Compelling Staging In Musically Outstanding Tristan und Isolde
Bayreuth Festival 2015  Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 2.8.2015. (JPr)
Tristan: Stephen Gould
Marke: Georg Zeppenfeld
Isolde: Evelyn Herlitzius
Kurwenal: Iain Paterson
Melot: Raimund Nolte
Brangäne: Christa Mayer
A Shepherd: Tansel Akzeybek
A Steersman: Kay Stiefermann
Young Seaman: Tansel Akzeybek
Director: Katharina Wagner
Sets: Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert
Costumes: Thomas Kaiser
Dramaturgy: Daniel Weber
Lighting: Reinhard Traub
Chorus Director: Eberhard Friedrich
The last Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde production by Christoph Marthaler ended in 2012 and the director had been once described by Katharina Wagner as ‘a master when it comes to staging boredom, standstill and desperation’. For her own ‘coming of age’ staging of the opera which opened this year’s Festival Ms Wagner proves she has learnt from that ‘master’ and – while perhaps not yet the finished article it will become over the next four years of Werkstatt Bayreuth – it is a fine achievement. Where her 2007 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg suffered from being rather too cluttered and too full of ideas, her Tristan und Isolde worked well because everything is pared down to just present us with a psycho-dramatic battle of wills at the centre of an intense and intimate epic tale.
Thomas Kaiser’s costumes are functional and somewhat colour-coded with the ‘lovers’ in blue, the servants in brown and King Marke and his flunkeys in yellow-gold. For Act I Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert’s set is inspired by the works of Piranesi and M C Escher and there are stairs and gangways leading nowhere. The four principal characters are on stage for most of its duration. The aim is to keep Tristan and Isolde apart and not to get them together, as they are clearly already so infatuated with each other that whenever they are in close proximity they are unable to keep their hands off one another. Against his better judgement Tristan is bringing Isolde to become King Marke’s trophy wife and this is shown clearly by the bridal veil he has with him that will be ripped to shreds in their rapture later in the act. Brangäne plies Isolde with a potion after saying that she wants the Todestrank (death-drink) but what she actually gets might be reinterpreted as an anti-love potion. Whatever it may be it is poured away as Tristan and Isolde finally succumb to temptation. Katharina Wagner – whilst making less of her imaginative set than she perhaps might – appears to concentrate on the emotional turmoil when love and duty conflict.
There were definite reminisces of Marthaler’s Bayreuth Tristan in Act I and these continue in Act II as Kurwenal roams the walls and tries to climb – and even dig – his way out of the enclosure in which King Marke has confined himself and Brangäne, as well as, their master and mistress. Marthaler had small neon rings which here have become large metal hoops – or large Slinkies for those who remember that child’s toy of times past! Some of these are embedded in the walls or are just lying on the ground. The late Heiner Müller in his famous Bayreuth Tristan (1993-1999) had the characters with large metal rings around their necks at times as if they were there to constrain their actions. Again too little happens but yet again it didn’t seem to matter as the thought-provoking theatrical intent was all-pervading.
King Marke and his entourage watch Tristan and Isolde from above and their actions are followed with floodlights. Brangäne and Kurwenal seem to be mentally disintegrating because of what is happening and Tristan and Isolde hide themselves away in a makeshift tent lit by tiny stars. Emerging from this – and with their backs to the audience – they begin ‘O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ as if longing for a life together they know is an impossible dream. A skeletal metal cage appears to ensnare them and there is either some electrotherapy or self-harming going on but I was not certain from where I was sitting. Anyway, Joachim Karl in the programme suggests it is ‘absurd to maintain that somehow and somewhere everything has a meaning’. So I will suspend further conjecture till (hopefully) another year. A blindfolded Tristan is stabbed in the back (literally) by his friend Melot as Act II ends and to his great consternation Marke has missed this because he has long since dragged Isolde away.
