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Robert Dean Smith as Tristan and Waltraud Meier as Isolde [Photo by Wilfried Hoesl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]
15 Jul 2015

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Robert Dean Smith as Tristan and Waltraud Meier as Isolde [Photo by Wilfried Hoesl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]

Photos from premiere of production in 1998


Yes, Tristan is just a shortened title, so we should not necessarily read anything into the disappearance of Isolde, but, whilst we clearly value both lovers and both singers portraying those lovers more or less equally — great Tristans perhaps more so, given their ridiculous rarity — it struck me as perhaps particularly perverse to have been referring to my seeing Tristan at the Munich Opera Festival, when, like so many in the theatre, I had been going especially to hear and, yes, to see Waltraud Meier. For these two performances in Munich, of which the one I heard was the first, have been announced as her farewell to the role. ‘Waltrauds Abschied’, then, I sentimentally called my visit, in dubious Mahlerian homage to a last performance that was actually to be a penultimate performance. I could, after all, hardly say I was off to hear Isolde — or maybe I could, even should, have done.

csm_FG_Tristan_und_Isolde_08_706970873b.pngRobert Dean Smith as Tristan and Waltraud Meier as Isolde [Photo courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]

Of course, when I asked, ‘what do we call Tristan und Isolde’, I was not necessarily just referring to the title. There is no need to frown upon those calling it an opera; I am sure we have all done so at some point, or ought to have done so. But, as with all of Wagner’s dramas, it distances itself from the norms of opera and, perhaps still more so, the opera house. I am perhaps over fond of deploying this quotation from Boulez, but it so often seems to hit the nail upon the head. Whilst at work on the Ring at Bayreuth, Wagner’s great conductor-composer successor observed: ‘Opera houses are often rather like cafés where, if you sit near enough to the counter, you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ What was needed, Boulez noted approvingly, ‘was an entirely new musical and theatrical structure, and it was this that he [Wagner] gradually created’. It might then, not be entirely wrong to suggest that Wagner’s works deserve shielding form the opera house, at least as it currently exists. (Let us leave Bayreuth and its never-ending travails to one side for the moment.) However, by the same token, Wagner’s Handlung —his own term, ‘action’, a Teuton’s rendering of ‘drama’, admirably supersedes debates concerning nomenclature — is surely at home in Munich, if anywhere at all. For ‘Waltrauds Abschied’, then, and what I calculated must be at least my twentieth ‘live’ Tristan — sorry, I cannot yet bring myself to call it Isolde — there was something fitting to experiencing it for the first time in the house in which it had received its premiere, 150 years previously (10 June 1865).

Moving on a little from what we call Tristan und Isolde, what do we think it is ‘about’? Wagner was pretty clear, and I have tended to take him at his word, or at least some of his words. In 1859, summarising the work’s concerns for Mathilde Wesendonck, he omitted not only King Marke’s forgiveness, but also Tristan’s agonies at Kareol. True action, Handlung,had been irreversibly transferred to the noumenal world: ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ But as Peter Konwitschny, in a brilliant programme note, argues, quoting Heiner Müller, himself director of a renowned Tristan, ‘Ein Werk ist immer klüger als sein Autor.’ (‘A work is always cleverer than its author.’) Such, one might have thought, was a truism, and for many of us it is, although not for those strange people who seem to think it not only no cleverer but actually more limited, referring to the tedious mantra of a ‘composer’s intentions’ , whilst actually having no more interest in them than their most wild-eyed caricature of so-called Regietheater would. For them, the questionable taste of a questionable memory of their first exposure to a work seems to suffice. Handlung? Madame Tussauds, more like. (‘Museum’ would be too generous, given its connotations of learning, culture, and stewardship.)

Back, however, to Konwitschny. He makes the somewhat startling claim — at least to me — that Tristan is ‘ein sehr hoffnungsvolles Stück’ (‘a very hopeful piece’). As ever, it depends what one means — and it depends what one means by love, death, and so many other things. But Konwitschny, arguably taking his cue from the score, from Isoldes Verklärung, declines to see desolation, although, certainly not taking his cue from Wagner, he seems to tend more to Liszt’s conception of a Liebestod. And so, following our heroic couple’s shuffling off their mortal coils, sombrely dressed in black at the foot of the stage, below the other Handlung — if indeed that qualifies as such — we return to the raised level of that other Handlung, and see Marke and Brangäne visiting their graves. Love, ‘whatever that means’ — and we may understand that as part of Wagner’s ongoing internal battle between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer — may partly have won out, which sounds pat, but does not feel so. Perhaps we have experienced Wagner’s Gefühlswerdung des Verstandes (‘emotionalisation of the intellect’). More optimistically still — and it is surely a useful corrective at least to consider the non-pessimistic aspects or possibilities of the work — we might consider the words of Wagner’s fellow radical 48er, Arnold Ruge, writing of an envisaged religion of freedom, ‘the entire world of humanistic ideals, the entire Spirit of our times, must enter the crucible of feeling, out of which it must again come forth as a glowing stream and build a new world.’

