A Darkly Psychological, Un-romantic, but Striking Reading of Tristan und Isolde
A darkly psychological, un-romantic, but striking reading of the work. If the three acts appeared visually very different from one another, they nevertheless felt linked together by the concept for the characters.
The Bayreuth Festival would not be the Bayreuth Festival without at least a soupçon of backstage controversy and Realpolitik. But this year relational dysfunction on the Green Hill seems to have risen to levels that would make even Fasolt and Fafner blush. Newly elected chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Kirill Petrenko said he was close to walking out of his engagement to conduct the Ring, while Anja Kampe went one step further and actually withdrew from singing Isolde barely a month before opening night. Meanwhile, there were reports of festival co-director Eva Pasquier-Wagner being forbidden to set foot near the Festspielhaus by her sister Katharina - the de facto festival generalissimo and director of this year’s new production of Tristan und Isolde.
To say that there was some pressure on Katharina and her team to deliver a good staging of that paradigm-shifting work was, therefore, an understatement, even before we consider that this year marks the 150th anniversary of its premiere, and that her only previous directorial attempt at the festival had met with near universal disapproval. But deliver a good staging they have: and not just a good one, but an excellent one.
The prelude to the first act is allowed to speak for itself before the lights come up on a maze of staircases, or at least parts of staircases, strongly reminiscent of the lithographs of M.C. Escher. It becomes immediately apparent that these stairways represent, and indeed physically contribute to, the impossibility of the lovers being together. Do they also represent the muddled pathways in Isolde’s mind? Perhaps. For this is not an Isolde merely bent on restoring her honour but one who comes across as obsessive in her desire for Tristan. Her feverish attempts to reach him are initially thwarted by the steps and platforms moving to block her route, as well as by the increasingly desperate efforts of Brangäne and Kurwenal. But as the act progresses, her will begins tooverpower the structure around her, which instead starts to block those attempting to reach her. Eventually, the two lovers are left together, isolated from their servants, and the initially reluctant Tristan succumbs to Isolde after she launches herself upon him in a passionate kiss. Then comes the coup de theatre: the potion is produced, and it is passed between them. But it is never drunk. Instead, they hold it together and pour it away before they sing “Tristan! Isolde! Treuloser Holder”.
Act two takes place in a triangular prison-come-torture chamber watched over by King Marke’s men. Bright lights blind the lovers from above, as well as Kurwenal and Brangäne who attempt to escape by literally climbing the walls. Isolde and Tristan take shelter from the harsh lights - which are our clear metaphor for day – in a makeshift tent. I had, and still have, some reservations about the specificity of this night/day metaphor detracting from the universality and philosophical nature of the love duet. But on the other hand, this is not a banal trivialisation or domestication of their relationship such as that seen in several other recent productions. This is specific brutality on the part of King Marke, one that will evolve as the evening goes on and that is essential to the production’s reading of his character.
It could also be argued that their making of a tent in which to take refuge is actually the starting point for the act exploring the nature and problems of love in a more general sense. Their tent building had a certain childlike quality to it, almost as if they were in the garden playing at camping. The idea that their brand of screw-the-consequences love might signify a regression into a childlike or adolescent state of mind is then developed when they stand to face upstage for ‘O sink hernieder’. At this point, projections of two adults walking away from us gradually shrink until they become projections of small children, before finally merging together into the shape of an upside down heart. Are we being told that the strength of passion Isolde showed from the beginning is a love simply too innocent and pure to survive?
Perhaps, but it is not as simple as that, a fact made clear in shocking fashion. As the lovers sing ‘Lass mich sterben’, and through ‘So stürben wir, um ungetrennt’, they slash their wrists with one of the contraptions in the torture chamber.
The uncomfortable parallels with teenage lovers in a suicide pact are only too apparent, and invite us to question the meaning of such an act both in the context of the opera and outside it. Does the lovers’ self-harming show that the childlike purity we saw earlier is actually an emotional immaturity and something to be wary of? Or is it the other way around? Are we being asked to show compassion for troubled lovers in the real world, because such an exaggerated reaction is testament to the honesty of their feelings? Are they, as Cordelia says to Lear, “So young, my Lord, and true”?
A mixture of both of these things could well be in play, and it seems to me that a third strand is too, namely that we are also witnessing the effects of depression or mental illness, perhaps pre-existing but exacerbated by their brutal treatment at the hands of Marke. It’s certainly the case that Isolde’s overwrought nature from the very start gave the impression that she was already on the verge of becoming mentally unhinged, and the mental scarring that can be caused by horrific treatment in any situation is well known.
