This production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner first saw the light of day at last year’s festival immediately finding success with the cognoscenti of the Green Hill. Her direction tapped into the opera’s emotional strength and she delivered a powerful and compelling production that drifted at times from its traditional staging.
The first act is highly impressive not just musically speaking but visually, too! When we meet Tristan and Isolde they’re already deeply in love and frantically searching for each other against all the odds with Kurwenal and Brangäne battling hard to keep them apart.
However, when the lovers do meet they simply gaze longingly and lovingly at each other in total silence while the love potion that Brangäne prepares for Isolde is immediately discarded. The couple’s love is already sealed.
But what helps to make this act so highly impressive is Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s brilliantly-designed set comprising a three-dimensional labyrinth of stairs evaporating into thin air, an influence, perhaps, of Giovanni Piranesi or MC Escher. But it was Piranesi’s engraving Il ponte levatoio: Le Carceri d’Invenzione (The drawbridge: the Imaginary Prisons) cited in the programme.
Overall, the visual impact was staggering greatly aided by Thomas Kaiser’s strikingly-designed costumes ranging from medieval to futuristic styles with Reinhard Traub’s lighting reflecting the dark and broody nature of the piece.
The scenario of act II is played out in a prison exercise yard with more than a hint of DDR political interference in evidence as Stasi-styled guards (King Marke’s henchmen) look down upon the lovers forced into a tiny cell. They’re constantly kept under surveillance with ultra-bright searchlights trained upon them.
In the final act, the staging’s dark and atmospheric with the tension brought to breaking-point as Tristan tries in vain to reach out to his beloved Isolde one last time seeking her through a series of triangular mirrors. They appear and disappear at whim the length and breadth of the stage reflecting a profusion of distorted images of Isolde driving Tristan to madness and insanity.
But the deeply-etched ending where a distraught Isolde shields the dead body of Tristan in her arms with King Marke offering the couple his blessing is reinterpreted by Wagner. After the singing of the Liebestod, Marke quietly drags the body of Isolde (very much alive it seems but, maybe, an apparition) across a bare stage thereby claiming his rightful bride.
American heldentenor, Stephen Gould, delivered a brilliant interpretation of Tristan. What a voice! But German bass, Georg Zeppenfeld, equally matched it putting in a commanding and authoritative performance as King Marke while Frankfurt-born singer, Petra Lang, sang Isolde for the first time relishing the part. Her performance, especially in the Liebestod, was stunning to say the least and it more than stamped her authority on what is one of the most demanding of all Wagnerian female roles.
The pairing of Scottish bass-baritone, Iain Paterson, as Kurwenal and German mezzo-soprano, Christa Mayer, Brangäne, hit the mark, too. And so did the orchestra which plays such a dominant role in this opera commenting on every psychological and dramatic development through leitmotivs and the endless melodising that Wagner substituted for arias and duets.
Maestro Thielemann, on top form in the pit, got from his charges some rich, imaginative and warm playing that was simply thrilling to hear in the confines of the Festspielhaus.