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Tristan & Isolde
29 Aug 2008

Wagnerian Score: Music 10; Drama 1

The venerable Wagner Festival in Bayreuth has never shied away from provocative productions.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan (Robert Dean Smith), König Marke (Robert Holl), Isolde (Iréne Theorin), Kurwenal (Jukka Rasilainen), Melot (Ralf Lukas), Brangäne (Michelle Breedt), Junger Seemann (Clemens Bieber), Ein Hirt (Arnold Bezuyen), Ein Steuermann (Martin Snell). Conductor: Peter Schneider. Production: Christoph Marthaler. Costumes & Stage Design: Anna Viebrock. Chorus Director: Eberhard Friedrich


Despite the sometimes vociferous booing and hooting of “offending” production teams, year after year, show after show, the damn thing still sells out. So, either somebody likes this artistic philosophy, or perhaps hope springs eternal that somehow, sometime, something, no matter how weird, will actually “land” and illuminate a familiar piece with a fresh perspective. Let’s dispatch the bad news up front:

Director Christoph Marthaler’s “take” on Tristan und Isolde was more of a “took.” Or was it that we were being “taken”? Whatever the conjugation, his is a bare bones, stylized, confusing mounting that is quite bereft of engaging theatrical values. Or even sensible story telling of the “conjugation” of two of opera’s most complex and deeply felt characterizations. At least he had his remarkable soloists often iconically singing full front to maximum advantage, although that usually did pretty much negate any relationships developing.

Mr. Marthaler was abetted by the ugliest costume and set designs I ever hope to see from Anna Viebrock. Remember that name. And avoid it if possible. In fairness, she wins awards. She works a lot. But on the basis of this mess of a visually dreary “Konzept,” it beats me why. Act One’s ship deck was more a Bauernhof-as-waiting-room with scattered overstuffed chairs among overturned, well. . .lawn chairs I guess is the best description. The Sailor and Isolde are discovered hidden seated in the comfy seats, and the “open sky” above is hung with gently shifting and sputtering fluorescent light circles as “stars” (one guesses).

The generally murky lighting gradually (finally) gets bright enough to see that our Isolde is really a quite lovely woman, albeit gowned in a drab garment that is unflatteringly belted at the hips. Kurwenal is in a kilt, Brangaene in a plaid skirt and burgundy sweater. A cursing, agitated Isolde angrily overturned all the lawn chairs that were not already downed. Brangaene having subsequently righted them all, Isolde again deliberately put every last blessed one of them on their side when Tristan entered got up in some preppy blue blazer outfit that makes him look, not old, but too old for Buster Brown. Before the Sailor exited, he and Kurwenal faced front at separate upstage locations and played patty-cake in the air as the Sailor sang. (Are you following any of this?)

For Act Two, a layer of institutional walls had been placed under the ersatz farmer’’s courtyard of Act One which had been jacked up one story in the air. The fluorescent circles were back as proper light fixtures (one guesses) and Isolde spent the first part of the act sparring with Brangaenee as she threatened to turn off the lights via modern day wall switches. When she finally plunged the stage into darkness, it took a long. . .long. . .long time before we got enough light restored to see the lovers. The great love duet was mostly played on and around a silly gold Naugahyde double seater center stage, straight out of your doctor’s waiting room, and the only set piece in the entire empty space.

At one point, for no apparent reason, Kurwenal oh-so-slowly wandered the perimeter of the enclosing box set, touching the walls and looking at them with such intense concentration as if to wish to discover something. (Perhaps a cogent staging idea?) Once the pair were interrupted, the odd overhead light started flickering, with only Isolde noticing, daftly lying on her back and pointing at the stuttering fixtures. The stabbing of Tristan with what appeared to be a switchblade was particularly clumsy. And once Mister “T” impaled himself, damn if Melot did not really get into it, and violently stabbed the hell out our hero until he really seemed quite dead. Act Two closed then with Tristan-as-“door- nail.” Hmmmm, where to go with Act Three? How about “nowhere”?

Another layer of walls (“Dungeon”? “Catacomb?”) had been added to the mix so we now had all three unattractive sets on display for the price of one. Tristan was lying in state on a modern hospital bed on a slightly elevated platform, enclosed by a waist high brass railing. Think Lenin’s tomb. In fact, a line of lower-middle class men in work clothes filed past to view it. Servants? Friends? The Grey Line Tour? Who knows?

