Tristan and Isolde – Divided Like Buda and Pest

‘Wagner in Budapest ‘ Opera Festival 2011 (2) – Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Orchestra and Choir of the Hungarian State Opera. Conductor: Ádám Fischer. Béla Bartók Concert Hall, Palace of Arts, Budapest, 10.6.2011 (JPr)

Isolde, Tristan and King Marke in Act II © Palace of Arts - Budapest, Zsuzsa Petå

The sixth year of this Wagner Festival in Budapest continues to be overseen by artistic director Ádám Fischer who conceived, with others, this annual event which began not long after the Palace of Arts was opened in 2006. Tristan und Isolde was premièred last year and was conceived by a largely Hungarian team lead by two young joint directors and designers, Magdolna Parditka and Alexandra Szemerédy.

While their concept had its moments, I wasn’t much the wiser at the end of the evening than I was at the start, even though the fact that my eyes had moistened a little by the stage picture of Isolde joining Tristan in a grave at the front of the stage, obviously meant I wasn’t entirely immune to what they had done to this music drama. Or is it a ‘music drama’? In fact Wagner called it ‘Eine Handlung’ (just a drama) and from this fact the Hungarian directors appear to have take their inspiration. Initially we seemed not to be in an opera house at all and more in a performance art installation. There is a row of empty wine glasses across the stage (I think we all know what they signify in this opera ) and a modest chess board made up of black and white blocks with two sword fencers on either side was in the middle; with more fencers – also in modern black or white outfits – sitting around at the back behind them. Fencing requires a proper etiquette and strict adherence to its rules and perhaps is a bit like a royal court, so here Tristan and King Marke are fencing champions with two real champion fencers, Àdám Madaras and Zoltán Székely, doubling as these characters. There is a lot of practice fencing before the start of Act II which adds little to the drama, except perhaps that if it is Melot who Tristan seems to embarrass in their bout, this might give him cause for his later act of betrayal.

Apart from what I have already mentioned, the ‘set’ is otherwise non-existent and what there is blends in with the décor of the functional Béla Bartók Concert Hall. When Tristan and Isolde take their drink in the music (though that didn’t seem to be shown on stage) the chess board breaks apart and the fencers formerly dressed in masks of a single colour now have them half-black and half-white as though an ordered world has been fractured forever. To emphasize this, there is also a crack at the back of the stage for the start of Act II with part of the collapsed balcony along which Tristan has walked and sung during in Act I, now acting as a useful stairway. This gash lengthens and widens at the start of Act III and becomes as deep as the back wall of the concert hall. All the glasses have been collected together and are upturned within the part of the stage floor that now seems to be split in two : the rift cannot be healed apparently and nor can Tristan. The lighting (by Károyl Györgyfalvai) is either reasonably bright or else shadowy to match the duality of day or night. When red is used, it appears to be the colour of love.

As the audience enters the auditorium at the start of the performance they hear imaginative sounds of waves for Act I and the wind across a barren landscape for Act III. Before the Prelude we hear, from muttering male and female voices, the words of the Young Sailor – beginning ‘Westwärts schweift der Blick’ – which shortly we will hear sung: I found this very atmospheric. There were two other highlights in this production for me; firstly – and perhaps its most dramatic element – is when Tristan uses Melot’s epée to blind himself at the end of Act II. Now the lights are really out for Tristan and for the first time this makes some real sense of what he sees – or imagines he sees – during his Act III ravings. This all may be a moot point in this staging however because with the ever present grave and with a skull also clearly seen, as well as the Shepherd roaming around like the Grim Reaper, it is probable that Tristan has already died. Kurwenal’s actions during much of this act also seem to suggest that he is protecting his master’s resting place from being defiled.

Unfortunately the one cliché in this Tristan – also aided by the chasm that opens up in the stage – is that there is never any real contact or chemistry between the two central characters; who often sing of their yearning and passion from opposite sides of the stage. I await the next time I get to see Tristan and Isolde actually touch with some eagerness…but I will not hold my breath since I might never live to see it happen!

The true revelation of this performance was Christian Franz’s singing as Tristan. He has neither the obvious stature or features of a true Wagnerian hero and wandered around the stage in Act I as though he was still in his rehearsal clothes, while later he seemed to be wearing a white judo outfit for Act III. The love potion would need to be quite strong for Isolde to become infatuated with someone looking quite like this. Even so,  despite some rough patches to start with, Mr Franz easily overcame everything that Wagner demands from his Tristan and sang with unflagging stamina and passion. His steely tone retains sufficient colours for him to add some considerable nuance to his phrases – such as in Act III when he muses on the news of his father’s death that he received as a child – and even on individual words, like ‘Verloren’ when he thinks that Isolde has been lost at sea.

Although he sang Tristan in Budapest last year, Christian Franz now has a new Isolde in Evelyn Herlitzius. She is an intense performer who reminds me very much of Gwyneth Jones, among the older generation, or Waltraud Meier of the current one. It was a little difficult to distinguish whether she was full of vengeance or desire, though the climax of her performance – as it must always be – was her wonderfully poignant Liebestod.

Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s King Marke seemed far too forgiving of the wayward couple – and Ádám Fischer’s tempi seemed to linger a little in order to accommodate his veteran singer’s now more limited resources during his bitter Act II monologue. He was wearing nothing that seemed related to fencing however and had the attire of a country gentle – or genteel – man. The Hungarian singers supporting these principals sang splendidly in near perfect German from what I could gather; Tomasz Konieczny and Judith Németh were the sturdy companions Kurwenal and Brangäne.

From the pit there were some glorious sounds again from Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra : all the music ebbed and flowed as one would expect from a conductor of Maestro Fischer’s Wagnerian experience. Under his vigorous baton the volume of sound occasionally overwhelmed the singers but it also sometimes calmed down enough to bring an insightful intimacy and musical clarity to the proceedings which made this performance – like the previous night’s Lohengrin – something to remember.

Whether you regular go to Bayreuth – or whether you do not – these ‘Wagner in Budapest’ days are worth seeking out. Next year there will be a new production of Tannhäuser and a revival of the Ring Cycle.

Jim Pritchard