Katharina Wagner, Christian Thielemann and Petra Lang Create a Spellbinding Tristan und isolde at Bayreuth


GermanyGermany Bayreuth Festival 2018 [2] Wagner, Tristan und IsoldeSoloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival / Christian Thielemann (conductor), Festspielhaus, Bayreuth, 27.7.2018. (JPr)

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

All credit to Katharina Wagner for facing her critics at a curtain call for the traditional booing of whomever is running the Bayreuth Festival at any particular time and deigns to put on their own production. Her father suffered it many times and it is now her ‘due’. It is thoroughly undeserved. Her 2015 Tristan und Isolde returned for its fourth outing and although I have not seen everything Katharina Wagner has directed – I repeat what I have written before – I doubt if she has done anything better than this Tristan und Isolde, and I await with interest what she does next. (This has been long rumoured to be the Götterdämmerung instalment of the 2020 Ring that is supposedly to have four female directors.) If people saw this production for the first time and the director was named as, for example, Stefan Herheim, Hans Neuenfels, Barrie Kosky or Yuval Sharon it would be properly celebrated and not sneered at as it is by some.

Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde works so marvellously well because everything is pared down to just concentraate on the psycho-dramatic battle of wills at the centre of her fascinatingly intense and intimate ‘take’ on the familiar epic tale. She says nothing about her ideas in the programme, yet a passage from Pierre-Paul Sagave that was included previously – although eliminated this year – still seems 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 embraces this of course and takes it one step further by having Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert provide a set – inspired by the works of Piranesi and M C Escher – for Act I where there are gangways and stairs which are often closed down to go nowhere or end anyway in blind alleys. Thomas Kaiser’s unelaborate costumes are colour-coded with the ‘lovers’ in blue, servants in brown and King Marke and his flunkeys in yellow-gold. It is Kurwenal and Brangäne who have the task to stop Tristan and Isolde – who are desperately infatuated with each other from the get-go – from getting their hands on each another. Katharina Wagner clearly concentrates on the emotional upheaval when love and duty collide. As he tries to resist his most innermost desires and primitive urges Tristan is bringing Isolde to King Marke as a trophy wife: this we see clearly from the bridal veil he has with him which the pair ultimately shred. Brangäne wants to give Isolde a love potion after she reveals she prefers the Todestrank (death-drink) but what Brangäne is probably intending to give Isolde is an anti-love potion. What Isolde offers Tristan is passed back and forth with neither willing to drink until finally they pour it away as they give in to their true feelings for each other and there is the first of their lingering embraces.

Usually in Act II 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, prison exercise yard with bright searchlights and constant surveillance by King Marke and his henchmen from on high. On the walls and floor there seem to be instruments of torture represented symbolically by large metal hoops, some are embedded in the walls and others are just lying on the ground. Having first come to Bayreuth in 1989 the late Heiner Müller’s famous Tristan (1993-1999) was something very memorable from my formative years here. He had the characters with large metal rings around their necks at times as if to show how they acted under certain constraints. There are hints of this – as well as Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 Bayreuth Tristan – in Katharina Wagner’s Act II. Seemingly little appears to happen as in the first act but, yet again, it doesn’t matter as the thought-provoking – and often quite spellbinding – theatrical intent remains all-pervading

In this intimidating, oppressive environment, Tristan’s ‘Das Licht! Das Licht!’ has a different meaning as the lovers strive to hide from Marke’s constant scrutiny. Although it is sometimes difficult to follow their antics in the gloom Brangäne and Kurwenal seem to be going stir-crazy, whilst Tristan and Isolde try to conceal themselves in a star-studded tent. Emerging from this – and with their backs to the audience – they sing ‘O sink’ hernieder, Nacht der Liebe’ watching silhouettes of themselves fade into the far distance. They are longing for a life together that they know – in their heart of hearts – is nothing more than an illusory dream. Some of those hoops on the floor look like somewhere to park a bicycle though by becoming vertical, transform into an iron maiden-like torture device and Tristan and Isolde use it initially to open their veins and self-harm. Later they try to hang themselves from it for autoerotic asphyxiation at the ‘climax’ of their duet and before being discovered. Tristan is then blindfolded and gets stabbed in the back by his supposed friend Melot as this act ends. Significantly both Marke and Isolde both miss what happens as he has long since dragged her away.