Darkness envelops much of the stage for act three. Kurwenal and some other friends of Tristan keeps watch over him in the only lit area, from which he wonders into the darkness when telling of his longings for Isolde. From the darkness, images of her appear in strikingly and beautifully projected triangles and pyramids of various sizes and at various heights. Triangles have not been chosen as a shape at random, and they form a link with the shape of the stage for act two, possibly alluding to how Marke stands between Tristan and Isolde.
Sometimes Tristan can get close to the images of Isolde and at other times he cannot, but in each instance Isolde is taken from him eventually, and in progressively more violent ways. It appears throughout as if this darkness is the space of Tristan’s thoughts, while the area in which Kurwenal remains is the real world. But before Isolde’s entrance the lights go out completely and Tristan appears lying on his back, suggesting that the entire act up to that point had been the hallucinations of a dying man. Marke and his men enter and stand in a triangular formation. The king then needs only an afterthought of a gesture to order the death of Kurwenal, before Isolde is left to sing the Liebestod over Tristan’s body.
At this point I am reminded once again of Lear, for this is a Liebestod of a woman who by now, whatever state of mind she was in after acts one and two, has been driven completely mad. Her obvious struggle to accept the fact of Tristan’s death leads her to deliver a Liebestod of unusual power and strength, with much conviction and more than a hint of frenzy. Though the words may be Wagner’s, they could easily have been “This feather stirs. [He] lives!...”
One last twist remains with which to hit us over the head. As the final bars are played, Marke grabs Isolde, very much still alive, by the hand, and drags her offstage, presumably to take up station as his wife. Brangäne, who let us not forget still believes herself responsible for the potion and is unaware that it was not drunk, is left alone, distraught with the dead Tristan.
All in all then, this was a darkly psychological, un-romantic, but striking reading of the work. If the three acts appeared visually very different from one another, they nevertheless felt linked together by the concept for the characters. There were a few things I could pick holes in – I already mentioned my reservation about the day/night metaphor in act two, and I also wasn’t entirely sure that Kurwenal and Brangäne belonged in the same room as Tristan and Isolde during the love duet, even in the shadows and out of sight. But this would indeed be nit picking: this was the best Tristan I have seen in the theatre.
Musically, things were at least as good as they were dramatically. Christian Thielemann proved again that he has no rival in Wagner today other than Daniel Barenboim. The surging and retreating to and from never-quite climaxes was expertly handled throughout, in a reading that did not lack for pace yet never felt rushed. The start of the love duet in particular made the case for faster tempi, with a thrilling entrance from Tristan recalling the white heat of Karl Böhm.
Stephen Gould reaffirmed his position as one of the most reliable singers of the very toughest Heldentenor roles, in a performance that was stronger than the one he gave at Covent Garden last year. At times the louder passages did lack for subtlety and a more beautiful tone, but he proved sensitive and compelling in the quieter moments and never tired.
A late replacement Evelyn Herlitzius may have been, but it certainly did not show; indeed, I thought her performance was outstanding. As I have already alluded to, her interpretation was dramatic and forceful, with more than a hint of the maniacal. If intonation on the very occasional note could have been improved upon, then it really did not matter, and if anything only added to the characterisation.
Iain Paterson made his Bayreuth debut as Kurwenal a fine one, using all of his acting skills to present a loyal, but sometimes desperate and exasperated friend. He sings the Rheingold Wotan next year, and continues to go from strength to strength in Wagner.
Georg Zeppenfeld was a sonorous Marke, and skilfully trod the difficult line between sensitive singing and the violent portrayal of his character to give a performance of genuine complexity, while Christa Mayer had a pleasing tone in a strong, yet understated performance as Brangäne. Of the smaller roles, Tansel Akzeybek stood out as both the Shepherd and Young Sailor, sounding uncannily like a young Graham Clark.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone on the musical side was well received by the audience at curtain, with only a few boos being heard for Thielemann (!), I suspect for political rather than musical reasons. Needless to say, those who were responsible for that should be embarrassed - such behaviour having no place in an opera house - and should perhaps consider visiting a farmyard next summer instead. More surprisingly given the history of Bayreuth premieres, the production team was also well received. While I am not one to exaggerate the importance of public opinion, I do believe that this speaks volumes as to the strength of this staging, one which I hope to see again.
Sam Goodyear is an opera fan and Wagner enthusiast, originally from Portsmouth but now living in Germany. He read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and has at various times worked as a bookie, translator, trader, journalist, and TV researcher. He currently works in socially responsible investment. While very much an amateur, his interest in music has in the past led to him singing on BBC radio, and playing the trumpet in front of the queen. He attends as much Wagner both at home and abroad as time and money will permit, and he has written on Wagner for Classical Music Magazine.
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