Tristan und Isolde


Tristan und Isolde

Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth Festival, Germany, August 2016. Director Katharina Wagner, conducted by Christian Thielemann, reviewed by Tony Cooper

This production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner first saw the light of day last year, immediately finding success with the cognoscenti on the Green Hill, while also marking the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest eulogies ever written to pure love and evoking the legendary days of King Arthur, Tristan – which Wagner rated as one of his ‘favourites’ – is an emotional work to say the least.

And Katharina Wagner tapped into the opera’s emotional strength to deliver a brilliant, powerful and compelling production that drifted at times from its traditional staging, especially at the end. However, Ms Wagner found new ways to explore the works of her great-grandfather whom, I am sure, would have approved.

The first act is impressive not just musically but visually. When we meet Tristan and Isolde they’re already deeply in love and searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne battling hard to keep them apart but to no avail.

When the lovers eventually meet it proves to be a powerful and emotive scene. They gaze longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepares for Isolde is immediately discarded by her as the couple’s love is already sealed.

What makes this act so impressive and engaging is Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprising a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air, an influence, perhaps, of Giovanni Piranesi or MC Escher. But it was Piranesi’s engraving Il ponte levatoio: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The drawbridge: the Imaginary Prisons) cited in the programme.

Overall, the visual impact was striking, aided by Thomas Kaiser’s costumes ranging from medieval to futuristic styles, while Reinhard Traub’s atmospheric lighting evoked  the dark and broody nature of the piece, was seen to particularly good effect in the final act.

The scenario of Act II (in striking contrast to Act I) is played out in a prison exercise yard with more than a hint of DDR political interference in evidence as Stasi-styled guards (King Marke’s henchmen) look down upon the lovers forced into a tiny cell. They are constantly kept under surveillance with ultra-bright searchlights trained upon them. Eventually, Tristan is blindfolded and stabbed in the back by Melot, sung by Raimund Nolte. But was he carrying out King Marke’s orders or secretly jealous of Tristan’s relationship with Isolde?

In the final act, the tension builds to breaking-point. Tristan tries in vain to reach out to his beloved Isolde one last time, seeking her through a series of triangular mirrors representing, possibly, the romantic love triangle. They appear and disappear, and the length and breadth of the stage reflected a profusion of distorted images of Isolde driving Tristan to insanity.

The deeply-etched ending is reinterpreted by Ms. Wagner. A distraught Isolde shields the dead body of Tristan in her arms with King Marke offering the couple his blessing. After the singing of the Liebestod, Marke quietly drags the body of Isolde (very much alive it seems but, maybe, an apparition) across a bare stage thereby claiming his rightful bride kidnapped by his nephew.

American heldentenor Stephen Gould delivered a brilliant interpretation of Tristan. German bass, Georg Zeppenfeld (a favourite of the Green Hill) matched it with a commanding and confident performance as King Marke; while Frankfurt-born singer, Petra Lang – a former mezzo but now hitting the soprano range – sang Isolde for the first time. Handpicked and coached for the part by Bayreuth’s music director, Christian Thielemann, her performance, especially in the Liebestod, stamped her authority on one of the most demanding of all Wagnerian female roles. Lang is no stranger to Bayreuth. She sang Brangäne in Tristan in 2005 and 2006 and her performance of Ortrud in Hans Neuenfels’ recent production of Lohengrin was admirable.

The pairing of Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson as Kurwenal and German mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer, as Brangäne, hit the mark, as did the orchestra which plays such a dominant role in this opera commenting on every psychological and dramatic development through leitmotivs and the endless melodising that Wagner substituted for arias and duets.

Conductor Christian Thielemann was on fine form, drawing from his charges imaginative and warm playing in the confines of the Festspielhaus, designed by Wagner to present his Teutonic masterpieces. And what masterpieces they are!


TONY COOPER is QR’s opera critic 

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