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Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
18 Aug 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth 2009

As the prelude plays, we see circles of fluorescent light moving slowly in uncertain black space. Are we seeing flights of flying saucers, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: Iréne Theorin; Marke: Robert Holl; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Ralf Lukas; Brangäne: Michelle Breedt; A young Sailor: Clemens Bieber; A Shepherd: Arnold Bezuyen; A Steersman: Martin Snell. Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Peter Schneider, conductor. Christoph Marthaler, stage director. Recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival, Germany, in August 2009.

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Are we seeing spots swimming in the lovers’ eyeballs, as ecstasy makes the blood drain from their heads? Are we seeing an abstract kinetic visualization of the music, as in the Bach toccata episode in Disney’s Fantasia? All these things, from the deliriously silly to the deliriously fatal, are relevant to Christoph Marthaler’s bizarre, bizarrely moving Tristan.

The production is more or less modern-day, set in a 1940s or 1950s seedy-plush ocean liner: in each act we move a floor lower, until we’re in the ship’s innards at the end. There are two principal virtues to this updating: first, the actors know how to register emotional shifts delicately and instantly, without thinking to themselves, How does a bloodthirsty Irish princess from the Middle Ages express (say) ironically subdued courtesy?; second, uncanny events register as especially uncanny when transposed into an unmagical world. The fluorescent circles, for example, turn out to be ceiling decorations on the ocean liner; but in the last act, as Tristan’s fever grows, disconnected light-circles, casually slung onto hooks, start, eerily, to glow.

Nietzsche considered that Wagner’s heroines were all modern neurotics, Madame Bovarys; Marthaler goes Nietzsche one better by making the cast into grown-up children improvising various sexy absurdities. When Tristan and Kurwenal sing their nyah-nyah ditty about how Morold’s head is a payment of a toll, they pantomime a patty-cake patty-cake baker’s man game; during the orchestral interlude, as Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and intend to die, Isolde casually checks her own pulse—she is, after all, a physician, and knows how to Play Doctor; during the love duet, when Brangäne sings her aubade, Isolde removes her glove by biting the third finger and pulling it off, a brutal vulgar gesture that undercuts the sober magnificence of the music.

Still, there are ways in which the production is unusually faithful to Wagner’s aesthetic and philosophy. Because the acting is subtly naturalistic—especially the acting of the Isolde, Iréne Theorin—the strange quotation-games in the first act register with a clarity I’ve never seen before. Brangäne quotes Isolde’s “Befehlen liess dem Eigenholde”; Isolde quotes Brangäne’s “für böse Gifte Gegengift”—the characters keep switching lines, for emphasis, or new shading, or mockery. Wagner’s philosopher hero Schopenhauer thought that individuality is a delusion, and that one will gropes through every living thing in the universe—and the easy trading of words and tunes suggests how effortlessly each of us can turn into someone else. These ideas are more familiar in the metaphysically intense undoings of identity in the love duet, but they haunt the whole opera: in the Marthaler production, Isolde begins to sing the “Liebestod” from Tristan’s sickbed, and pulls his sheet over her head as her private shroud or final-act curtain, as if she were turning into his corpse before our eyes.

Theorin’s singing is a bit unsteady, but deep, penetrative, thrilling; Robert Dean Smith is not in her league as an actor, but has a perfectly controlled, slightly sapless voice, always at the exact center of each note—I was slightly reminded of Gunnar Graarud, the light but impressive Tristan in the 1930 Elmendorff recording. For pure excellence of singing, best of all is Michelle Breedt, the phlegmatic but powerful Brangäne. And I mustn’t neglect to mention Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal: almost tenorial, at once puppyish and an endearing coot, the jester at the court of Thanat-Eros.

Daniel Albright


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