Review: Cheers, but Modest Impact, for Revisionist ‘Tristan’

27 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Angela Merkel ‘collapses’ during interval at Bayreuth Festival.

The Bayreuth Festival, one of the hottest tickets in the world of opera, opened with a well-received new production of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tristan and Isolde” on Saturday, which also won praise from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Stakes were high for this 150th anniversary production of Tristan und Isolde, so it is little wonder that with her contract up for renewal, Festival director Katharina Wagner took the task of shaping it upon herself. The dark and pessimistic new reading of one of Wagner’s best-loved works by the composer’s 37-year-old great-granddaughter, Katharina Wagner, was greeted with cheers and generous applause at the end of the six-hour performance.

The report was that Merkel fell from her chair inside a Bayreuth restaurant during an intermission of Tristan and Isolde and was out for a few minutes before being aided by others in the restaurant. “If Chancellor Merkel was suffering ill health at this crucial time for the European and global economy, it would certainly ‘spook’ the markets. Among worrying portents for this make-or-break moment were Ms Wagner’s bizarre and ill-received Meistersinger in 2007 and the change of soprano scarcely four weeks before opening night: Anja Kampe (the original second choice after Eva-Maria Westbroek) was suddenly replaced by Evelyn Herlitzius. Speculation centred on a row between Ms Kampe, whose partner Kirill Petrenko is conducting the Ring, and the conductor of Tristan, Christian Thielemann. However, the mass-circulation daily Bild alleged in its online edition that the German leader, a long-time regular in Bayreuth with her husband Joachim Sauer, had suffered a dizzy spell and fainted briefly during the first of the evening’s two intervals. With fine singers in all roles and Christian Thielemann delivering high musical standards from the pit, it marks a turn away from the directorial indulgence that has seemed to be Bayreuth’s hallmark in recent years.

Gould’s magnificent performance here was greeted by cheers and foot stamping during curtain calls, and Herlitzius’s voice came over with undeniable power in Acts 1 and 2, though lacked a lyrical touch in the Liebestod. Those final moments saw one last twist just before the curtain fell on this imaginative production but the Bayreuth audience, with its famously dismissive attitudes, cheered – scattered boos being heard only for Herlitzius and Thielemann. This “Tristan” abjures magic: The title characters, in an agonized mixture of lust and guilt from the start, ecstatically pour out the famous love potion rather than drinking it, taking radical responsibility for their actions. The principals, on stage throughout, prowl ceaselessly in search of one another through Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert’s inventive three-dimensional maze of stairs, platforms and hydraulic lifts – part Piranesi prison, part MC Escher topological fantasy. The second act is not the lovers’ secluded summer idyll but a fleeting union in a dystopian prison yard into which Marke’s thugs have thrown them to be watched over by guards and pursued by harsh floodlights.

With no light visible from the orchestra, objects and people can appear and vanish without trace, and in Act 3 multiple Isoldes did so, some in holographic tetrahedra that Tristan could enter, others in airy triangles he could not. This is a post-Stasi, post-Snowden “Tristan,” or perhaps it shows that the composer anticipated what we have tended to consider a recent phenomenon: the death of privacy — even, in this production, in death.

As a visual expression of the impossibility of his desire this was first-rate, and after Isolde finally enters and Tristan dies, the arrival of the second ship was presaged by figures rising from the darkness like men of clay in a Mesopotamian netherworld. By contrast, boos were heard for conductor Christian Thielemann and German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, who had taken on the demanding role of Isolde at very short notice. Then suddenly night was banished by the shining light of reality, the unconscious vanished, dead bodies lay strewn on the ground and King Marke finally recovered his wife. It was an unusual ending, fully using the lighting possibilities at Bayreuth, which also has the advantage of having no amphitheatre with its inherent sightline problems. As the lovers encounter one another on the gantry, they rise, dispensing with the love potion, and the lower stairways collapse, leaving Kurwenal stranded below.

As the climax builds, however, they force themselves together in a cage before Tristan is seized, blindfolded and executed by his rival Melot as Marke pulls Isolde away. Musically, Bayreuth’s Tristan was well equalled by this summer’s performance at Longborough, that mini-Bayreuth in the Cotswolds, where the beautifully matched lovers responded to thrilling conducting by Anthony Negus. One of these is the characterisation of Marke as cynical and vengeful, which the music – to say nothing of Georg Zeppenfeld’s deeply sympathetic singing of the role – tells us he is not. That speaks to the sobriety of the staging, and perhaps to some relief that this director has not offered a repeat of her idea-filled but messy, much-reviled “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” first performed here in 2007.

It is only the second time that Katharina has directed in Bayreuth’s Festspielhaus — the opera house built to her great-grandfather’s own designs — after her “Mastersingers of Nuremberg” a few years ago was heavily panned by audiences and critics alike. In his great-granddaughter’s hands, it becomes a piece of pure self-delusion, after which an impatient Marke drags the still-living Isolde off to resume her wifely duties. This disjunction is made even more raw by Evelyn Herlitzius’s radiant account of the scene and by Thielemann’s unerring conducting of the final pages, which cap a reading of enormous orchestral sensitivity. Any restive fundamentalists in the audience might also have been calmed by seeming homages to the festival’s past, in a summer when Wagner’s home here, the Villa Wahnfried, is having its long-awaited reopening as an expanded museum.

Under her leadership, the festival’s aesthetic preferences have veered towards confrontational directors, such as the self-styled “enfant terrible” of German theatre, Frank Castorf, whose current production of the sprawling four-opera “Ring” cycle has met with deafening waves of boos and whistles since it premiered in 2013. The third act of “Tristan,” its playing spaces defined by soft fields of light (designed by Reinhard Traub) and punctuated by floating pyramids that keep appearing and vanishing, evokes the abstract “New Bayreuth” aesthetic of the 1950s and ’60s. Dyed-in-the-wool Wagnerians tend to be deeply conservative in their operatic tastes, and seasoned Bayreuthers say they are feeling increasingly alienated by the provocative, in-your-face productions.

Despite the production’s stage-filling sets and its willingness to tinker with details of plot and character, the overall impact on Saturday was modest. Iain Paterson’s Kurwenal is as fine as British audiences have come to expect, while Christa Mayer’s urgent and despairing Brangäne and Zeppenfeld’s Marke ensure the secondary roles are of a high order. Ever since the festival’s beginnings in 1876, the composer’s descendants have torn each other apart in bitter feuds for control of Bayreuth, whose guests traditionally include royalty and the political and social elite of the day. With scarcely a boo to be heard after the final curtain, and Angela Merkel in the first-night audience, this new Tristan could just mark the start of the more confident new artistic chapter that the Bayreuth soap opera badly needs. In the first act, which frequently takes the form of a kind of call-and-response between singers and orchestra, his answers always arrived with alert immediacy.

But like his oddly unanxious “Parsifal” at the Salzburg Easter Festival two years ago, his “Tristan” smooths over the work’s strangeness, its emotional extremes, its revolutionary harmonies. Perhaps that was a response to his musical choices, or perhaps to his controversially conservative politics or his seemingly ever-growing power here at Bayreuth.

The bass-baritone Iain Paterson was a hearty Kurwenal, and the mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer floated Brangäne’s offstage warnings to the lovers in Act II with haunting poise. Stephen Gould actually sang Tristan — no mean feat — with a tone mellower and more lyrical than the pressured bellowing of many other tenors in this impossible role.

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