Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A powerful, compelling and satisfying opera: Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Act 2) - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang
(Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
A powerful, compelling and satisfying opera: Tristan und Isolde; Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang, Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, René Pape, Iain Paterson, dir: Katharina Wagner, cond: Christian Thielemann; Bayreuth Festival
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Aug 20 2017 Star rating: 4.0
A revival of Katharina Wagner's powerful production at the Bayreuth Festival

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Stephen Gould, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Stephen Gould, Petra Lang
(Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
This production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival first saw the light of day a couple of years ago immediately finding success with the cognoscenti of the Green Hill whilst also marking the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich. This revival, 20 August 2017, featured Stephen Gould as Tristan, Petra Lang as Isolde with Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, René Pape, Iain Paterson, and Christian Thielemann conducting.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest works ever written to pure erotic love echoing 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 - artistic director of the Bayreuth Festival, daughter of Wolfgang Wagner and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner - tapped into the opera’s emotional strength delivering a brilliant, powerful and compelling production that drifted at times from its traditional staging especially at the end. However, Wagner doesn’t seem to mind taking chances of finding new ideas in which to explore the works of her great-grandfather whom, I’m sure, would approve!

The first act is highly impressive not just musically speaking but visually, too. When we meet Tristan and Isolde they are already deeply in love and frantically searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne struggling to keep them apart but to no avail, of course. When they eventually meet it proved a powerful and emotive scene. They simply gazed longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepared for Isolde is immediately discarded by her. The couple’s love for each other was sealed right from the start.

But what makes this act so highly 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 Prison) cited in the programme.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Christa Mayer, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
 Christa Mayer, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
 Overall, the visual impact of the opera was quite staggering greatly aided by Thomas Kaiser’s strikingly-designed costumes ranging from medieval to futuristic styles while Reinhard Traub’s atmospheric lighting reflected the dark and broody nature of the piece and was seen to good effect in the last act.

The scenario of act two (in striking contrast to act one’s detailed set) was 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’re constantly kept under surveillance with piercing-bright searchlights trained upon them. Eventually, Tristan’s blindfolded and stabbed in the back by Melot, notably sung by Raimund Nolte, who played the part with a slight hint of nervousness. But was he carrying out King Marke’s orders or secretly jealous of Tristan’s intense relationship with Isolde?

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Rene Pape (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Rene Pape (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/
Enrico Narwath)
In the final act, the staging was dark, atmospheric and cloaked in a thin hazy mist with the tension brought to breaking-point as 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 at whim the length and breadth of the stage reflecting a profusion of distorted images of Isolde driving Tristan to madness and insanity. But the deeply-etched ending where a distraught Isolde shields in her arms the dead body of Tristan with King Marke showing humility and offering the couple his blessing is reinterpreted by Wagner. 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, sang Tristan cutting through the score like a knife through butter. Surely, the role belongs to him! What a voice! But Dresden-born bass, René Pape (a ‘favourite’ of the Green Hill and the world over) equally matched it with a commanding and confident performance as King Marke while Petra Lang - a former mezzo but now hitting the soprano range with consummate ease - delivered a brilliant reading of Isolde.

Handpicked and coached for the part by Bayreuth’s music director, Christian Thielemann, Ms Lang didn’t let him down. Her performance, especially in the Liebestod, was stunning (and dramatic) to say the least and it more than stamped her authority on what is one of the most demanding of all Wagnerian female roles. Ms Lang, however, is no stranger to Bayreuth. She sang Brangäne in Tristan in 2005 and 2006 and her interpretation of Ortrud in Hans Neuenfels’ production of Lohengrin was memorable and a performance to chalk up.

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

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2017 - Christa Mayer, Stephen Gould, Rene Pape, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Wagner: Tristan und Isolde (Closing scene) - Bayreuth Festival 2017
Christa Mayer, Stephen Gould, Rene Pape, Petra Lang (Photo Bayreuther Festspiele/Enrico Narwath)
Maestro Thielemann was on top form (he’s never far away from it, though) tackling the score with gusto and getting from his charges in the pit some rich, imaginative and warm playing that was simply thrilling to hear in the confines of the Festspielhaus built and designed by Richard Wagner for the sole purpose of presenting his Teutonic masterpieces. And what masterpieces they are!
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

The 2015 performances of this production is available on  DVD, with Stephen Gould, Evelyn Herlitzius, conducted Christian Thielemann, available from Amazon.

Read our conversation with the distinguished Wagner soprano Dame Anne Evans and soprano Claire Rutter who has recently moved into Wagnerian roles, Singing Wagner.

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