Sunday, August 13, 2017
Tristan und Isolde at the Festspielhaus
The look of the production with its use of darkness and light harks back to 1951 and the reopening of the Festspielhaus with the now classic, austere, and controversial productions of Wieland Wagner. It is apt that this year, in particular, the role that Wieland played in Bayreuth is remembered. This is the 100th anniversary of his birth, and here in Bayreuth he is being remembered through a special exhibit on the grounds of Wahnfried, and through a newly published picture book by Till Haberfeld and Oswald G. Bauer.
Last night's production ended up being a compromised evening. Petra Lang was ill and unable to sing the role of Isolde. However, she stepped into the stage and "lip-synched" the words to Ricarda Merbeth who sang the role standing on the apron, stage left, in front of a music stand, and following the score. Frankly, I was shocked to see that the Festival did not have somebody prepared to take on the role in case the principal is ill. I'm aware that it is difficult to readily get Wagner singers, but Bayreuth is a theater, and no theater should be in business unless there is an understudy ready to take on the role. The show must go on, Bayreuth!
The rest of the cast was solid. Stephen Gould was a stentorian Tristan who was able to sing the part successfully having a silent partner next to him, and hearing Isolde's vocal line yards away, and outside the main stage area. Not easy! Iain Paterson, who sang Wotan in Das Rheingold was an able Kurwenal, and Christa Mayer was a big-voiced Brangäne. René Pape once again proved that these days he owns the role of King Marke. As always, he was heartbreaking in this role.
Despite all the problems, the performance ended up being truly memorable due to the amazing conducting of Christian Thielemann. After so many years spending his summers here, he knows that orchestra, and knows how to get the best sound out of that fabled pit. Not everybody has learned how to do it. Marek Janowski's reading of the Ring, thus far, for instance, lacks power. Thielemann knows that the pit can swallow sound, and he knows how to rescue it and get it out to the house. As a result what we had last night was an evening awash with wondrous sonority, but finely tuned, and always tasteful. This was not just big sound for the sake of making an unforgettable expression. It was, rather, the kind of sound that can only be achieved when a conductor knows the score intimately and the orchestra is able to respond to his choices. Thus far, Mr. Thielemann has been the star of this festival, something that he has proven, over and over again, throughout his years at The Green Hill.