Magisterial Thielemann and Exciting Petra Lang Make the 2017 Bayreuth Tristan Something to Remember


United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bayreuth Festival 2017 [3] Wagner, Tristan und IsoldeSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 16.8.2017. (JPr)

Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Act II
(c) Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Petra Lang
King Marke – René Pape
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

I have not seen everything Katharina Wagner has directed though I doubt she has done anything better than her Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, and it whets the appetite for her Götterdämmerung instalment of the 2020 Ring that will created by four female directors. Her 2015 Tristan und Isolde works so 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 ‘take’ on the familiar epic tale. Katharina Wagner gives nothing away about her ideas in the programme yet this from Pierre-Paul Sagave is very significant: ‘As soon as Tristan and Isolde drink the magic potion, each of them feels that although they are no longer free from themselves, they are both free from the external world, detached from the morality of the day, from universal custom and obligation (the knight’s allegiance to his ruler or the wife’s to her husband). The potion frees a passion which was already there, yet repressed, when Tristan and Isolde exchanged their first glance.’

Katharina Wagner understands this of course but takes this one step further by having Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert provide an Act I set inspired by the works of Piranesi and M C Escher with stairs and gangways often going nowhere or ending in blind alleys. Thomas Kaiser’s costumes are functional and colour-coded with the ‘lovers’ in blue, servants in brown and King Marke and his flunkeys in yellow-gold. It is Brangäne and Kurwenal who have the task to stop Tristan and Isolde – who are infatuated and desperate – getting their hands on one another. Katharina Wagner is clearly concentrating on the emotional turmoil when love and duty conflict. Against his better judgement Tristan is bringing Isolde to become King Marke’s trophy wife: this is shown clearly by the bridal veil he has with him which the pair later shred. Brangäne plies Isolde with a potion after saying that she wants the Todestrank (death-drink) but what she is intending to give her is probably an anti-love potion. Whatever it is – having been passed back and forth with neither willing to drink – Tristan and Isolde pour it away as they finally succumb to temptation and there is the first of their lingering embraces.

Act II is very ‘captivating’ in all meanings of the word. The two lovers are seeking night in a garden to get together but here Katharina Wagner has Tristan and Isolde (and their two ‘accomplices’) thrown into a dark, high walled, internment camp monitored with searchlights by King Marke and his henchmen. On the walls and floor seem to be instruments of torture represented symbolically by large metal hoops – or large Slinkies for those who remember that child’s toy of times past! – some of them embedded in the walls or just lying on the ground. I first came to Bayreuth in 1989 and it Heiner Müller’s famous Bayreuth Tristan (1993-1999) that I remember most from my earliest years here. He had the characters with large metal rings around their necks at times as if they were there to constrain their actions. There is more than a suggestion of that production in Katharina Wagner’s Act II. Again seemingly little happens but, yet again, it doesn’t seem to matter as the thought-provoking theatrical intent is all-pervading.

It goes without saying that, in this intimidating, oppressive environment, Tristan’s ‘Das Licht! Das Licht!’ has a different meaning as Tristan and Isolde strive to escape the glare of Marke’s constant surveillance. Brangäne and Kurwenal seem to be mentally disintegrating because of recent events whilst Tristan and Isolde conceal themselves in a star-studded tent. Emerging from this – and with their backs to the audience – they begin ‘O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ watching their silhouettes fade into the distance. It is as if they are longing for a life together they know is nothing more than an impossible dream. There has been something looking like a ‘bicycle shed’ on the ground which, by becoming vertical, slowly transforms into an ‘iron maiden’ torture device. Tristan and Isolde use it to open their veins and self-harm or for autoerotic asphyxiation. Tristan is blindfolded and stabbed in the back – literally – by his supposed friend Melot as the act ends, but Marke has long since dragged Isolde away and both have missed this.

