Saturday, 6 August 2011

Bayreuth Festival (5) - Tristan und Isolde, 4 August 2011

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Isolde – Iréne Theorin
Brangäne – Michelle Breedt
Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
King Marke – Robert Holl
Kurwenal – Jukka Rasilainen
Melot – Ralf Lukas
Shepherd – Arnold Bezuyen
Steersman – Martin Snell
Sailor – Clemens Bieber

Christoph Marthaler (director)
Anna-Sophie Mahler (revival director)
Anna Viebrock (designs)
Malte Ubenauf (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Peter Schneider (conductor)

Over the past few years, I have seen and heard a good few performances of Tristan und Isolde. Only one has satisfied in terms of stage direction, namely that of Harry Kupfer for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Before that, I have to go back to the late Herbert Wernicke’s intelligent, abstract – and generally unloved – production for Covent Garden. Some found Christof Loy’s successor production more ‘radical’, but for me it exemplified a failure that lies at the heart of so many stagings of the work, an inability to understand that humility here is a necessity rather than a mere virtue. The necessity, if I may repeat my words concerning Kupfer’s production, is ‘to do very little, not something that comes easily to many directors. And by saying “do very little,” I do not suggest reliance upon a superficial, empty minimalism, for, at the same time, something must be done. A concert performance could certainly work, up to a point, and would be vastly preferable to most of what is put before us, but staging nevertheless makes all the difference. Perhaps it is because, in Tristan, Wagner came closest to the Attic tragedy he so revered, that straightforwardness seems the only viable course here. (A production with masks might be an “idea” with potential.) There is no point in suggesting that Tristan is “about” anything other than what it is about, which might sound tautological and probably is, but it is certainly the case that some productions, profoundly unfaithful to a work, can succeed in turning it into something else. This does not seem to be the case with Tristan.’ Nietzsche was often wrong about Wagner, but he had the measure of Tristan, speaking not only of its ‘voluptuousness of Hell’, and needing to handle it with gloves, but of Wagner’s ‘opus metaphysicum’. If Tristan does not seem the most dangerous work of art ever created, one that could, as Wagner feared, drive audiences mad were it to be accorded a good performance, than something has gone terribly wrong; it has been diminished to no good end.

Christoph Marthaler does not irritate so much as Loy (at least we do not have Kurwenal and Brangäne mauling each other behind the curtains) or indeed as Claus Guth (for Zurich), but like them, he essentially transforms a metaphysical drama into a bourgeois drama. Part of the problem with all three directors, and indeed many others, would seem to be a lack of interest in Wagner’s music. What might work if Wagner had simply produced a spoken text rarely does so when one is dealing with a music drama. For in Tristan above all other works, it is the music that has priority, sometimes even chronologically, but more importantly in metaphysical terms. We are not really dealing with individual psychology, but with the catastrophic surging of Schopenhauer’s Will – or at least of something close to Schopenhauer’s conception of that primal force of energy (not to be confused with human will as generally, indeed properly, understood). Wagner is not the only guide to his œuvre, but he is surely worth and occasional hearing. It probably therefore ought to interest directors that, when providing his own summary in 1859, he did not even mention an ostensibly important phenomenal event such as King Marke’s act of forgiveness. The action, Wagner implies, is not really of this phenomenal world at all, but metaphysical. Even Tristan’s agonies go unmentioned on the way to ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ (Erlösung: Tod, Sterben, Untergehen, Nichtmehrerwachen!)

What we have from Marthaler are instead three scenes of resolutely anti-metaphysical, anti-Romantic drabness, in which a story of undoubtedly damaged human beings. (I cannot comment on what difference, if any, Anna-Sophie Mahler’s revival direction made to Marthaler’s original conception; though the latter is available on DVD, I have not seen it. ‘Marthaler’, then, should generally be considered as shorthand for something that may or may not have been more complex.) Now no one in his right mind would deny that Tristan and Isolde are damaged human beings, but the question is whether that is the point of the drama, or, if you like, whether it is a point that may be made credibly in a production of the drama, a production that does not become merely reductive and deny Tristan its musico-dramatic power. I am not sure that a case has been made. The first act takes place in what appears to be an especially ‘institutional’ care home for the elderly. (Perplexingly, the central protagonists look younger in subsequent acts.) The décor could not be more depressing, doubtless a tribute to Anna Viebrock’s designs, if not to the Konzept. Certain forms of obsessive behaviour manifest themselves, for instance Tristan and Kurwenal’s odd hand movements, and the turning upside down and back up again of chairs. There is an almost Beckettian feel of waiting for Marke – who does not, in defiance of Wagner’s directions, turn up at the end of the act. Meanwhile, Wagner’s music tells a different story. Marthaler seems not so much to set his production against Wagner as simply not to have any interest in him.

The second act remains in the home, but the 'lovers' have smartened up a little and Marke’s visit finally does occur and the lovers have smartened up a little. True to apparent intent, he resembles Isolde’s beleaguered carer. In a nice touch, though, he buttons up her coat, the only sign that there may have been any feelings, let alone deeds, of passion. Tristan does not proceed even as far as that. We are told, perhaps correctly, that geriatric sex is all the rage; this did not seem worth the effort. Lights flicker on and off, presumably a nod to the distinction between Light and Day. Isolde points at them with the air of one suffering from mental affliction. Kurwenal very slowly makes his way around the multitude of light switches, to no avail. Is the problem that the home did not enlist the services of a decent electrician? There is one further moment of genuine dramatic power, when Melot, having grabbed Marke’s penknife, the stabbing having occurred – as it should, Tristan compelling Melot to stab him – Melot places it back in Marke’s hands. More chilling moments like that and the anti-metaphysical might have had more going for it, though I suspect the action would merely have seemed cluttered.

