Wagner Tristan und Isolde

A production which references 1950s cinema as much as 19th-century opera

Author: 
Mike Ashman
Wagner Tristan und Isolde

WAGNER Tristan und Isolde – Schneider

  • Tristan und Isolde

It’s clear from about a minute after the curtain first parts on this Bayreuth Festival production that we are in very assured hands indeed onstage. Over a long period of work at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus, Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock have invented a new aesthetic of “modern dress” representations (often, as here, 1950s) of the great dramas from Aeschylus to Brecht, inevitably set in painstakingly detailed, often shabby, interior mid-European courtyards. Onto this design Marthaler grafts an intricate ground production that can be both as “naturalistic” as conventional Chekhov (as here in the Brangäne/Isolde and Tristan/Isolde dialogues of Act 1) or as abstract and unrealistic as the hand-jive dances invented for ensemble work by Peter Sellars (seen here in Kurwenal’s “fight” with Melot in Act 3 and subsequent death).

The employment of the Marthaler/Viebrock aesthetic for Wagner’s Tristan works in a manner that reinvents the wheels of both grand opera and 19th-century stage conventions about sex. For example, there are distinct “stand and deliver” moments – after the potion has taken effect on the lovers in Act 1, in the Act 2 duet, and in Tristan’s death-bed agonies. And growing sexual desire is expressed, 1950s movie style (think Audrey Hepburn), by the loosening of a tie or a suit jacket, or the seductive removal of a glove, finger by finger. Brilliant, because these “stagey” moments have been bought by Marthaler’s attention to psychological detail. As in all great stagings – and I have no doubt that this is one – a list of unforgettable links between text, music and action soon accumulates. Two such are the shy little grin Isolde gives Tristan when they both realise in Act 1 that they’re still alive and so in love, and the manner in which Marke questions Melot’s boasting account of having delivered apparently concrete evidence of Tristan’s infidelity (“Tatest du’s? Wirklich?”).

It’s hard to know where to point the awards finger first in such a complete ensemble performance (and the revival director Anna-Sophia Mahler deserves credit too). But Iréne Theorin’s multifaceted Isolde, Jukka Rasilainen’s bullishly not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-box Kurwenal and Robert Holl’s insanely (or Schopenhauer-ily?) calm Marke have to be mentioned in dispatches. Musically everything is fine under the super-experienced Peter Schneider. The Blu-ray version catches perfectly the sometimes lurid colours and texture of Viebrock’s work on both clothes and setting. Despite the ferocious competition (see above), absolutely unmissable.

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