A deeply disappointing Tristan und Isolde at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

GermanyGermany Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus (director: Thomas Richter) and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin / Juraj Valčuha (conductor). Deutsche Oper Berlin, 3.7.2024. (MB)

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Tristan und Isolde (from the 2011 premiere) © Matthias Horn

Director – Graham Vick
Designs – Paul Brown
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel

Tristan – Michael Weinius
King Marke – Günther Groissböck
Isolde – Ricarda Merbeth
Kurwenal – Leonardo Lee
Melot – Jörg Schörner
Brangäne – Irene Roberts
Shepherd – Clemens Bieber
Young Sailor – Kieran Carrel
Steersman – Byung Gil Kim

And so, the Deutsche Oper’s season, in which it has shown all ten of Wagner’s ‘Bayreuth’ works, begins to draw to a close. I have not managed to see them all; by accident rather than design, I have seen the current productions of the seven ‘music dramas’, but missed those of The Flying Dutchman, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin (all of which I have seen before). Of those I saw, all but Philipp Stölzl’s Parsifal (here) were new to me. Stefan Herheim’s Ring I greeted (here) enthusiastically, though not without reservations, in May; the Wieler-Viebrock-Morabito Meistersinger less so (here), though it had its moments. How would the late Graham Vick’s 2011 Tristan, which somehow I had missed until now, fare?

Disappointingly, I am afraid. Maybe I was not in the right mood, though it was certainly not only that, but I do not think I have ever felt less engaged, or even interested, in a performance of what should always be a work like no other, on the edge of the possible but also of what one can bear. I doubtless quote this letter from Wagner to Mathilde Wesendonck too often, yet however drama-queenish the expression, the principle remains sound, or at least readily comprehensible: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Once again, sanity regrettably endured.

Let us begin with Vick’s production, at which I feel able only to throw my hands into the hair and say (polite version): goodness knows. One can admire his extraordinary work in Birmingham and indeed some or many of his stagings, without having much idea what is going on here and, more sadly, without being able to care very much. Is it perhaps all a drug-induced dream, Dallas meeting Trainspotting? One of the very few (on its own terms) theatrically convincing moments, presaged by a disturbing appearance (one of many, from a cast of irritating extras) by a shaking, wall-hugging addict, is when Tristan and Isolde inject themselves for what seems, even sounds, to be that elusive perfect hit. Who they are, though, and what they are doing in something that may be a house or may be a funeral parlour (Morold’s funeral, I thought to start with, though the coffin surely remains too long) is anyone’s guess. All manner of strange people come and go. A gang of menacing men in the first act suggests an approach founded, oddly, upon gender, when surely the whole point is the irrelevance of the phenomenal world, but it is soon gone anyway.

So too are the woman who walks around naked and, in the second act, outside in the garden (albeit with an indoor fireplace), a male naked gravedigger. Perhaps it is hot out there, and Tristan’s overcoat is a product of his addiction. He and Isolde sit on the sofa for most of it, as if watching the television; they seem to have little interest in each other. A torch-cum-gigantic-peppermill sometimes comes into view above, though it does not seem aligned to the night/day axis. From time to time, a woman in an adjoining room does the ironing. The Steersman makes his appearance bursting out of the bathroom in mid-shave. It all ends, banally enough, with Isolde, spying some more people walking around the garden, opening the door to join them. Quite. That the action in this ‘action’ (Handlung) is entirely metaphysical seems to have eluded Vick, as it does many, but this lacks so much as a hint of coherence on its own terms. I think the point, or at least a point, may be that they have grown old in the meantime; with that, at least, one can sympathise.

Deutsche Oper Berlin’s Tristan und Isolde (from the 2011 premiere) © Matthias Horn

The real drama lies in the orchestra, of course, or should. There were passages of relative fluency among the rest from Juraj Valčuha, but that is about the best one can say. More often than not, we had audible gear changes, surprisingly thin strings, odd balances, faulty ensemble, and a deadly tendency throughout each act to slow down. The second act felt interminable, whilst Tristan’s third-act agonies amounted to little more than a lengthy list of non sequiturs. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, normally outstanding in Wagner, sounded as if it had had enough; I cannot blame it.

Ricarda Merbeth’s Isolde had much to commend it, especially in the first act. She made a great deal of the words, offering a masterclass in scorn, though sustaining a line seemed less of a priority. Hans von Bülow’s claim that this is Wagner’s bel canto opera is as silly as it sounds, but that does not mean there is no melodic interest in the vocal line. Still, she outshone her Tristan, Michael Weinius, who had seemingly endless vocal reserves to call on. Given how shouted and unvariegated they were, it was tempting sometimes to wish that he had not; this was neither bel nor canto, and his acting was at best gestural. Leonardo Lee’s Kurwenal bloomed into what, alongside Günther Groissböck’s beautifully sung, finely detailed Marke, was surely the finest performance of the night. Irene Roberts (Brangäne) sang well too, though a little more mezzo-ish depth would not have gone amiss, especially so as to contrast with Isolde. Given what the singers were presented with, though, it would be churlish to complain further.

Wagner, then, was saved again. Next stop: Bayreuth, including a new Tristan. Fingers crossed for a little madness.

Mark Berry

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