Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Giovanni Piranesi, le Carceri d’Invenzione

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde                         

Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, directed by Katharina Wagner, conducted by Christian Thielemann, Thursday, 16 August 2018, reviewed by TONY COOPER

This production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner first came to the stage in 2015, the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich. It immediately found favour with the cognoscenti on the Green Hill.

Wagner himself rated Tristan as one of his ‘favourites’ and Katharina Wagner – artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner – tapped into the opera’s emotional strength to deliver a powerful and compelling production that drifted at times away from its traditional staging, especially at the end.

In the highly-impressive first act, not just musically but also visually, Tristan and Isolde frantically search for each other with Kurwenal and Brangäne struggling to keep them apart. When they eventually meet it, proved a powerful and compelling scene. The lovers stare longingly at each other in total silence and they immediately discard the love potion that Brangäne had prepared for Isolde.

Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprised a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air influenced, as the programme notes, by Giovanni Piranesi’s engraving – Il ponte levatoio: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The drawbridge: the Imaginary Prison).

The visual impact of the opera was enhanced by Thomas Kaiser’s strikingly-designed costumes ranging from medieval to futuristic styles, while Reinhard Traub’s lighting reflected the dark and moody nature of the piece but was seen to its best effect in the last act.

The scenario of act two was played out in a prison exercise yard with hints of the DDR, as Stasi-styled guards (King Marke’s henchmen in this case) constantly checked the lovers, forced into a tiny cell, intimidating them with piercingly-bright searchlights. Eventually, Tristan, blindfolded, is stabbed in the back by Melot (the role memorably sung by Raimund Nolte) who played the part with a suggestion of nervousness and uncertainty. Was he just carrying out King Marke’s orders or secretly jealous of Tristan’s relationship with Isolde?

In the final act, the staging is dark, atmospheric and cloaked in a thin hazy bluish-grey mist (aided by a semi-transparent curtain) with the tension rising to breaking-point as Tristan tries in vain to reach out to his beloved Isolde one last time by seeking her through a series of triangular mirrors. Appearing and disappearing at whim the length and breadth of the stage, the mirrors reflected a profusion of distorted images of Isolde, eventually driving Tristan mad.

The casting was excellent. American heldentenor, Stephen Gould, sang Tristan forcefully and passionately. But Georg Zeppenfeld, like René Pape last season, another superstar of the Green Hill, matched his performance as King Marke, while Petra Lang – a former mezzo but now hitting the soprano range – delivered a brilliant reading of Isolde. Handpicked and coached for the part by Bayreuth’s well-respected music director, Christian Thielemann, Ms Lang excelled, notably in that great love-duet with Tristan towards the end of act two, known as ‘Liebesnacht’ – a long, eloquent moving expression summing up a Transfigured love which prefers night to day and death to life.

Ms Lang is no stranger to Bayreuth. She sang Brangäne in Tristan in 2005 and 2006 and Ortrud in Hans Neuenfels’ production of Lohengrin. Her vocal command and dramatic characterisation speak for themselves. In the ‘Liebestod’ (Love-Death) which ends the opera, Isolde softly cradled her dead Hero, while King Marke, now showing a tinge of humility, looking on. A well-loved scene indeed but reinterpreted by Katharina Wagner in a bold way as Marke (during the final bars of the opera) drags the body of Isolde (very much alive it seems in this production but perhaps only an apparition) across a bare stage thereby claiming his rightful bride kidnapped by his nephew. Here, Ms Lang delivered a brilliant and illuminating reading of this dramatic piece of composition that stamped her credentials on this most demanding of Wagner’s female roles.

Maestro Thielemann tackled the score with gusto, getting from his charges in the pit some rich, imaginative and warm playing. In this opera, the orchestra plays a dominant role by commenting on every psychological and dramatic development through a series of leitmotivs and the endless melodising that Wagner substituted for arias and duets.

Tony Cooper is QR’s Opera Critic

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1 Response to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

  1. Stuart Millson says:

    The best Tristan and Isolde that I have witnessed was the splendid, Celtic-in-feeling production by Welsh National Opera in – if my memory serves me correctly – 1993 at the New Theatre, Cardiff. I believe that it was Sir Charles Mackerras conducting.

    Simon Rattle made the point, or reiterated the point, that in the strange, almost atonal, questioning cadence that begins Wagner’s opera, 20th-century music was born. From this moment came Bruckner (the agitated scherzo of the 9th symphony), Mahler (Symphony No. 6), Schoenberg (Gurrelieder – a sort of Tristan and Isolde in dramatic oratorio form), Webern and Berg – the great mass of symphonic and choral music that truly crowned the European tradition; taking music from the classicism of Beethoven – to the late-romantic dawn of Mahler, Vienna and the new century.

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