Perhaps the most striking thing about Konwitschny’s production, first seen in 1998, is how it creeps up upon one; indeed, how its owl of Minerva truly only seems to take flight at dusk. The first act takes place, relatively conventionally, on a ship, doing pretty much what Wagner asks, and doing it rather well, although the colourful curtain, presaging aspects of the second act, has perhaps called into question our preconceptions before we are aware of their status as preconceptions . The realms of light and day, phenomenon and noumenon, make their presence felt after the taking of the potion through Michael Bauer’s excellent lighting: a distinction that continues, greatly to the enhancement of the drama. One certainly feels the tragedy in Tristan’s death upon Melot’s sword, but equally, one feels, knows that that is not the only story. The world of Tristan’s past, played to him on old video reels, complements what he tells us, without — this is crucial — overpowering it, as too many overtly psychological, even psychoanalytical readings do. Tristan is not ultimately about the hero’s childhood; it remains concerned with metaphysics, in one way or another. And the release provided by Isolde’s last song is certainly married, not in an easy way but certainly in a fruitful way, with those final scenic aspects mentioned.

We came, of course, at least most of us did, above all for Meier. It is a tribute to the performance and production alike that she did not overshadow but indeed flourished. It would be unduly perverse, though, to overlook her contribution. Over the years in which she has sung Isolde, she has offered many, developing virtues, whether related to production, musical performance, or even the stage of her career. Here, everything seemed in more or less perfect balance — or, better, fruitful dialectic. Attention to words was second to none, likewise stage presence. Sustaining of a vocal line, however, was equally impressive. Suffice it to say, she did not play Isolde; she was Isolde.

Robert Dean Smith also gave the finest performance I can recall from him, and not just as Tristan. It was as tireless a performance as I can recall from anyone, without the disadvantages that often entails of sheer persistence trumping vocalism. The sheer refulgence of René Pape’s King Marke had to be heard to be believed; Markes rarely disappoint, but Pape achieved far more than not disappointing. Alan Held was a thoughtful, dramatic, even at times impetuous Kurwenal: all in character, impressive indeed. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne was just the right foil for Meier’s Isolde; this was a confidant, beautifully sung, in whom one could — confide. Dean Power’s Young Seaman at the start was as sensitively sung as any I can recall. Kevin Conners offered a powerful embodiment of the Shepherd — Konwitschny’s two English horn players on stage an unforgettable image — and even the Steersman, Christian Rieger, made a fine impression with his all-too-brief line. Francesco Petrozzi presented ultimately inconsequential malevolence, as he should, in the role of Melot.

As Wagner wrote to Eduard Devrient of his ‘most musical score,’ Tristan has, and in performance should have, ‘the most vivid dramatic allusions totally at one with the dynamic of its musical texture’. That is asking a great deal of any conductor, orchestra, and cast. (And that is before we even consider that this is emphatically not a concert work, whatever dark hopes we might entertain upon seeing an unsatisfactory staging.) Philippe Jordan presented Wagner far more impressive than I have heard from him before, whether in Bayreuth or in Paris. The Handlung was as much in the orchestra as on stage, arguably more so, which is just as it should be. Pacing rarely, if ever, faltered, and details were presented without overwhelming (crucial woodwind lines in particular). The splendid Bavarian State Orchestra, whose praises I have been singing all week, excelled itself here. Dark of tone, yet clear and transparent where necessary, it was, in the pit that so much of Tristan und Isolde was truly brought to that life which its director argued so forcefully was of its essence.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; King Marke: René Pape; Isolde: Waltraud Meier; Kurwenal: Alan Held; Melot: Francesco Petrozzi; Brangäne: Michelle Breedt; Shepherd: Kevin Conners; Steersman: Christian Rieger; Young Sailor: Dean Power. Director: Peter Konwitschny; Designs: Johannes Leiacker; Lighting: Michael Bauer; Dramaturgy: Werner Hintze. Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)/Bavarian State Orchestra/Philippe Jordan (conductor). Nationaltheater, Munich, 8 July 2015.

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