Tristan und IsoldeRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuthe Festspiele 2009 | Christoph Marthaler, Peter Schneider, Iréne Theorin, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle Breedt, Jukka Rasilainen, Robert Holl, Ralf Lukas | Opus Arte

It’s well known that Richard Wagner broke off the composition of his masterwork The Ring of the Nielbeung after the completion of the first two parts of the tetralogy (and up to the second act of Siegfried) in order to write his two other magnificent late music-dramas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. There are various political and commercial reasons for this break, but there remains a clear connection between the themes of these two works and those of the Ring that suggests to me that Wagner needed another outlet for the powerful themes that couldn’t fit within the tetralogy – as huge and encompassing a life-work as it is.

Die Meistersinger seems to want to consider another aspect of the nature of German art and culture and the creation of something new from a revered tradition that is part of what the Ring is about, but approached in a very different manner with a comic tone that can’t be found elsewhere in Wagner’s work. Tristan und Isolde seems to me to be very much connected with the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, a deeper exploration of the nature of love that is so powerful and so beyond our control that it surpasses any rational attempt to contain it, master it or even describe it, not least when it is a love that defies traditional moral constraints, something no doubt inspired by Wagner’s relationship with his mistress Mathilde Wesendonck.

Difficult to describe maybe, but in Tristan und Isolde Wagner makes one of his most persuasive accounts of those mystical feelings and powerful drives, not least through some of the most sublime music ever composed – almost equal to his final masterpiece Parsifal – that weaves contrasting leitmotifs together into a near frenzy of emotional outpourings and conflicting desires. In the same way that Parsifal would dwell at great length at the question of pain and suffering as a redemptive purifying force, Tristan und Isolde contains little real action and little dramatic intrigue in its four-hour-plus running time, leaving plenty of room for the opera to wallow in the sentiments it is concerned with.

Explored in depth they most certainly are, but even so, the structure of the opera would seem to work against a conventional expression of romantic sentiments, contriving rather to keep the two lovers apart or on guard for most of the opera. In Act 1, Tristan strives to keep his distance from the Irish princess that he has promised as a bride for King Marke, transporting her from Ireland to Cornwall, refusing requests from Isolde for a meeting, even accepting when they do meet what he suspects is a poison meant for both of them. Isolde is furious that she has feelings for the young man who, despite his disguise, she recognised and as the one who had killed her former betrothed, Lord Morold, yet still nursed him back to health. To make reparation she plots to give Tristan a poison and herself, for her weakness, but her maid Brangäne switches the draught for a love potion. Act 2 consists only of a furtive encounter between the two secretive lovers that is eventually discovered by the King, while Act 3 sees their separation and reencounter only in death.

Tristan

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of the unconventional nature of the love story, Tristan und Isolde is all the more powerful in its means of expression. The tension that exists in Act 1 is violently broken down by the imbibing of a potion – as a rather melodramatic device one can take this literally or not, but the intent is the same – that removes all constraints, pretences and reveals their true feelings for each other. It’s in Act 2 that the expression of those feelings is given voice – through the words, through the singing and through the music. The expression of that forbidden love is principally characterised by contrasts – in distance and nearness, in hatred and love, in darkness and light, in life and death, but principally through the day and night. Theirs is a love where, through its origin where they expected death in a potion but instead found the birth of love, everything is reversed and meaning turned upside down. Through their furtive encounters when the King is absent, signalled to Tristan by the extinguishing of Isolde’s bedroom light, theirs is also a love that is “consecrated to the night”, existing in a terrible but unquenchable yearning and state of tension that is only fully realised and consummated in the death that comes in Act 3.

