Bayreuth Festival 3: Bayreuth Stalwarts Bow Out in Final Tristan Performance

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. / Peter Schneider. (conductor), Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 26.8.2012. (JPr)

There was a standing ovation for this final performance of Christopher Marthaler’s 2005 Tristan und Isolde production. Marthaler is someone once described by Katharina Wagner as ‘a master when it comes to staging boredom, standstill and desperation’. My 2008 Bayreuth review  will give you some background to the production (even if rogue spell-checking meant the distinguished bass-baritone Robert Holl is named ‘Hull’) and here is my review of the DVD release.  I will use this review to add a few concluding comments on this staging’s last hurrah.

Since first coming to Bayreuth in the late 1980s this has been only the second new Tristan during that time and it has sustained a reasonable longevity when some other productions there have only been revived a few times. I can only really compare it to Heiner Müller’s deconstruction at Bayreuth (see the DVD review) and the other staging I have seen a similar number of times by Yannis Kokkos for Welsh National Opera first put on in 1993. Both had abstract settings and neither showed much physical interaction between Tristan and Isolde, with most of what we did see possibly arising from the wish fulfilment of certain of the characters. Whilst Anna Viebrock’s set here cannot be described as ‘abstract’ together with Marthaler and revival director Anna-Sophie Mahler’s personenregie we enter another world, possibly another realm.

We are on that ocean liner – a veritable ‘ship of fools’ or even possibly ‘souls’. All along it may have been one of those scenarios were people are reliving their lives before being judged as to whether they can go to heaven … or should be committed to purgatory. Very little happens in a large seedy stateroom shown in Act I and the most dramatic it gets is when Isolde throws some chairs over when Tristan enters. Otherwise Brangäne, Isolde, Tristan and an occasionally strangely gesticulating Kurwenal, who all seem equally emotionally stunted, sit or stand around and recount their part of the story. Believing she has imbibed the Todestrank Isolde amusingly checks her pulse but the subsequent passion shown by Tristan and Isolde is insufficient to set anyone’s pulses racing. The characters are dressed for a rather low budget cruise but who knows where they are going – and certainly the only thing Celtic seen on stage is Kurwenal’s kilt – and here he is presented as an ‘old soak’ who really likes his sly tipple.

Nothing really happens in Act II either. Isolde has a girlish eagerness to turn off the overhead lighting to signal Tristan’s approach. We now are probably in the deserted dining room of the ship on the floor below where we originally were. For their rambling metaphysical discourse and love duet Tristan and Isolde stand separately from each other and when he finally rests his head on her lap the most intimate thing Isolde does is to remove her gloves. Everyone’s best moment is from Tristan’s ‘Dem Land, das Tristan meint’ towards the end of this act; he forces Melot to stab him and Melot then returns his weapon into the hands of a bemused König Marke. I have to say at this point how superb Kwangchul Youn was during his narration; noble and authoritative are two words that come immediately to mind. That this vignette was the highlight of the performance so far suggests maybe something was lacking elsewhere.

Kurwenal was a broken man in Act II staggering and collapsing around the stage. I think he becomes totally deranged by Act III when we are a further floor down in the hold – though still nothing much else happens. Kurwenal is convinced that Tristan comes back to life when he does nothing of the sort; witness those seen coming in to pay their respects. It is too late for all concerned when Isolde, Brangäne and Marke arrive, even though poor old deluded Kurwenal still thinks he is protecting his master. After her Liebestod Isolde seems to die of a broken heart on Tristan’s bier but she has time to cover herself with his ‘shroud’.

Musically however things were much better and everyone gave it their all in this final outing. What had they to lose? It is possible Iréne Theorin and Robert Dean Smith may not sing again in Bayreuth and neither is it likely Peter Schneider will ever come back to conduct here. As such this night was critic-proof and the standing ovation and foot stamping all received was probably because most in the audience appreciated that for many of these artists the end of this fifth revival (it seems like more) marked the end of their time at Bayreuth.

Comment I must. I found Theorin’s generally effortless voice somewhat sharp in her upper register and I heard insufficient words for my liking. Robert Dean Smith’s voice has retained its lyricism down the years since I first heard him in Bayreuth as Walther von Stolzing in 1997. It is a credit to what must be an exceptional technique that he never resorts to shouting though the consequence of this is that he sometimes fails to cut through the orchestral climaxes. The best word for his acting style is naïve but this has always fitted Marthaler’s Konzept strangely well. Dean Smith is a wonderful Wagnerian singer but rarely offers that sense of abandon that would make a good Tristan a great one. Kwangchul Youn is small of stature but huge in voice. Michelle Breedt was much better than I have sometimes heard her and, of course, Jukka Rasilainen made the most of what Wagner – and Marthaler – gave him to do, and was quite superb.

The Bayreuth veteran Peter Schneider was conducting at his twentieth Bayreuth Festival and led a performance that was far from routine and that had the vigour of a much younger man; it was full of mystery, transcendently rapturous and magisterial by turns. He was helped by his almost-perfect orchestra who also deserved their appearance on stage at the end to share in that standing ovation for all concerned.

So 2015 will bring us Katharina Wagner’s new Tristan und Isolde to be conducted by Christian Thielemann, I wonder what they will have in store for those present at its première?

Jim Pritchard

Two more reviews of these final performances of the 2012 Bayreuth Festival will follow over coming days.