Tristan and Isolde at the Bayreuth Festival
July 26th, 2017, by Opera Views
Photos: Bayreuth Festival, Enrico Nawrath
Christian Thielemann, a musical chief of a festival, is undoubtedly a leader in this revival of “Tristan and Isolde” from 2015. We experience a superior, three-dimensional orchestra sound, that entirely unfolds and blossoms in excellent acoustics of Wagner’s theatre. Thielemann leads and accompanies, firmly keeping all the dynamic reins in his hands. One could physically feel his love and devotion to the score in its smallest detail mastering a majestic, passionate, dreamy, explosive sound culminating in the most beautiful piano in Isolde’s death scene.
The love triangle between Isolde, Tristan and King Mark builds up a centre of the story. Isolde, an Irish princess, must marry King Mark, whom she doesn’t love. The one she does love is Mark’s devote knight Tristan, whom Mark also raised up as a son. Tristan, who is himself is in love with Isolde, summons his emotions, renounces his passion in favour of King Mark and is about to sail with Isolde towards Cornwall. The long days on the board of a ship are filled with random, inconclusive encounters between both and Isolde’s desperation and rage. She is determined to put an end to her and Tristan’s life and prepares a death potion that would kill them both instantly.
Brangäne, Isolde’s devote companion switches the death drink to a Love one, thus laying a foundation for the curse-like, unhappy, inescapable love-passion. At the King Mark´s castle, Isolde, already a Queen, and Tristan, full of love and longing for each other, ignore all the rules of court and indulge their passion. Tristan, who betrayed his King not only as a ruler but also as a parent, is, in turn, betrayed by one of his close friends and deadly injured in the fight. In his castle, he yearns for Isolde and curses the damned love potion.
King Mark, initially devastated by Tristan’s treason, learns from Brangäne of the real reason behind. He hurries to Tristan’s castle to bestow him with forgiveness. However, it is already too late. Tristan, who managed to live through Isolde’s arrival, is dead. Inconsolable Isolde mourns her beloved and dies at his side.
Katharina Wagner, composer’s great-granddaughter and an artistic director of the festival, took over the staging abstracting herself from the emotional story background. She disregarded the Wagner’s love passion towards Mathilde Wesendonck, with whom he fell in love during his exile in Zurich and created, together with stage designers Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert, a minimalistic, but clear, enveloped in dim light (Reinhardt Traub) esthetic staging. Costumes by Thomas Kaiser, also minimalistic in its design and colours, look like modern time garments. Ideally corresponding with the dreary, somber tale of two unfortunate lovers, this concentration on the actual love story between Tristan and Isolde seems to reflect Wagner’s/Schopenhauer’s theses of great love and the pure will for its great renunciation.
In the act one, we experience a stairway maze labyrinth of the ship that allows clear separation and concentration on the singular personal drama. In the second act, we witness Isolde and Tristan creating their love paradise island in the middle of the height-tech prison yard of King Mark’s castle. The third act takes place in Tristan’s castle, where stage director creates a touching atmosphere of grief and eternal parting. Katharina Wagner’s idea of perpetually disappearing headless Isoldes placed within illuminated triangle cages symbolizes lover´s futile attempts to escape their fate as well as the evanescence of life.
The singer’s ensemble is throughout presented with great Wagner voices highlighting Stephen Gould as powerful yet sensitive Tristan: A real Wagner singer par excellence. The mezzo-soprano Petra Lang as Isolde had some difficulties on that night and needed quite a time to get in vocally. More concentrated on the sound than diction, Lang often sacrificed the understanding of the text. Her most touching moment was the beginning of the famous death scene (Liebestod), that she started, together with Thielemann, in most breathtaking piano. Brangäne of Chrysta Mayer sang with powerful round mezzo and excellent diction. René Pape as King Mark rounds up this quartet with great sound and enormous stage presence. Baritone Ian Paterson as Kurnewal of and tenor Raimund Nolte as Melot, tenor Tansel Akzeybek as shepherd/young Sailor and baritone Kay Stiefermann as helmsman completed this singing cast more with excellent singing and acting.
Even though the production was met with numerous, although not really deserved Buh-calls for the staging, this production undoubtedly can be viewed as a successful one advocating giving it a try. It allows us to experience surprising, hidden shades of this great opera plot and evokes grand emotions for its phenomenal music. The production will return next summer on July 27th, 2018. More information on cast and staging and Festival can be found here.
Cast: Conductor: Christian Thielemann, Stage director: Katharina Wagner, Stage design: Frank Philipp Schlößmann, Matthias Lippert, Costumes: Thomas Kaiser, Dramaturgy: Daniel Weber, Light: Reinhard Traub, Choir: Eberhard Friedrich.
Tristan: Stephen Gould, King Mark: René Pape, Isolde: Petra Lang, Kurnewal: Iain Paterson, Melot: Raimund Nolte, Brangäne: Christa Mayer, Shepperd/Young seaman: Tansel Akzeybek, Helmsman: Kay Stiefermann, The Festival Choir and Orchestra