Wednesday 21 August 2019

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 2019 (Photo Enric Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enric Nawrath)
Richard Wagner Tristan und Isolde; Petra Lang, Stefan Vinke, Georg Zeppenfeld, Greer Grimsley, Christa Mayer, dir: Katharina Wagner, cond: Christian Thielemann
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
The cast included a formidable trio of Wagner heavyweights: Stefan Vinke, Petra Lang and Georg Zeppenfeld

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde - Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enric Nawrath)
Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Bayreuth Festival 2019 (Photo Enric Nawrath)
Arguably, one of the greatest works ever written to pure erotic love echoing the legendary days of King Arthur, this thoughtful and enlightening production of Tristan und Isolde directed by Katharina Wagner first came to the stage in 2015 therefore, sadly, this is its last outing on the Green Hill.

Katharina Wagner's production of Tristan und Isolde at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival (seen 16 August 2019), featured Stefan Vinke as Tristan, Petra Lang as Isolde, Georg Zeppenfeld as King Mark, Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal and Christa Mayer as Brangäne, with Christian Thielemann conducting.

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. When they eventually meet it proved a powerful and emotive 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 as the couple’s love was already vacuumed sealed.

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, too, by Thomas Kaiser’s strikingly-designed costumes ranging from medieval patterns to futuristic styles while Reinhard Traub’s lighting scenario 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 II was extraordinary and played out in a prison exercise yard with more than a hint of DDR political interference surrounding it as Stasi-styled guards (King Marke’s henchmen) forced the lovers into a tiny cell constantly keeping them under strict surveillance by training piercing-bright searchlights 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?

In the final act, the staging is dark, atmospheric and cloaked in a thin hazy bluish-grey mist (greatly 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 in an utterly innovative, sensitive and excellent piece of theatre.

The casting was excellent with a formidable trio of Wagner heavyweights taking the main roles. Stefan Vinke (Tristan), Petra Lang (Isolde) and Georg Zeppenfeld (King Marke). In fact, Ms Lang was picked and coached for her part - one of the most demanding of all Wagnerian female roles - by Bayreuth’s dynamic music director, Christian Thielemann. Her performance, especially in the ‘Liebesnacht’ - that great love-duet with Tristan towards the end of Act II - was brilliantly sung. Could you get better? I doubt it!

American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley comfortably sang the role of Kurwenal with Christa Mayer reprising her role of Brangäne. They work well together. And so did the orchestra which plays such a dominant role commenting on every psychological and dramatic development of the opera through a series of leitmotivs and the endless melodising that Wagner substituted for arias and duets. Maestro Thielemann was on top form tackling the score with verve and vitality getting from his charges in the pit some rich and magnificent playing that was simply thrilling to hear in the confines of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus.

The traditional ending was skilfully reinterpreted by Ms Wagner as during the rendering of the ‘Liebestod’ (delivered by Ms Lang in a stand-alone performance) King Marke steps in towards the final bars, drags the body of Isolde, very much alive it seems but, maybe, an apparition, across a bare stage, claiming his rightful bride kidnapped by his nephew. A sting in the tail!

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Friday 16 August 2019, Bayreuth Festival
Conductor: Christian Thielemann (Bayreuth Festival Orchestra)
Director: Katharina Wagner
Stage designers: Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert
Costume designer: Thomas Kaiser
Lighting designer: Reinhard Traub
Dramaturg: Daniel Weber
King Marke of Cornwall: Georg Zeppenfeld
Tristan (King Marke’s nephew): Stefan Vinke
Kurwenal (Tristan’s friend): Greer Grimsley
Isolde (an Irish princess): Petra Lang
Brangäne (Isolde’s attendant): Christa Mayer
Melot (a Cornish courtier): Raimund Nolte
Shepherd: Tansel Akzeybek
Steersman: Kay Stiefermann
Young sailor: Tansel Akzeybek
Bayreuth Festival (

  • This year is the centenary of Wolfgang Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson and director of the festival, read Tony's article about the centenary celebration at Bayreuth
  • Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival - Tony's review
  • Wagner's Tannhäuser at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival - Tony's review
  • Wagner's Lohengrin at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival - Tony's review
  • Wagner's Parsifal at the 2019 Bayreuth Festival - Tony's review
  • See also Tony's review of the 2017 performance of Uwe Eric Laufenberg's production of Parsifal 
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