Bayreuther Festspiele, 2015
Christian Thielemann, Katharina Wagner, Stephen Gould, Georg Zeppenfeld, Evelyn Herlitzius, Iain Paterson, Raimund Nolte, Christa Mayer
BR-Klassik Internet Streaming
Leaving aside for a moment the extraordinary musical and singing challenges that are required to perform Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the staging of the work is just as vital to the overall impact of the work, and can be just as difficult to conceptualise. What matters more in the setting of this work is not naturalistic locations and dramatic representation but rather establishing mood and an environment that can get across the innumerable and interweaving layers of hatred and love, light and dark, love and death, male and female desire, physical and spiritual fulfilment, all the while respecting the philosophical and psychological context of the work. No easy matter.
Katharina Wagner's production for the 2015 Bayreuth Festival is surprisingly then one of the more accessible reworkings of the composer's work there in recent years, and it's also (coincidentally or not) one of the most successful. It's perhaps because this is one Wagner work where real-world naturalism is least essential to its purpose. This is opera or music-drama on a whole other level, one the doesn't need superfluous commentary or revisions. That's not to say that the composer's great-granddaughter plays it entirely 'straight'; there are a few twists and touches applied, but in almost every respect they serve to enhance the otherworldly power and greatness of the work.
The first thing you notice is that this is an unusually dark staging. Bayreuth of recent years has tended to go for clean, bright, boldly coloured productions. Tristan und Isolde is of course a work where darkness in opposition to the light plays a major part, but even the last Bayreuth Tristan und Isolde, eccentrically directed by Christoph Marthaler, was bright and boldly coloured and not unsuccessful in its presentation of the work either. Instead of a ship in Act I then the set consists of a maze of staircases, platforms and risers; Act II take place not on a tower but in a pitch black dungeon; and Act III's island of Kareol is really just a void, where the dying Tristan lies surround by members of his crew while he experiences nightmares and hallucinations.
That is fine as far as mood goes, but more important is how Katharina Wagner uses it to draw something more out of the characterisation and psychology of the characters in relation to one another. It's clear from earlier on than usual that there's a history between Isolde and Tristan and that it goes deeper than the story that Isolde relates to Brangäne about Morold's death and her nursing the wounded Tristan back to health. There's certainly a sense of betrayal there in her being abducted to be brought from Ireland to Cornwall to be the wife of King Marke, but here it's clear that Isolde is more angry at his betrayal of the deep feelings she knows that he has for her, feelings that she also shares.
That doesn't really need to be emphasised, as it does become very evident by the end of Act I, but the director's little nudges are useful and meaningful and do lead towards a slight spin on events in the critical moment of the imbibing of the love potion. The little hints are there in the distance between them on the platforms that they strive to bridge, lingering desperate embraces, and unrestrained greedy kisses in those grasped moments let us know that the passion is already there between them and doesn't need a magic potion to unleash it. Kurwenal and Brangäne can barely hold them apart. Accepting their condition, they don't even drink the potion at the key moment, the director accordingly using the music of revelation more of a means of hesitance to accept the enormity of the truth, and it seems Wagner's music can really be used effectively in this way. The truth acknowledged, they pour the potion over their joined hands and then attempt to throttle each other as the ship arrives in Cornwall.
It's a bit of a variation on the traditional interpretation, but it by no means invalidates the essential truth of Tristan and Isolde uniting their love and accepting that it can only be consummated in death. If on paper that sounds an unnecessary distortion, the proof of its effectiveness in simply there in the performance and the impact it has at the fall of the curtain. That of course is not entirely down to choices made in the direction, but in collaboration with the musical forces that Christian Thielemann handles with his customary attention to detail, with intelligence in the reading of the score, and in the management of its intent and its dynamic. It's also evidently much to do with how convincingly the singers can get across the complex relationship that Wagner has weaved into the score and the philosophy of the work. Quite simply, everything comes together to incredible effect.
Any doubts about whether Stephen Gould is capable of singing Tristan well were already pretty much put to rest by his excellent performance as Siegfried in this year's Vienna Ring. He is really finding his Wagner voice, and if there are a few areas in Act I where he doesn't quite sustain the notes, his Act II performance is more authoritative and his Act III outstanding. Again it's a question of completeness, not viewing his performance in isolation. Katharina Wagner's slight reworking of the Liebestrank scene allows more tenderness to creep into the scene than an outburst or release of tension, and Gould and Herlitzius's delivery of this tender moment is simply beautiful. It ties in also with Thielemann's conducting, measuring the pace and drive of the work to culminate in this moment of beauty, finding the Romantic flourishes the staging needs and unwaveringly holding it.
That comes through just as effectively in Gould's wonderful delivery of 'So starben wir, um ungetrennt' in Act II, but it's as much a matter of pace, measured delivery and presentation as just great singing. Katharina Wagner's exploration of Tristan and Isolde's Love/Death pact with the Night is explored hanging little lighted stars in the intimacy of an improvised tent in their dungeon. The realisation that there is no room for their love on this plane of existence is bound in a cylindrical cage and expanded outward by projections of the figures walking (reminiscent of Bill Viola's video installations for the Paris Opera Tristan) and transforming into children. Floating though this is a gorgeous 'O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe', with Christa Mayer's Brangäne voice of warning to the sleeping dreamers utterly haunting. Thielemann suspends the moment of blissful revelation and acceptance in the most extraordinarily beautiful way.
The production however never lets the work get carried away in blissful reverie, as the presence of King Marke soon brings us back to earth. Marke is characterised sympathetically for the pain of betrayal he bears - and it's beautifully sung as such by Georg Zeppenfeld - but there is an edge of threat and danger there too. Wearing a long overcoat and a fedora, wielding a flick-knife and kneeing Tristan in the stomach, there is a gangland thuggish quality to a Marke who has been denied his trophy wife. The characterisation works, and doesn't jar with what has come before other that where it is indeed meant to be jarring. It conveys without over-emphasis that sense of gangland honour and bonds of blood, arguably in a more meaningful way than were it between a king and his knight.
It's all about balance and application of emphasis in the right places, and as far I am concerned, Katharina Wagner doesn't put a foot wrong, at least up until the end of the Liebestod. The performance ends with Isolde led away by Marke rather than expiring on the spot, but even that gives rise to interesting questions and implications around the Romantic nature of their love. Act III finds other means of sustaining attention during the often interminable wait for Isolde and at the same time finds good visual ways to explore the depths of Tristan's pathology (if you want to view it as such). Here Tristan is tormented by nightmarish visions of Isolde trapped in a pyramid of Light suffering terrible torments, unable to join him in Darkness, in Death. All attention remains focussed on the aching longing in Tristan's words, and the climax consequently can't help but be immensely moving. It's one of the best third Acts of Tristan und Isolde I've seen for a long time in an overall very impressive production.
Links: BR-Klassik, Bayreuther Festspiele