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Bayreuth Festival [1] Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival. Conductor: Peter Schneider. Bayreuth Festspielhaus, 26.8.2008. (JPr)

The late Heiner Müller said of Tristan und Isolde that ‘Nobody really yearns for death. A yearning for death is surely part of the piece, but that is nothing else than a yearning for another life.’ Questioned as to whether Tristan and Isolde are so deeply in love that they can only come together in death, he replied ‘Nonsense, Romanticism in the worst sense.’ Heiner Müller was one of East Germany's most distinguished playwrights and in 1993 became the equally distinguished director the Bayreuth Festival's production of Tristan und Isolde, his very first opera production. His concept reduced the drama to an intensely personal, yet emotionally restrained struggle of love and longing.

In stage design by his long-term associate Erich Wonder they turned the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde into a coherent and fascinating geometry of love. Colours and forms shifted according to the mood. Yohji Yamamoto’s simple, yet effective costumes were characterized by large transparent neck collars. Müller used small gestures instead of sweeping displays of passion such as in the Act II love duet where Tristan and Isolde, instead of embracing rapturously, stood back to back and side by side and touch, ever so delicately, only their respective fingertips.

The reverie about this evocative production came about by my second visit to Christoph Marthaler’s similarly ‘emotionally restrained’ production that superseded Müller’s in 2005 and returned to Bayreuth after a year off alongside an engrossing essay ‘Music and Myth in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde’ in the programme book which included photos from Wieland Wagner’s productions as well as Heiner Müller’s. Marthaler is Swiss, also a playwright and a theatre director before he turned his attention to opera.  However Marthaler's Tristan und Isolde though equally minimalist in movement could not be more different than Müller’s. In the Müller production inaction had great significance but with Marthaler when nothing happens … well nothing really happens.

As staged here  by his assistant Anna-Sophie Mahler, Marthaler’s direction involves little actual contact between the main characters in sets (by Anna Viebrock)which descend down three decks of an ocean liner probably dating from the mid-twentieth century. Act I is in a large lounge with settees and chairs of different types which regularly get turned over in Isolde’s turmoil then put back up again mainly by Brangäne. Tristan is often seen in the background and in his blue blazer may indeed be the ship’s captain. Act II, one floor down, is a sort of rectangular waiting room with a couple of stools and a ceiling of  intermittently flickering small circular lights which fascinate Isolde during King Marke’s long soliloquy after his betrayal by the lovers. Earlier,  Isolde was eager to turn the lights off at any one of a number of light switches and had to be restrained by Brangäne from giving the signal to Tristan. Act III is in what might be a large gymnasium (or as we know more fashionable say today – a ‘fitness centre’) with ropes and small hoops around the sides: some turn out, or on, to be seemingly spare light bulbs as seen in Act II. Tristan lies on  a railed-off hospital bed in the centre which can be raised or tilted if necessary. As some of the crew during the Act III Prelude come to pay their respects,  it is never too clear whether this his actually Tristan’s bier and he is already dead - making any action just a figment of Kurwenal’s clearly fevered imagination (he has collapsed to the floor a couple of times) until Marke re-enters. Most of the characters retreat to face the walls near the end and Isolde sinks down onto the vacated bed as the opera concludes with her covering herself over with the sheet.

In addition to Tristan’s blazer, the costumes (also by Anna Viebrock) are rather perfunctory and include a woollen blue jumper and skirt for Isolde in Act I and a canary yellow twin-set for her in Act II which Marke buttons up in his only response to his wife’s infidelity. The prissy Brangäne who treats Isolde like a big child is given a simple green blouse and brown skirt for Act II and Kurwenal has a tweed jacket and a kilt throughout. There is a lot of dowdy brown on show.

With about as much action as a concert performance of the work,  this is not great theatre. The singers basically stand on their spot and sing. The withholding of any true emotion seems deliberate and does little to raise the emotional temperature of the performance as a whole. Sometimes characters seem  to take an age to walk off the stage often circling the walls before they do so. There was the intensity and passion in the music that was never matched by what happened on the stage, from Bayreuth veteran Peter Schneider and his reliable Bayreuth orchestra. Schneider rarely disappoints and his performances never drag because he is not searching for too much musical-psychological profundity. This is there of course but in balance with the motivations of the characters.

Peter Schneider was fortunate with a cast nearly as good as we can expect these days of limited Wagnerian talent. Robert Dean Smith is outstanding with a wonderful technique that makes him the most lyrical of all possible Tristans. His voice effortlessly rides the orchestra and there is never an ugly sound even in his Act III turmoil. Along with Robert Hull’s strong, compassionate and moving, though strangely avuncular King Marke,  it was possible to hear most of their German. For many of the rest of the cast it was difficult at times to tell what language they were singing in however and it may not be long before surtitles arrive at Bayreuth:they are already found in many other German opera houses. 

Michelle Breedt was a vocally steady, dramatically convincing, if not outstanding Brangäne and all the minor roles from Martin Snell’s Steersman, Ralf Lukas’s Melot to Arnold Bezuyen’s Shepherd were solidly sung by Bayreuth stalwarts of varying vintages. Jukka Rasilainen, the Finnish bass-baritone, was luxury casting as Kurwenal and truth be told he sounded more like the Wotan he often is than Tristan’s elderly retainer. Equally committed was Swedish soprano, Iréne Theorin, who has mown down many other spear-carrying Walküre Valkyries (all she has done before at Bayreuth and Covent Garden) to graduate to sing Brünnhilde herself elsewhere (Notably in the Copenhagen 'Ring'.  See recent  DVD review. Ed) and now Isolde at Bayreuth. Her voice is a little on the sharp side and very loud,  but her commitment vocally as well as dramatically was very exciting. She was a very believable Isolde – at least as much as Marthaler allowed her to be. She was clearly in love, distraught at being caught out in Act II and keen to follow her beloved,  ‘Wohin nun Tristan scheidet’ …  to where he knew he was bound for… his death.

We do not get a new Tristan und Isolde until 2015 when Katharina Wagner will direct it with Christian Thielemann conducting and we will have to put up with this meanwhile. It will open the Festival next year perhaps because of its musical strength this year and because the new Parsifal already had the first night this year. The sets already look, on what is only their third outing, to be in some distress and this production’s longevity must be in some doubt but enjoy the musical performance if you get a chance, Tristans are rare enough, those that are as musically satisfying as this rarer still.

Jim Pritchard

Picture: Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Enrico Navarath

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