Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Thielemann's Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth

Christian Thielemann's Tristan und Isolde is powerfully demonic. When I heard it broadcast audio-only, the orchestral playing mesmerized: so stunningly deep and expressive that  visuals were hardly relevant. Thankfully, the production supports Thielemann's interpretive insight. Read Philip Henscher's article The old-fashioned greatness of Christian Thielemann, a review of the conductor's book, My Life with Wagner. Not many conductors are good writers - it's not their job - but Thielemann's commitment seems to come through. Good stagings illuminate music and meaning, not external incidentals. Was this a production led by the conductor, not the director, Katharina Wagner?  It's not for nothing that Thielemann has been named the first non-family Music Director at Bayreuth. 

The Prelude to Act One unfolds with a pulse as strong as the tides.  The camera pans over abstract shapes, darkness interspersed by light. The Young Sailor's voice calls out from the darkness "Westwärts schweift der Blick".  Shrouded in mystery,we have to find our bearings. Listen to the orchestra, and hear the ocean heave and surge.  This gives  tension to the contrast with the mechanical, maze-like structure on stage, which may represent the inner workings of the human mind. Isolde (Evelyn Herlitzius) bristles with rage at her predicament: a powerful, healing queen reduced to a trophy of war. Tristan (Stephen Gould) appears in the network of metallic bridges and stairs. His presence reminds of the circumstances in which Tristan and Isolde met, explaining the intensity of Isolde's agony. If Herlitzius's timbre is squally in this Act, this fits the situation. At the end, her Liebestod is a triumph of steely resolve, tempered by anguish.  Christa Mayer's Brangäne is a softer more conventional figure, but again, this is a valid characterization. Isolde wants death and murder, but Brangäne represents a gentler ethos. I thought of wise old Hans Sachs, and "Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!"

The orchestral playing is, again, a key to the interpretation of the Second Act. We don't see the ocean, but we hear it swirling invisibly, all the more malevolent for that. The tides are controlled by the moon, an impersonal, sinister force, but one which gives Tristan and Isolde the cover of nightfall in which to proclaim their feelings. Gould and Herlitizius sit under a tent (a bit like a canopy over a bed) and play with star shapes sparkling with electrical light. We know that Tristan never felt free as a child, and quite possibly neither did Isolde. So if they marvel at fragile tricks of light with the innocence of children, who are we to sneer? For me, this enhanced the overall tragedy.  There aren't all that many good Tristans around, so we should cherish Stephen Gould, who sang the part last year in London, and has Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Erik in his repertoire, plus an extremely sympathetic Paul in Die tote Stadt. He's a big man with the heft in his voice to create these roles, yet also the ability to express the vulnerability integral to their true portrayal. Tristan is a hero to everyone around him, but not to himself.  Like so many ultra-macho action men, he hides self-destructive urges. Perhaps Death by Melot isn't an accident. The orchestra hovers over the love scenes like a demonic presence, haunting  the lyrical raptures. Gould and Herlitzius can play with stars but the stars will control their fate. 

In Kareol, almost absolute darkness reigns. The Shepherd's Flute sings its mournful yet oddly seductive song. Wagner defines the different stages of Tristan's delirium. Gould and Thielemann mark the changes sensitively. Gould's voice glows heroically. This is Tristan's greatest battle, and Gould's singing is well up to the challenge. Very impressive. Yet we know he's dying, for he "sees" a vision of Isolde before him as he sings. At the end, blood pours from the mannequin, but by then Tristan is too far gone to notice. Iain Paterson's Kurnewal is firmly sung and characterized, emphasizing by contrast the Wahn that overtakes Tristan. The rapport between Gould and Paterson is musically crucial, for Tristan quietly begins to expire as Kurnewal's voice strengthens. Tristan rallies as he hears the ship in the orchestra, which Thielemann conducts with such fervour that we can almost see it too. When the surge subsides, Gould sings that last "Isolde!" and dies, wreathed in the gentle sounds of the harp. 

This tenderness is important. In this staging, Kurnewal covers Tristan's body with a cross and lilies, a beautiful moment, throwing Isolde's heart-rending grief into even higher profile. Yet again, the contrast between two spheres of reality is painfully poignant. King Marke (Georg Zeppenfeld) and his knights arrive, in glowing shades of gold.  Tristan's dead, Kurnewal is dying and Isolde's overwhelmed.  "Tod denn, alles. Alles tod" Zeppenfeld sings. "Wahn, Wahn, uberall Wahn!" all over again, and so sad. As the Liebestod begins, Herlitzius moves towards Gould's inert body, and tries to raise him, literally, from the dead.  In the music, we hear transfiguration, for in Isolde's mind she is again one with Tristan, on a different plane of existence, no longer "of this world".  "Mild and Liese", the happiness of release and transformation.  In an act of kindness, Marke takes the "living" Isolde by the hand, much as one comforts the grieving at a time of trauma, and leads her away. Will she ever return to the "real" world? Will she live on or die? Maybe she'll whip up other potions, but one thing's for sure. She's not baking cupcakes in domestic bliss. Brangäne stands over Tristan's body, thinking "Why?" As so should we. This ending made me think of the ending in Parsifal, with its message of compassion. "Gesegnet sei dein Leiden, das Mitleids höchste Kraft und reinsten Wissens Macht dem zagen Toren gab"

In the film, Thielemann is seen wearing a red polo shirt. At first I thought, it's been mighty hot in Europe this year, but now I wonder if the choice of colour might not have been deliberate. Although the set is dark, the singers are clothed in luminous jewel-like colours, blue, green and gold. (He switches to a black shirt for his bows.) Perhaps Thielemann's red shirt brings him into the picture, so to speak, for this is very much "his" production. He has always been a brilliant Wagner conductor but this Tristan und Isolde is extraordinarily strong musically, and accesses the infernal, demonic depths of the drama. If Thielemann's politics aren't acceptable, it's also not acceptable to destroy a person because you don't like what he thinks. Heed the music.


Mi Bémol said...

Thank you for a great review -- comprehensive and beautifully written!
I must admit, I would be more critical towards Herlitzius though. Yes, I am aware of the problematic conditions under which she took on the role... Still, though, I found her strident and lacking any kind of roundness in the lyrical parts. I would be amazed if she hasn't lost her voice in two years..!
I deeply enjoyed the Shepherd's solo of act III played by the English Horn, and I wish more people would expand on it in their reviews! it felt so deeply lonely and elegiac.. very memorable moment for me!
At the end of your text, you talk about Thielemann's "politics"... I am aware he has a pretty repulsive looking egomaniac personality, though I'm not sure what you mean by "politic"...?

Doundou Tchil said...

Thank you, too. Herlitzius's strained stridency fitted the idea of an Isolde high on drugs ! Re Thielemann's politiucs, he's given interbviews supporting Pertgida, but now he's learned, by losing Berlin, that such views don't go down well.