Even less happens in Act III and again this does not matter as so strong is the storytelling. I have always thought Tristan was already dead from the very beginning of the act with Kurwenal and others – including the Shepherd and Steersman – holding a candlelit vigil over his corpse. He appears to be resurrected, though what we actually are seeing is Tristan’s life flashing before his eyes. In pyramidal shapes popping up – and subsequently vanishing – all over and above an otherwise bare stage there are his visions of a beckoning Isolde. On one occasion – there but not there – ‘she’ disappears in his arms and that stage picture says it all! After Isolde arrives too late, King Marke appears accompanied by his retinue and rather too quickly they overcome Kurwenal and Tristan’s other defenders. Eventually Tristan is laid on a gurney. Isolde – possibly because she did not see it happen – cannot come to terms with the fact that Tristan is dead and cannot let go of him as she sings her Liebestod. At the very end Marke’s cruelty rears it ugly head again as he abruptly pulls Isolde away once again to resume her wifely duties. My thoughts about this fascinating staging remain that, yes, we do not see the characters always exhibit the motivations expected from them but, for me, Katharina Wagner’s production is throughout the three acts entirely in keeping with Wagner’s Handlung (drama).

One of the abiding pleasures of a sojourn to the Green Hill is to hear what Wagner’s music should really sound like thanks to the unique acoustics of the Festspielhaus. I have always been willing Christian Thielemann – Bayreuth’s music director – to improve upon his magnificent 2000 Tristan in Berlin that has been my benchmark for this opera since I was privileged to be there to see and hear it. Thielemann certainly equalled it for me in 2017 and, I believe, surpassed it this year! He commandingly led his magnificent Bayreuth Festival Orchestra in a performance that was once again solemn, unrushed and magisterial though oozed radiance and passion. There was all the ebb and flow and light and shade everyone has now come to expect from arguably the world’s finest conductor of Wagner. (As I write this a copy of his book My Life with Wagner – in its 2015 English translation – has just come through the letterbox for me to catch up with at long last.) From the very first note to the last – just slightly less than four hours (of music) later – we were on another gripping musical helter-skelter spiralling with exquisite control towards the tragic denouement we all knew was inevitable.

Stephen Gould remains peerless as Tristan. He harnesses all his resources splendidly and there is no sign of wear and tear considering all the Tristans he has sung. There are no stamina issues vocally and his – often surprisingly – nuanced singing is heroic and potent over all three acts and he never resorts to shouting even when required to cut through the orchestral climaxes during his Act III delirium. The only thing to distract from his performance was that he didn’t seem as mobile as he was in previous years. Christa Meyer was again the angst-ridden Brangäne who never fails to display her deep concern about Isolde’s fate.  Meyer’s sound is both rounded and rich but thankfully she is not another potential Isolde as many who sing Brangäne in modern times seem to be. Her floated Act II pleas added considerably to the near-perfect atmosphere Katharina Wagner created at that point. The robustly voiced Iain Paterson again made the most of the little Wagner gives him as the faithful retainer Kurwenal and so equally did Raimund Nolte (Melot), Tansel Akzeybek (Seaman and Shepherd) and Kay Stiefermann (Steersman). René Pape had the all the requisite regal authority, vocally, for the cuckolded King Marke though there was a certain world-weariness to his portrayal and he never seemed very threatening until he manhandled Isolde.

