kartaloff creates an impressive theatre, which isn’t a static symphonic poem about love, as one usually thinks of this work by Wagner. Here the suggestion of the unreal magical world gives another meaning.
This poem about love has only two main characters from six characters in total. From this love poem Kartaloff makes an impressive theatre, a strong theatrical suggestion. Which is the secret of this magic according to you?
One of the secrets of this spectacle is that Kartaloff makes a visual interpretation on a musical basis. He creates a world beyond the other in a very theatrical way of presentation. Everything comes from the music. In very natural harmony with music is the action of both lovers. A shocking contrast is, for example, when in Act II Melot comes from one totally different world. What we have here is a very strong contrast between both worlds: the one of love and the other – of brutality.
The role of Tristan is extremely difficult vocally. It requires an incredible voice tenacity and something more. What is the suggestion of Martin Iliev?
This Tristan is different from those, who I have seen. Martin Iliev impresses not only with his beautiful voice, but also with the overall development of the character. This Tristan is exceptionally strong as suggestion. By him there is a deep inner experience, which is subject to development, to change from the low spirits in Act I (born from his mother’s death), it reveals his inner world in a real dramatic development: from low spirits to dissolving in love.
Not less difficult in vocal and actor’s aspect is the role of Isolde.
I believed in the young Isolde too. She found her way with a beautiful Italian way of singing to be also dramatic. Especially in Act II and at the final. Not to talk about her brilliant heights. I cannot separate the vocal aspect from the theatrical one, the singing from music. They complement one another; there is an excellent suggestion; it brings much real life to this work of art.
You said that Isolde has the warmth and the beauty of the Italian voice. The Wagner voices are different from the Italian ones. If you have to compare the typical Wagner singers with what you saw here, what would you say? Which is the spirit of this spectacle?
This was a lighter singing, I would say not “shouting”, a dramatic singing, which I am usually meeting. Radostina Nikolaeva has shown a high-class technique, which makes her so natural. Many well-known Isoldes don’t do this. Martin Iliev has a dark, impressive voice, he also doesn’t overdramatize, he doesn’t sing with force. I would say, that sometimes the Isoldes “shout”, especially in Act I, and Tristan often tries to suggest the verbal and the musical message in Act III with very strong voice and much declamation. This is tiring for the audience, as well as for the audience.
In this spectacle I had the feeling of perfect harmony with music. A very romantic inner experience. An overdramatized singing, a strong voice would destroy the overall suggestion.
Something interesting and unusual – we have three Isoldes, all of them are Bulgarian singers. What is your impression of them? Usually for this title people invite special Wagner singers.
This is really an extraordinary phenomenon. To cover this exceptionally difficult performance only with Bulgarian singers. Something, which is obviously very important for the creation of Wagnerian tradition and way to make music. In this case, however, I would say that some of the characters required another vocality and music-making. Brangäne for example requires a little bit more mezzo-soprano, especially in Act II. Marke, as well, was too much overdramatized in sound. He had to be more reserved and deeper. Even the king must show authority not by singing strongly, but to experience psychologically his state of mind. Kurwenal was very good.
An excellent idea was the choice of one single singer for the small, but interesting role of the Shepherd and of the Death. Actually, this was set also in the stage dramaturgy. Still in the introduction, when Tristan is sealing with the ship to Isolde, appears the small ghostly boat and when Tristan dies in the last act and death is coming, appeared this ghostly vision. An excellent idea, death had a very strong suggestion.
The musical suggestion of the spectacle as a whole was very complex. The orchestra was playing in a light way, without unnecessary overdramatizing of the strong dynamics. The dialogue between orchestra and singers in this multi-layer score also suggested the feeling of complete interdependence between the vocal and the instrumental. There was a special care about the singer. Something, which confirmed that the conductor Constantin Trinks is very sensitive and experienced. The musical training of Richard Trimborn was of a great significance for everything, related to Richard Wagner at the Sofia Opera.
The vision of the whole spectacle was very intriguing. It was holding the attention all the time. Obviously, the merit was also of the set designer Miodrag Tabacki and the costume designer Leo Kulas. Something unusual and new was the beginning. This trailer, developed in the language of cinema and plastics, was amazing. I haven’t seen such an introduction into the plot of the most important moments, which creates the notion about the pre-history, it is an excellent concept of the director.
You have your own experience and you have gathered impressions from the Bulgarian Wagner. What do you think of this first journey of this kind in the world of the lord of romanticism with his big opuses? What message does it have for our society of consumers? What is saying Wagner to us, the contemporaries of the 21 century?
I can say that I know what meant such a meeting with Wagner for example in Brazil. There was a great interest. Because Wagner is always modern. He was a social revolutionary, who, like Shakspeare, can lead a dialogue with each age. The interesting is that Wagner can be interpreted in different historical and political periods, in the East and in the West. Because especially in “Der Ring” there is a great message, the message of change. People recognize the fact that they have to fight against the evil of their time. Wagner tells everything to the politicians, he suggests ideas about what kind of philosophy of government is necessary, especially in our time.
Today we have lost to a great extent the feeling of true love. “Tristan und Isolde” is one possible answer to this problem. Naturally, when the work was read in depth and with understanding.
Why the role of the critique is important today?
The critique is very important, especially today, because we are usually used to read information for a particular event, which is written by journalists. Whereas the professional critique helps the audience to reflect better on what it is seeing. The critique not only introduces to the work, but also to its message. It shows the key for understanding of some very intelligent productions, which would otherwise remain unintelligible.