OPERA NEWS - Tristan und Isolde
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Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuth Festival

In Review Bayreuth Tristan lg 1015
Mayer, Gould (on platform) and Herlitzius in Tristan at Bayreuth
© Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Nawrath

WHAT BAYREUTH DESPERATELY NEEDED this season was a successful new production. The past few years have seen a drop in the level of staging quality, resulting in an unheard-of availability of tickets, rather than the once-standard ten-year waiting list. The artistic and musical excellence of the only new production at this summer’s festival, Tristan und Isolde, staged by Katharina Wagner, were most important and most welcome. 

The new Tristan, seen on August 2, took a very dark view of the star-crossed protagonists and their destinies. It was apparent that director Wagner had read the text very carefully; her ideas, some seemingly abstruse and arbitrary, were all true to the libretto itself. She also took particular care to respect the music, bucking the egregious trend of filling the stage with action during overtures and preludes. 

Act I is set on an abstract ship designed by Frank Peter Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert. Myriad platforms and stairways, some leading nowhere, some, in a triumph of stage machinery, changing position, allow the protagonists to hear and see everything. The two title characters simply cannot keep their eyes off each other. Isolde is the aggressor here: she not only passionately kisses Tristan at the beginning of the act’s final scene but seeks bodily contact with him at every opportunity. Whether she is holding the love or death potion is of no consequence since the lovers join hands and pour out the contents of the vial. The background is dark, as is the lighting by Reinhard Traub. 

The disturbing, disconcertingly bleak interpretation of Act II is more difficult to digest. King Marke is represented as an autocratic, despotic mafia-like boss who has thrown Tristan, Isolde, Kurwenal and Brangäne into a subterranean torture chamber from which there is no escape. Melot, Marke and Marke’s henchmen observe the lovers from above until it is time to end their pseudo-idyll. Act III is all darkness and fog. Marke is little more than a brutal murderer, facetiously adorning himself with a black mourning band to show his respect for a fallen “hero.” Isolde, in shock and mentally unstable by the time of the Liebestod, lifts Tristan from his bier in order to show those left onstage that her lover is still alive, after which she is led away by Marke.

By removing all the romance from an intrinsically Romantic work, Katharina Wagner took an enormous risk: had she left a bit of the Romantic in, her interpretation might have been even more telling. Though her staging might not be one’s ideal Tristan, it is a respectful, intelligent accomplishment that spellbound the audience if not always convincing it. The Bayreuth public ranges from the ultra-conservative to the extreme opposite, but there was — amazingly — not one boo to be heard.

Evelyn Herlitzius is a superb actress, totally committed dramatically and ready to risk her voice in any way necessary to portray Isolde. It has become a struggle for Herlitzius to produce a unified sound: her middle range sounds forced, her top works only at full throttle, and her phrasing is at times questionable. That she triumphed was a credit to sheer willpower. Her rage in Act I was awe-inspiring, her Liebestod touching, her Act II less so. Stephen Gould was a stentorian Tristan. His dark timbre, his strength and his stamina enabled him to sing the part from start to finish with tonal beauty and undiminished force. 

The most glorious singing of the evening came from bass Georg Zeppenfeld, whose King Marke was astounding. Christa Mayer was a full-voiced Brangäne. Iain Paterson, whose voice sounded beautiful at all times, was a sympathetic if somewhat pallid Kurwenal. Conductor Christian Thielemann justified his position as a first-class Wagner interpreter with a passionate reading. The Bayreuth Festival Orchestra has seldom sounded better, with effulgent strings and perfect intonation in the woodwinds and brass that not even the muggy weather could affect. Maestro and cast were rewarded with repeated curtain calls, accompanied by loud, unanimous bravos. —Jeffrey A. Leipsic

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