About Petra Lang it is difficult to add much to what I wrote last year about her splendid performance as Isolde: I praised it then and said how these performances from her are destined to linger in the memory as much as those she gave from 2011 to 2015 as Ortrud in Neuenfels’s rat-infested Lohengrin. Hers is not the typical Isolde voice we have become accustomed to today but has the qualities of the great Bayreuth singers of this role from times past such as Martha Mödl, Astrid Varnay, and Ingrid Bjoner (who was one of the first Isoldes I ever saw) amongst others. With her own very individual sound the eternally youthful Lang is now as great a singer of Isolde as I suspect all of those were. Not only is she a wonderful singer but she brings every character she creates to vivid life and never for one moment does Lang ever give less than 100%. Her Isolde goes through an extraordinary range of emotions from the very beginning of the opera which I have remarked on previously: initial fury towards Tristan that culminates in uncontrollable desire and passion, contempt for Kurwenal and a steely determination with Brangäne. What an intensely physical performance Katharina Wagner also demands from Lang with all the climbing up and down the set Isolde must do in Act I.

However superb she was in the first two acts – when a native German speaker would have understood every word she sang – Petra Lang came back at the end of the opera for a truly remarkable Liebestod that note for note was the Verklärung (Transfiguration) Wagner intended. ‘Mild’ was sung on a delicately refined thread of sound and she did exactly the same with her final word ‘Lust!’. It is almost as if it was all sung on one single huge breath. Lang made me and – from the ecstatic reception she got at her curtain calls – almost everyone else in the Festspielhaus believe that she really did expect Tristan might come back to life – and this made the final few incandescent moments even more poignant.

Jim Pritchard

For a Q&A with Petra Lang click here.

For more about the Bayreuth Festival click here.

For more reviews from the 2018 Bayreuth Festival click here.

5 thoughts on “Katharina Wagner, Christian Thielemann and Petra Lang Create a Spellbinding <i>Tristan und isolde</i> at Bayreuth”

  1. I am sorry but I completely disagree with your conclusions about the production. You correctly identify that Katarina Wagner contradicts virtually all of the premises on which the story is based, namely that Tristan and Isolde are enemies until they drink the love potion, that their Act 2 meeting is in secret unobserved by anyone other than Brangaene and Kurwenal and that Isolde joins Tristan in death after the Liebestod. She also completely contradicts the character of King Marke as depicted in the libretto. Add to this the difficulty in seeing what was going on for much of Act 2, having the duet sung facing the back wall and using a scrim for much of Act 3, both of which have a detrimental effect on the voices and we have a self-indulgent director imposing her own perverse ideas on the piece. Having endured her risible ‘Meistersinger’ and now she is plainly someone who is only motivated by contradiction and the shock caused thereby. Any booing was entirely justified.

    • Totally respect you have a different opinion to me and thank you for taking the trouble to contact S&H. Where in the other operas currently at Bayreuth does the director NOT show themselves to be ‘someone who is only motivated by contradiction and the shock caused thereby’??? Where in Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ do the characters fly? ec. etc. Again I ask is this reaction partly because KW is who she is??

  2. I have just returned having seen ‘Parsifal’ (or rather not because of a very tall gentleman directly in front of me!), ‘Meistersinger’ and ‘Tristan’. Didn’t manage to get tickets for ‘Lohengrin’. The Kosky ‘Meistersinger’ is indeed a “Director’s take” and I assume that the lead for this style of production comes from KW as Director of the Festival. Of course, she would not be Director save for who she is!

    • Thanks again. While KW and Christian Thielemann – who is a significant figure as music director – will have their ideas I doubt they can/would influence – in the way you are hinting – Barrie Kosky and his ilk who are some of the world’s leading opera directors and are currently working at Bayreuth.

  3. Thank you for engaging and I realise I was not clear. I did not mean to suggest that KW had given instruction to director’s such as Kosky (though CT has been said to try to give instructions to other conductors). I meant that she has chosen directors who might take a similar approach.


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