Tuesday 21 August 2018

Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Tansel Akzeybek, Stephen Gould, Petra Lang, Christa Mayer, Raimund Nolte, Iain Paterson, Kay Stiefermann, Georg Zeppenfeld, dir: Katharina Wagner, cond: Christian Thielemann; Bayreuth Festival, Germany Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 16 August 2018 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A stellar cast was gathered together and they delivered a powerful five-star performance

This thoughtful and enlightening production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner came to the Bayreuth Festival's stage in 2015 (how times flies!) immediately finding favour with the cognoscenti of the Green Hill whilst also marking the 150th anniversary of its world première at Munich. For the 2018 revival of the production (seen 16 August 2018), Christian Thielemann conducted with Stephen Gould as Tristan, Petra Lang as Isolde, Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, Iain Paterson as Kurwenal, Raimund Nolte as Melot and Christa Mayer as Brangäne.

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, she doesn’t mind taking risks and engaging in new ideas in which to explore the works of her great-grandfather who, I’m sure, would greatly approve.

A highly-impressive first act - not just musically speaking but visually speaking, too - focused on Tristan and Isolde frantically searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne struggling to keep them apart but, of course, to no avail. When they eventually meet it proved a powerful, emotive and telling scene. The lovers just stared longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepared for Isolde is immediately discarded by her and Tristan in a romantically-charged joint ceremony as the couple’s love was vacuumed sealed right from the start.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
What makes this act so highly impressive, engaging and so full of mystery is greatly helped by Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprising a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air influenced, no doubt, by the work 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.
Overall, the visual impact of the opera was spot on, absolutely staggering, in fact, enhanced by Thomas Kaiser’s strikingly-designed costumes ranging from medieval to futuristic styles while Reinhard Traub’s lighting reflected the dark and moody nature of the piece but was seen to its best effect in the last act.

However, the scenario of act two was extraordinary and played out in a prison exercise yard with more than a hint of DDR political interference surrounding the scenario as Stasi-styled guards (King Marke’s henchmen in this case) checked the lovers, forced into a tiny cell, round the clock, intimidating them by piercing-bright searchlights constantly trained upon them. Eventually, Tristan, blindfolded, is stabbed in the back by Melot (the role so notably sung by Raimund Nolte) who played the part with a slight hint of nervousness and uncertainty. Was he carrying out King Marke’s orders or secretly jealous of Tristan’s relationship with Isolde? I wonder!

In the final act, the staging is dark, atmospheric and cloaked in a thin hazy bluish-grey mist (aided by a semi-transparent curtain) with the tension rising to breaking-point as Tristan tries in vain to reach out to his beloved Isolde one last time by seeking her through a series of triangular mirrors representing, possibly, the romantic love triangle. Appearing and disappearing at whim the length and breadth of the stage, the mirrors reflected a profusion of distorted images of Isolde driving Tristan to madness and insanity proving an utterly innovative, sensitive and excellent piece of staging.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
The casting was excellent, too! American heldentenor, Stephen Gould, sang Tristan (a role he’s strongly associated with), forcefully and passionately, cutting through the score like a knife through butter. Surely, the role belongs to him! What a voice! What a stature! But Georg Zeppenfeld, like René Pape last season (superstars of the Green Hill, that’s for sure) equally matched his performance as King Marke while Petra Lang - a former mezzo but now hitting high the soprano range - delivered a brilliant reading of Isolde.

Handpicked and coached for the part by Bayreuth’s well-respected music director, Christian Thielemann, Ms Lang excelled in the role. Her performance, especially in that great love-duet with Tristan towards the end of act two, known as ‘Liebesnacht’ - a long, eloquent moving expression summing up Transfigured love which prefers night to day and death to life - was brilliantly executed by the loving couple who powered their way through Wagner’s rich and complex score delivering a brilliant rendition of one of the highlights of the whole opera.

But Ms Lang’s 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. Her vocal command speaks for itself but the dramatic characterisation of the roles I’ve seen her in are second to none, too.

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.

And the ‘Liebestod’ (Love-Death) which ends the opera in a climatic burst of dramatic energy and in a highly-romantic way witnesses Isolde, Transfigured by her emotions, softly cuddling her dead Hero in her hands, with King Marke, showing a tinge of humility, looking on. A well-loved scene but reinterpreted by Katharina Wagner in a bold, striking and dramatic way as Marke (during the final bars of the opera) quietly drags the body of Isolde (very much alive it seems in this production but, maybe, an apparition) across a bare stage thereby claiming his rightful bride kidnapped by his nephew.

Here Ms Lang sang her heart out delivering a brilliant and illuminating reading of this dramatic piece of writing that thoroughly stamped her credentials on what is one of the most demanding of all Wagnerian female roles in a performance that would be hard to beat.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival (Photo Enrico Nawrath)
Maestro Thielemann was on top form (really, he’s never far away from it) 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 great masterpieces they are!

The 2015 performance of this production is available on DVD.

Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Director: Katharina Wagner
Stage design : Frank Philipp Schlößmann, Matthias Lippert
Costume designer: Thomas Kaiser
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich
Dramaturg: Daniel Weber
Tristan: Stephen Gould
King Marke: Georg Zeppenfeld
Isolde: Petra Lang
Kurwenal: Iain Paterson
Melot: Raimund Nolte
Brangäne: Christa Mayer
Shepherd: Tansel Akzeybek
Steersman: Kay Stiefermann
Young Sailor: Tansel Akzeybek

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