And even less happens in Act III – as I suspected from Marthaler too – I believe Tristan is already dead from its very beginning. Kurwenal and others including the Shepherd and Steersman are holding a vigil over his corpse. As we know he ‘comes to life’ but what we are seeing could be what Tristan saw as his life flashing before his eyes. In pyramidal shapes that pop up – and later vanish – on and above the bare stage there are phantoms of a beckoning Isolde; she occasionally disappears and at one point is even seen without her head! Eventually Tristan is laid on a bier. King Marke accompanied by his retinue appear and swiftly dispatch Tristan’s men. Isolde – possibly because she did not see it happen – cannot believe Tristan is dead and doesn’t want to let go of him as she sings her Liebestod. (Spoiler alert! – at the very end she is pulled away again as Marke wants her to resume her wifely duties.) Although the characters as we see them have never had the motivation we might expect them to exhibit, throughout it has entirely been in keeping with Wagner’s Handlung (drama).
If the staging was compelling the musical performance was generally outstandng. Evelyn Herlitzius must be commended for stepping in for these performances to replace Anja Kampe but I do not think hers is an Isolde voice. It was too shrill and harsh at times for the role and I suspect she is more suited to those roles she sings more often in the operas of Richard Strauss. Nevertheless, it was a viscerally exciting performance if not always pleasant to listen to. She sounds rather like Gwyneth Jones and hers was not one of the best Isoldes I have experienced which include the late Ingrid Bjoner (whom I heard in Munich in 1980), Waltraud Meier and Deborah Polaski.
Stephen Gould could hardly sing Tristan any better. There is lots of volume that can cut through the orchestral climaxes but because of a fine technique he never resorts to shouting. His delirious Act III ravings were almost frightening in their passion and intensity, and that is when he needed to be the accomplished and tireless Heldentenor he is. Elsewhere he can sound fresher and more lyrical, even if his tone was a little unvaried at times, though I am sure this can still improve with more performances. Christa Meyer was an angst-ridden Brangäne; she has a rich, full-bodied sound and was the perfect foil for Herlitzius’s more piercing Isolde. Her floated off-stage warnings added to the near-perfect atmosphere created in Act II. At Covent Garden we saw how great Iain Paterson was at making the most of the rather under-written role of Kurwenal. In Christof Loy’s dour staging there he seemed to dominate his scenes with Stephen Gould’s Tristan, whilst here Katharina Wagner has him as the more familiar faithful old retainer. Georg Zeppenfeld brought us a King Marke who was plainly a cheated husband who wanted revenge for his trust that had been abused, but he still sang with a persuasive refinement and regal authority. As usual, even the smallest role was carefully cast making this ensemble one of the finest to be heard at Bayreuth in recent years. It can only be improved by the arrival next year of Petra Lang for her first Isolde performances.
Bayreuth’s new music director Christian Thielemann was unlikely to improve upon his magnificent Tristan in Berlin that I remain privileged to have been present to hear in 2000. He came very close however! All the majesty was there, along with the ebb and flow, light and shade, as well as, an unerring sense that both he – and the audience – know that from the very first note we are on a musical helter-skelter spiralling with exquisite control towards the tragic ending. It lacked a certain mystery and transcendental rapture that a conductor like Reginald Goodall brought to this opera but it was perfect for Katharina Wagner’s Konzept, even if he occasionally allowed his heart to rule his head and the valiant singers were sometimes briefly overwhelmed. Maestro Thielemann now has his permanent parking spot at back of the Bayreuth theatre and looks set to rule there for years to come – from the thunderous applause he deservedly always gets the audience is clearly very happy about this. Of course he did not do it all on his own and he was helped by the near-faultless orchestra. One of greatest pleasures of a summer sojourn on the Green Hill is to hear what they can do with Wagner in that famed acoustic of the Festspielhaus.
Two more reviews of performances at the 2015 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days. For more about the Bayreuth Festival visit http://www.bayreuther-festspiele.de/.