NY Times Review of the new Bayreuth "Tristan"
BAYREUTH, Germany — It’s the season of re-evaluating well-loved characters we thought we knew. First Atticus Finch, a saintly warrior for racial justice in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was revealed as a patronizing bigot in Ms. Lee’s newly published companion novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”
Now there visionists have come for King Marke. In a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” that opened the Bayreuth Festival on Saturday evening, the thoughtful, melancholy king of the opera’s libretto, shocked and saddened by Tristan’s betrayal, is depicted as a brutal, unfeeling tyrant. At the end, rather than blessing the dead bodies of Tristan and Isolde, as Wagner indicated, Marke drags Isolde — here very much alive — away, still insisting on claiming the bride Tristan stole from him.
That is not the only intervention by the production’s director, Katharina Wagner, who has led the festival since 2008 with another of the composer’s great-granddaughters, her half sister Eva Wagner-Pasquier. 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 second act is not the lovers’ secluded summer idyll but a fleeting union in a dystopian prison yard where Marke’s thugs have thrown them to be watched over by guards and pursued by harsh floodlights. 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.
Ms. Wagner has made the opera a veritable taxonomy of gray, gloomy nightmares. The first act, set aboard Tristan’s ship, is here a labyrinth of shadowy staircases to nowhere, a combination of M. C. Escher and Piranesi. The looming walls and retracting cylindrical cages of the second act lead to a third act permeated by fog and dotted with a hall-of-mirrors profusion of Isoldes — some living, some collapsing mannequins — conjured by Tristan in his madness.
At this point, it is news when a production at Bayreuth, known for its cadre of fierce traditionalists, does not get booed, and on Saturday, Ms. Wagner and her design team seemed to receive only cheers at their curtain call. 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.
With anonymously contemporary décor (by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert) and timeless costumes (by Thomas Kaiser) that are simultaneously medieval and futuristic, this “Tristan” is cleaner than “Die Meistersinger,” its divergences from the original text carefully considered. No, there is not the “tent-like cabin” that the libretto gives Isolde aboard Tristan’s ship, but that tent does find its way into Ms. Wagner’s second act, when the lovers cobble together a makeshift shelter out of some fabric to hide from the glare of the prison-yard lights.
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. 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.
Despite its stage-filling sets and its willingness to tinker with details of plot and character, the production’s overall impact on Saturday was modest. It makes few ideological claims, but also, more problematic, few emotional ones. Despite the terrors implied by its settings, its mood is never persuasively disconcerting or, indeed, persuasively much of anything. It is fluent and sensible, but that may not be enough when approaching one of the most disorienting works in operatic history.
In that sense, one of the production’s greatest strengths may also be a weakness: Christian Thielemann’s conducting was perhaps too subtly colored, too easily flowing, too effortlessly responsive for its own good, bolstering the impression that tension was all but missing from the performance.
Mr. Thielemann’s approach to Wagner has unique naturalness. 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.
Recently given the essentially new title of music director at the festival, Mr. Thielemann, rather than Ms. Wagner, was the one to bear some scattered boos at his bow. 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.
It was clearer why the soprano Evelyn Herlitzius, announced last month as a replacement for Anja Kampe as Isolde, got her own catcalls: Her voice is angular rather than luxuriant, though her sound has clarity, and she acts with febrile focus. She was the odd woman out in a cast with considerable vocal glamour. 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 2 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. Best of all was Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke, his bass rich and pitch black, his malignancy potently underplayed. He made the production’s most surprising revision entirely convincing.