And even less happens in Act III and I think Tristan is already dead from its very beginning with Kurwenal and others – including the Shepherd and Steersman – holding a candlelit vigil over his corpse. The story has him coming to life, though what we are seeing is probably how Tristan’s life flashed before his eyes. In pyramidal shapes that pop up – and later vanish – throughout the bare stage there are his visions of a beckoning Isolde; she occasionally disappears in his arms or at one point is shown without her head! Eventually Tristan is laid on a gurney. King Marke appears accompanied by his retinue and quickly they overcome Kurwenal and Tristan’s other protectors. 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 Verklärung or Transfiguration (this is, of course, most often referred to as her Liebestod). At the very end King Marke’s brutality is plain for all to see as Isolde is abruptly pulled away once again to presumably resume her conjugal duties. As I concluded before; although the characters as we see them never have the motivations we might expect them to exhibit, throughout Katharina Wagner’s production everything has entirely been in keeping with Wagner’s Handlung (drama).

One of the abiding pleasures of a sojourn to the Grünen Hügel is to hear what Wagner’s music should really sound like due to the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus. This has been a vintage year for me as I cannot remember hearing anything much better than Parsifal (click here), Die Meistersinger (click here), or this Tristan. I have pondered before whether Christian Thielemann – Bayreuth’s music director – was ever likely to improve upon his magnificent Tristan in Berlin that I have always felt privileged to have been at in 2000. Thielemann – debatably the world’s finest conductor of Wagner – certainly equalled my memories of that and may even have surpassed it! Supported by his impeccable Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, the performance was magisterial and passionate, had light and shade, and ebb and flow. The more expansive episodes of the score – beginning with a raptly beautiful account of the orchestral prelude – had breadth and radiance, yet never lost the unfolding thread of lyrical tension. There is always the unerring sense that both Thielemann and those seeing and hearing his Tristan know that from the very first note to the last one – almost four hours (of music) later – we have been on a gripping musical helter-skelter spiralling with exquisite control towards the tragic denouement.

There is probably no one who can currently sing Tristan better than Stephen Gould. As I have written before Gould has ample vocal stamina, a fine technique, a genuinely heroic – yet eloquent – sound, and never resorts to shouting. He has all the necessary volume to cut through the orchestral climaxes during his delirious Act III ravings. Though there was much passion and intensity from Gould, I thought he was rather more impassive than I remember him before. Christa Meyer repeated her angst-ridden Brangäne and it is clear to see she genuinely cares about what happens to Isolde. Meyer’s sound is both full-bodied and rich but not that of a potential Isolde (as most seem to be who sing this role in modern times). Her floated (offstage?) warnings add to the near-perfect atmosphere Katharina Wagner creates in Act II. The always reliable Iain Paterson again made the most of the rather underwritten role of the old-retainer Kurwenal as did the other principal singers – Raimund Nolte (Melot), Tansel Akzeybek (Seaman and Shepherd) and Kay Stiefermann (Steersman) – who also transcended what little Wagner gives them to do. René Pape had the requisite regal authority as the cuckolded Marke though Georg Zeppenfeld last year seemed to be a more threatening figure.

Petra Lang is always an exciting singer to watch as she brings any character she creates to vivid life. Now singing Isolde for the second year it is clear that these performances have the potential to be as legendary at Bayreuth as those she gave in recent years as Ortrud. There is a vibrancy of sound, depth and colours of voice that means you can only be listening to Petra Lang. She exhibits an extraordinary range of emotions: fury towards Tristan at the start, contempt towards Kurwenal, vulnerability and steely determination with Brangäne, and culminating in uncontrollable desire and passion for Tristan. Regardless of how good Petra Lang was in the first two acts she returned in Act III to conclude the opera with an absolutely stunning Liebestod. ‘Mild’ was sung on a remarkably thin thread of sound and that is how she concluded with her final extended ‘Lust!’ It is almost as if she sings her incandescent ending to this famous performance on one gigantic breath. More importantly I am sure she managed to make almost everyone in the Festspielhaus believe – for just a few fleeting moments – that she could actually revive the dead Tristan …and this made the final few moments even more unbelievably poignant.

Jim Pritchard

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