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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan und Isolde
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Brangäne – Christa Mayer
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke – Georg Zeppenfeld
Melot – Raimund Nolte
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Tansel Akzeybek
Steersman – Kay Stiefermann
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele/Christian Thielemann
Katharina Wagner (Stage Director)
Recorded live at the 2015 Bayreuth Festival
Picture Format 1080i High Definition 16:9; PCM Stereo & DTS-HD MA 5.0; All regions
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Blu-ray 0735254 [249 mins (opera) + 16 min (extras)]

This summer (2016), after ten years of applying, I got a ticket to the Bayreuth Festival. It’s an experience to say more about another time: suffice it to say that everything you have heard about the place is true: the town is appealing, the festival orchestra and chorus are superb, the theatre’s acoustics are extraordinary, and it is hot-as-hell during the performances. Seeing as how you never know whether you’ll get another chance, I splashed out and went to the first night of everything: Parsifal (superb), the Ring (which looked awful) and Holländer (odd but satisfying).

I also got to see the first revival of Tristan und Isolde, the big new production of 2015. It was important for two main reasons: firstly, it was the first production that Christian Thielemann conducted since being (controversially) made the festival’s music director; and secondly, it was Katharina Wagner’s first production since taking over sole directorship of the festival. Hence, a lot was riding on it. Jim Pritchard has reviewed for Seen and Heard both the original production and its 2016 revival.

The revival I saw had an all but identical cast (only the Isolde was different), so reviewing this DG film makes for very interesting comparisons between stage and screen. It’s a dark, gloomy staging, deeply interventionist, with not a hint of the natural world, and nary a suggestion of ship, garden or castle, but for me it rather worked. Act I takes place in a set of corridors, landings and staircases that go nowhere, reminiscent of the world of M. C. Escher. It’s a maze that the four characters inhabit. However, in this staging Tristan and Isolde are already in love: it’s circumstances that are maddeningly keeping them apart. Sometimes these circumstances are Brangäne and Kurwenal, who strive to keep master and mistress away from one another, and sometimes it’s the set itself, with corridors that fly up and down, and staircases that detach themselves to prevent ascent. As they are already in love, there is no need for the magic potion, and they ritualistically pour it out onto their hands at the climax of Act I (the photo on the BD cover).

In Katharina Wagner’s vision, however, King Marke knows of their treachery and punishes them for it brutally. Act II takes place in a prison. At floor level are Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne and Kurwenal, while from the balcony above Marke watches with his men, the light of their searchlights being the light that deters the lovers from their yearning. Tristan is killed at the end of Act II. Act III consists of a vigil around his body, and it is here that the staging’s finest moments come. Tristan’s ghost (I assume) is tormented by various apparitions of Isolde which appear mysteriously in different corners of the stage. Some are real, some are mannequins, but all disintegrate when he tries to reach for them. It’s a beautiful realisation of the unattainability of their love, startling in the theatre and very successful on screen too. Isolde delivers her Liebestod over Tristan’s body and, when she has done so, is gruffly led away by Marke, perhaps to the conjugal duties of an unhappy marriage, or perhaps to something even worse.

Like I said, it’s interventionist; but there’s a long history of that at Bayreuth, not least those Tristans from Ponnelle and Müller (both conducted by Daniel Barenboim), as well as the most recent production from Christoph Marthaler, and if you’re open-minded to the concept then it can be very rewarding. Some things don’t work, most especially the battle and the deaths at the end of Act III, which look silly and laboured, and the Liebestod is inevitably bathetic. Most damagingly, the production makes Marke out to be a cruel, hard-edged despot, which the music tells us that he most definitely is not. It’s hard for me to figure out whether I was sympathetic to it particularly because of my Bayreuth experience, but on screen I think it works very well, particularly the first act, whose bizarrely constructed set is illuminated by some superb camera work from what feels like dozens of angles. The video director generally puts your eye where your ear tells you it should be, and he mostly knows when to move and when to stay still. The opening of the Liebesnacht is very well filmed, for example, with a wide angle of the whole stage capturing some hypnotic projections while the lovers stand totally still. Only at the ecstatic start of the duet did it get in the way, as the camera repeatedly switches away from the lovers and onto some rather extraneous nonsense from Kurwenal and Brangäne, something you can ignore in the theatre but not on the screen.

