Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde (Berlin)
Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin - 2018
Andreas Schager, Stephen Milling, Anja Kampe, Boaz Daniel, Stephan Rügamer, Ekaterina Gubanova, Adam Kutny, Linard Vrielink
Culturebox - February 2018
Even if the setting is very different from what you might expect, and there are one or two interpolations or diversions from the script, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production of Tristan und Isolde adheres fairly closely to the original specifications in the libretto, much like his last production of a Wagner opera at the Berlin Staastoper Under den Linden, Parsifal. There's always a case to be made for a more abstract setting for both works, which operate more on a spiritual level than a geographical one, and that was certainly the case with Harry Kupfer's production which this new one replaces. Tcherniakov however seems to reject this high-flown abstraction and throw out the Schopenhauerian philosophical elements that one would think an essential element of the opera, attempting rather to bring the work firmly down to earth and see it in purely human terms. Surely this is a mistake with a work like Tristan und Isolde?
Well, you would think so, but Tcherniakov nonetheless managed to introduce other ideas and ways of looking at Parsifal into that production, and if not quite reach the heady heights that the work can aspire to (although Daniel Barenboim, with Anja Kampe and Andreas Schager certainly helped the reach the mystical dimension of the work in the music), he did at least find an alternative and perhaps more relatably human way to address some of the questions that this work poses. The same team of Barenboim, Tcherniakov, Kampe and Schager apply a similar approach with this new Tristan und Isolde.
Act I takes place here in a wood-panelled lounge of a luxury liner, where a group of businessmen in suits sit around enjoying a few post-meeting drinks. They seem to be happy to have conducted a successful deal in Ireland, bringing back a Queen for King Marke of Cornwall. A screen shows voyage updates and video cam footage around the ship, Isolde becoming increasingly irritated as they approach the English shores. Other than the obvious modernisation of the set however, there is little that deviates (and there's little room to deviate one would think) from the original stage directions.
The one area where there is opportunity to establish a character on the work in Act I is obviously the drinking of the love potion and here Brangäne, visibly distressed at Isolde's desire to use a death potion, obviously doesn't add it to the drink, but neither does she switch it for a love potion. Sharing a hefty glass of vodka, you are left with the impression that it's just the alcohol that breaks down Tristan and Isolde inhibitions and reveals their true feelings for each other. It's hardly the most romantic depiction of the love potion scene, but there are other musical and dramatic elements at play here and Tcherniakov superimposes a brief green-tinted projection of Isolde nursing the wounded Tristan from their encounter in Ireland over the proceedings. It's not much but it does achieve the necessary background for the deep shift of overwhelming and uncontrollable desire that defies normal human boundaries.
Those boundaries however in Tcherniakov's vision remain the rather more mundane ones of middle class morality and social convention. In Act II we're in an elegant drawing room, the walls again decorated with wood panelling and images of trees and a lamp to update the original stage directions. It's the same kind of society that we see in Tcherniakov's productions of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, but here Isolde is an outsider in a world of her own, enraptured by the Goddess of Love. I don't know about Tcherniakov, but Barenboim and Kampe raise the game considerably in Act II, peaking to a fury and a force as Tristan not so much slips in to meet Isolde as practically dances in. Tcherniakov shows two people unbridled and enraptured by something greater, dancing with joy, oblivious to the world outside, giving no thought to social niceties that would restrict and bear down heavily on their illicit union.
It may take some of the spirituality and philosophical musing out of the opera, but as a reflection of how it relates to Wagner's inspiration and desires and his attempts to elevate them into something more meaningful, Tcherniakov's approach has validity and, whether you find it appropriate or not, it strips away the work's metaphysical pretensions. Tristan and Isolde's love is not some transcendence of human desire, but a defiant challenge to any kind of social convention or middle-class morality that might seek to disapprove of it or refuse to recognise the purity of feeling within it. And yet, as the green projections reappear and the "O sink hernieder" Night of Love duet establishes an otherworldly setting,you still get a sense of being in the midst of something that surpasses the mundanity of everyday existence, of something that we would all strive to be able to reach. An impossible height? Of course, but if anyone can persuade you that such a state can exist, it's in how Wagner makes the impossible possible in his music.
At the stage in Act II however the tragic crash between the ideal and reality is not yet on the radar of Tristan and Isolde or Wagner, so it's still possible to believe in the impossible and there's no need for faux-solemnity and gravity that is customary in this opera, but rather the evocation of a state of supreme sublime bliss. That element of danger crashes in by the end of Act II however, and when it does it ought to be felt viscerally. No matter what else you make of the Berlin production as a whole, it's in the musical expression and performance of those states under the direction of Daniel Barenboim that the work just soars. Barenboim's pacing and drive is superb, the score measured in mournfulness, ecstatically driven where necessary without ever being aggressive, shifting from lyrical to dramatic, from a roar to a whimper. With emphasis (at least in the mix of the streamed recording) on brass and woodwind rather than the darker strings, there is more colour given to those moods, shifting emphasis in ways I've never heard before.
Barenboim also takes care in the conducting to allow space for and support of the singing voices. Accordingly, Act III of this Tristan und Isolde is one of the most complete and impressive I've ever seen. Andreas Schager almost makes Act III look effortless, drawing on inexhaustible reserves. You might think that he is perhaps too lively for a mortally wounded man - although there is no obvious wound struck in Act II - but it's clear that if he's going to expire it's won't be from a sword wound but rather exploding with ecstasy, which indeed is more true to Tristan's fate. It's here that the director interpolates somewhat, showing Tristan lost in memories of his mother and father, or reveries even since his mother is pregnant with him in the acted-out domestic scenes that share the stage with him (and a cor anglais player) in his room on Kareol. Tcherniakov at least attempts to make something more of the words and it's certainly more thoughtful than playing the scene with him just writhing in delirium.
Whether you can rationalise it as being something to do with death and rebirth, somehow the simple image of an alarm clock and the drawing of a curtain over the little back room where the prostrate lifeless form of Tristan has been carried creates an extraordinarily effective and moving finale. I don't know if it's really within Wagner's intentions, whether it just finds another way to approach what Wagner intended, but aligned to that remarkable music, with Barenboim's conducting and Anja Kampe reaching those incredible heights, Dmitri Tcherniakov's production does seem to find its own way to capture the indescribable beauty of the sentiments of the final scene. Whatever else you might think about the production, if it gets you there and makes that kind of impact, it's done something right.
Links: Berlin Staatsoper, Culturebox