Kurwenal had aged noticeably, and now doddered around on wobbly legs. And he repeatedly traversed the perimeter of the railing. Oh, and once, in a demented flash-back moment, he played patty-cake with the air again, oh-so-briefly. (“Man, those were the good old days in Act One. Patty cake and potions.”). The fluorescent circles were hanging on bars on the walls now, occasionally flickering and trying to come to life, but really quite out of service. The electric bill had come due.

Oh sure, “T” finally died and “I” finally arrived, although she was attired in a trench coat over slacks and a blouse, and sort of strutted around with her hands in her pockets, not caring about her dead lover all too very much. The other soloists had wandered on, too, and ended up in various stage positions with backs to us, facing the wall like school kids being punished.

The sublime Love Death culminated with Isolde taking Tristan’s place on the hospital bed and pulling the sheet up over her expiring body, leaving us with a final image worthy of “CSI: Singing Victims Unit.” This was shabby, willful, inexcusable stage-craft- without-the-“craft.”

But. . .the ridiculous was thankfully compensated by the sublime, for this was the most persuasive musical performance I have yet heard of this masterpiece. Peter Schneider led a magnificent, expansive, rhapsodic reading with an orchestra that was in festival form. At the top, the elusive opening phrases may have seemed to be a bit fragmentary, more stand-alone than rhythmically connected, but once past those first few bars, there was an inevitably in the unfolding phrasings, and a passionate forward propulsion that never let up.

The love recognition after the potion has been drunk has never moved me more, and the opening bars of Act Three were brutally painful. The covered pit may not be to all tastes. It is true that some sharpness of detail in the winds and, especially, the brass are inevitable, but the gains in terms of a blended sound are significant. I had wished that the brass off stage at the end of Act One had not been prematurely muted by the curtain fall. And while I did find the odd moment when I thought that the estimable maestro might have showed more restraint when his soloists were dipping into lower registers, Mr. Schneider’s was nonetheless a memorable achievement.

And it would be difficult to field a better ensemble of soloists from among current interpreters. It is hard to believe that Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was making her role debut as Isolde, so vocally persuasive was she. There are other ladies voicing it as well, to be sure, but Ms. Theorin found a good deal more nuance and variety of utterance than any other I have heard. If you could listen to her dramatic understanding and her fearless use of pauses in some some of the brief unaccompanied bars alone, you would immediately know just how much she “gets it.” She can ride the orchestra, 0most usually with thrilling results, but it is her meaningful communication of the text that won me over so totally. I wished sometimes that she would not over-shoot impassioned leaps to pulverizing high notes, but that seems to be standard issue these days. Suffice it to say hers is a remarkable talent.

No less so was her Tristan, Robert Dean Smith. While this is not a weighty sounding voice, it is the clearest, cleanest vocal production of any interpreter in my experience. I never once felt that he was past his limit, and although I don’t think he had any more to give, what he presented was right on the money, bright and focused, and of a good presence in relationship to the band. He, too, invested his lines with meaning and comprehension. His long death scene was solid and varied, far from the more usual “hope-I-make-it-to-the-end” rendition.

Michelle Breedt scored a big success with the public as Brangaene. But while I always enjoy this fine singer, and while she performed it very very well, I wasn’t sure she had completely mastered this curious and demanding role. She was assuredly not helped by the unimaginative direction she was given (or not given). Jukka Rasilainen was just a tremendous “Kurwenal.” His stentorian, emotionally rich declamations in Act Three zinged off the back wall like laser beams. What a horn! Powerful portrayal. Also fine was the orotund and commanding King Marke from veteran bass Robert Holl. Ralf Lukas made the most of Melot’s small role, and the fresh-voice Clemens Bieber did commendable duty as the Sailor.

Given these triumphant musical values, more’s the pity then that the theatrical side of this mounting was so wanting, with Richard Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (“integrated,” or “complete artwork”) little in evidence. How do producers rationalize “integrating” such astounding musical accomplishments with the deplorable visuals on display? How?

We should be thankful that the Festspielhaus is way up the Green Hill, some distance from Wahnfried, Wagner’s final home and resting place. While we had to suffer through Marthaler’s and Viebrock’s distractions, at least we were spared the ultimate distraction of the scraping sound of Richard turning over in his grave.

James Sohre

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