The only casting difference between this film and the production I saw is in Isolde. I saw Petra Lang, but here we have Evelyn Herlitzius, who was herself a late stand-in for Anja Kampe (who, rumour has it, withdrew from the production due to a Ring-based spat between conductor Christian Thielemann and her partner Kirill Petrenko). Herlitzius’ can be a difficult voice to love. On the one hand she has impressive technique and is undeniably on top of the tessitura, not putting a foot wrong until, damagingly, the climax of the Liebestod where she pushes ahead of Thielemann’s beat, presumably because her stamina was finding his broad speed challenging. On the other, she has a definite shrieky edge, with shrillness that can be quite cutting. However, as your ear tunes into her voice you stop noticing it. She can’t come near Waltraud Meier, the finest Bayreuth Isolde of recent times; but, then, who can?

For me, the greatest thing about this production was Stephen Gould’s Tristan, which is far and away the best I’ve heard in the theatre. Hearing the confidence with which he tackles the mountain range of the third act left me open-mouthed in amazement at times. The voice has strength, power and tremendous heft, fearlessly conquering the tessitura. Knowing that, however, the thing that most struck me on the BD was the lyricism and warmth of his voice, particularly in the first act. He sings the first two acts like the most gorgeous form of bel canto, and to then go from that to the poleaxing final act is an achievement that is just astonishing. For him alone, this BD would be worth picking up. He is undoubtedly the finest exponent of the role today, and I count it a privilege to have heard him sing it.

The other real standout is Georg Zeppenfeld. For me, he was the star of the festival as a whole, singing Marke, Gurnemanz and Hunding through the summer, and singing each of them magnificently. He sings the old King with profound lyricism, great depth of feeling and unflinching musicality, one of the finest I’ve heard on disc recently (though not even he can prevent the king’s second act monologue from becoming a crushing bore).

British bass Iain Paterson sounds great as Kurwenal, bluff warm and humane throughout. Christa Mayer, on the other hand, who was utterly commanding in the theatre, sounds a bit shrill and histrionic as Brangäne, and is a bit disappointing. The other minor roles are all done very well, particularly Tansel Akzeybek’s Shepherd and Sailor.

The other great star, however, is Christian Thielemann, who must have known that a lot was riding on his first production as music director. There is an uncommonly informative interview with him included as a brief extra film, and in it he talks fascinatingly about his approach. He mentions that his reading is very different to his earlier Vienna recording because he altered it to chime with the staging, and he says that he conducted so as consciously to avoid the rapture, seeing Tristan as a parable for the dangers of too much ecstasy, bringing out the misery in the story. Be that as it may, his ear for the long line is pretty breathtaking. His account of the Prelude is volcanic, with surges of energy that threaten to overwhelm towards the end, punctuated by what sound like genuine stabs of pain. He controls the unfolding tension with absolute mastery – only the climax of the Liebesnacht sounds a little rushed – and he generates both excitement and agony in vast quantities. He’s a controversial figure for both musical and personal/political reasons, but this Tristan interpretation silenced even most of his critics.

Thielemann get the biggest roar from the crowd at the end, which brings me to the fact that, unlike many filmed productions from Bayreuth, this one was done totally live in front of an audience, and you get the applause and curtain-calls at the end of each act. However, the audience is mostly well behaved: it just takes them a few seconds to settle down at the start of each act, which isn’t surprising when you can’t see that the conductor is ready to begin.

As I mentioned above, I guess I hold this film in special affection because it reminds me of my year at the Festival, and I haven’t made it a Recording of the Month because I understand how it might polarise viewers. I can definitely see the appeal for a wider audience, however. It will infuriate traditionalists, and will confirm the prejudices of anyone who thinks that the Bayreuth Festival is going to hell-in-a-handcart, but there are riches there if you’re willing to look for them, and I’ll go back to this again and again. As an aside, this also marks the beginning of a partnership between the Bayreuth Festival and Deutsche Grammophon. Apparently DG are planning on releasing several Bayreuth productions over the next few years, so watch this space for more: with a bit of luck they might release 2016’s Parsifal.

Incidentally, the identical cast (with Petra Lang as Isolde) is due to sing the opera at Bayreuth in 2017, and you shouldn’t think that you have absolutely no chance of seeing it if you haven’t spent years on the festival’s waiting list. The lady I sat next to in the auditorium told me that, while she had been on the list for ten years, her husband had turned up on the day and had had no difficulty in picking up a ticket at the box office, so don’t ever despair of getting one. Even the impregnable fortress of the Bayreuth Festival has ways in.

Simon Thompson



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