With its expression of love as an endless eternal state thriving on contradictions, Tristan und Isolde is reminiscent in this way of Parsifal in its elevation of suffering to a mythical, mystic state, and Wagner’s musical expression of this state is simply astounding and also somewhat punishing (for the performers as well as the audience, the opera at the time of its composition being rejected by Dresden after fifty-four rehearsals as being impossible to play). It maintains an incredible state of mounting tension, constantly revisiting and revising leitmotifs, playing them off each other, only bringing them to a form of release in the climax of the ‘Liebestod‘. It’s a moment of utter musical genius that one can feel more intensely than almost any other dramatic operatic scene has ever achieved.

In terms of dramatic representation, there’s not really much you can do with Tristan und Isolde, which conversely means that an imaginative director can do just about anything with it. Bayreuth doesn’t really seem interested in staging traditional productions of Wagner’s operas, but in an opera like Tristan und Isolde, that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not a historical opera tied to a specific period, it’s a mythological opera about the mysterious forces of love. Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 production for the Bayreuth Festival, recorded here in a 2009 performance, finds a good balance between making the drama and the interaction between the characters intriguing to consider, while still being faithful to the opera’s themes.

Tristan

From the costumes and the décor of the ships interior in Act 1, it looks like it is randomly set in the 1930s, but not over-realistically so – the sets there to create a specific environment that ends up working quite well, rising into three tiers for each of the three acts, maintaining a fluidity and consistency in the piece. The main visual theme however – considering its significance in the second act – is that of lights, from the neon ring “stars” in the sky in Act 1, to the light switches of Act 2, and the pulsing rings of Act 3 that could represent love or life, or the two combined in death. Obviously, this is highly conceptual in a manner that those who like a more concrete, literal stagy representation dislike, but it suits the nature of the opera, and certainly suits the nature of Wagner’s conceptual themes, without distracting from them or imposing a false reading. The performers fit well into the stage directions laid out for them – looking a little incongruous and a little uncomfortable at times with the eccentric mannerisms, but mostly finding a perfect accommodation between the words, the emotions and dramatic interaction with each other.

Iréne Theorin is fairly magnetic throughout as Isolde, capturing her haughtiness and conflicted feelings for Tristan in Act 1 with a degree of precision, and finding a similar level of emotion in the contradictory impulses of the ‘Liebestod‘ in Act 3. Through much of Act 2 she appears to be in a love-potion-induced trance, acting without volition, almost in a state of madness, which may not be how one would expect Isolde to be played, but her childish, playful eagerness to switch off the lights does capture a perfect sense of complete abandon to her condition to the disregard of any rational sensibility. Her singing is strong, only occasionally faltering, but a fine representation of her character nonetheless. It may take a while to warm to Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, but any doubts should be dispelled by his handling of the incredibly demanding final act soliloquy that he delivers magnificently with such impassioned yearning that you almost fear that he, like Tristan, is going to push himself over the edge. Michelle Breedt is a fine Brangäne, her singing strong, her acting in character throughout, and Jukka Rasilanen as Kurwenal delivers a touching performance, particularly in his sympathy for and fidelity to his master in the final act. If there are any minor irritations with interpretation and staging in the first two acts, all should be redeemed by Act 3, and that is certainly delivered here under the baton of Peter Schneider.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray looks good for the most part in terms of the 16:9 video transfer. There are some problems with the quality of the audio, but they are mainly down to the recording, positioning of the actors and the acoustics of the live performance on the Bayreuth stage. The minimal staging, the positioning of the performers and the surrounding walls give a somewhat echoing quality to the singing in places. In Act II’s “Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!” for example, with Theorin and Dean Smith backed up against the walls, the singing fails to rise above the orchestration. The orchestra isn’t ideally clear either and doesn’t make a great deal of use of the surrounds, tending to be mainly focussed towards a centre stage. Extras include an optional conductor camera visible in a small box at the bottom of the screen (a pointless feature when Bayreuth productions otherwise do their utmost to keep the orchestra and conductor invisible in line with the composer’s intentions), as well as an illustrated synopsis and a 25 minute making of that looks behind the scenes at the staging of the production at Bayreuth.