The following review appeared today in the New York Times.
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
“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
” that opened the Bayreuth Festival
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,
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
. 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
,” first performed here in 2007.
With anonymously contemporary décor (by Frank Philipp Schlössmann
) 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
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
” at the Salzburg Easter Festival
two years ago, his
“Tristan” smooths over the work’s strangeness, its emotional extremes, its
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
It was clearer why the soprano Evelyn Herlitzius
, announced last month as a replacement for
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
floated Brangäne’s offstage warnings to the lovers in Act 2 with
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.