Then it is off to the hospital bed for the third act. Tristan’s bed is a peculiar thing: at one point it rises up, apparently by itself, to permit him to wander around. Problems with the lights follow him around, it seems. After Isolde’s arrival, whatever it is Kurwenal thinks – or claims – is happening, is not. Melot and company remain standing at the back of the stage. It might have made more sense if they had never arrived. At the end of her Verklärung, Isolde attains some sort of union with Tristan by covering herself with the bed sheets he has vacated. It has taken a long time for something not very interesting to happen. By contrast, what could be of more interest than what is probably the single most staggering operatic score ever written?

How did the score sound then? Peter Schneider did not scale the heights, but nor did he plumb the depths. Much as one might have expected then, except that he elicited a true ‘Bayreuth’ sound from the predictably magnificent orchestra, more so than any other conductor I heard in this run. Schneider’s experience with the acoustic clearly helps greatly. Unity was achieved during the second act by playing almost everything at a uniform tempo: better than arbitrary changes, I suppose, but remembering what Böhm, let alone Furtwängler, managed, I could not help but feel this was too easy a solution, and not a little dull. Still, I have heard far worse in Tristan, and Schneider certainly did not deserve to be booed.

In the context, I was astonished, though relieved, that Robert Dean Smith did not receive such a barrage. At his best, he was dull and inexpressive – though so, one might say was the production – but there were times when he struggled to be heard against Isolde, let alone the orchestra. It was unclear to me whether Kurwenal bringing him a glass of water during the cruel monologue was part of the production or a response to vocal problems; however, I am told that an earlier performance had been similarly underpowered. Another disappointment was the gruff, sometimes crude Kurwenal of Jukka Rasilainen. Michelle Breedt had her moments as Brangäne, but suffered from a few intonational difficulties. Thank goodness, then, for the excellent Isolde and Marke. Robert Holl breathed as much humanity as the production permitted – and probably a good deal more – into a carefully, yet never pedantically, enunciated portrayal, which understood that words and music come together with irresistible alchemy. Would that Marthaler had achieved the same realisation. Iréne Theorin’s Isolde sometimes threatened to eat Tristan for breakfast, but that was not her fault. If there was not the same degree of verbal engagement that Nina Stemme brought to the part at Covent Garden, nor the bitter sarcasm of a Birgit Nilsson, Theorin presented a majesty and an emotional honesty that reaped their own rewards. She proved as tireless as the part demands, a signal achievement in itself.


Opera Cake said...

Ah Mark don't be so fast in judging this production! It's a very slippery slope.

I don't believe there is a more delicately produced opera that you can find on DVD than that work by Marthaler [who btw is one the very best theater directors alive.]

In its first year, Tristan and Isolde in that show never touched each other during the second act. Only later Marthaler changed that and let them at least touch.

While I agree that Irene does not sing the part as good as Nina Stemme (who does?), she is the first class actress -- especially in that production.

Do take DVD and see it more carefully [if you care, of course ;)]


Mark Berry said...

But I'm not sure that answers my question concerning the music. Do you find any instance of him responding to the score, which is the very heart of the work and its meaning?

For what it is worth, I liked Marthaler's 'Katya Kabanova' very much. I remain to be convinced that doing a similar thing for 'Tristan' works.

The Wagnerian said...

Sound analysis as normal. However (and while I dislike this production) I am not convinced that Tristan cannot be produced as a "bourgeois drama"

I think I would agree with your description of the "Will" as it is represented in Tristan but it is important to note that "the Will" (assuming we accept some part of Schopenhauer's thought) is, in a sense, representative in everything we do. If we have a "problem" it is that we do not recognise the presence of the "Will" in all of our day-to-day activities and how it "informs" (if not downright leads) those activities.

I think what I am trying to say is that to me the "drama" is represented in the action that is taking place on the the stage, the "metaphysics" is taking place in the music - perhaps like everyday life - unbeknown directly to the participants.

Plus, I believe that in-part Tristan is more than his presentation of Schopenhauer's thought. It may also be Wagner's "unsent" letter to Schopenhauer - in part explaining why lovers would take their own lives because of love (a "popular" occurrence at that time in Europe and one Schopenhauer could not understand. Of course, this is simply supposition on my part and thus meaningless.

It would thus be reasonable for any opera producer to produce Tristan's "physical" action as straightforward drama on the stage - let Wagner's music deal predominately with its metaphysics.

Still, I dislike this production not because it is a bourgeois drama but due to its essential lack of any form of drama.

Mark Berry said...

In principle, I'd agree; in practice, though, it simply doesn't seem to work.

The Wagnerian said...

Yes, I see what you mean although I think it hasn't worked (often) simply because directors simply can't "get on and do it" not because of any fault in the text. But then, as so many of them feel they "have" to infuse it with metaphysics (already present in the music) this should not come as any surprise.

Mark Berry said...

I wonder whether it might be that 'Tristan' is, for better or worse (I'd certainly say better, but I can understand why someone antipathetical, all'Adorno, might say worse), perhaps Wagner's most successfully achieved 'total work of art'('Gesamtkunstwerk', if one must, but that tends to lead to idle discussion about 'conformity' to 'Opera and Drama'). In a sense, almost everything is there. Whereas in the 'Ring', say, there is an almost limitless array of directorial possibilities and incitements, which is not to say that all are of equal value, there is relatively little to do here, so that the spotlight should really fall upon the musical realisation. If one ends up thinking more about what one has seen than what one was heard then something has gone wrong. Just to make myself clear, I don't mean to imply this is the case for all operas, but 'Tristan' is so extreme a case that it almost becomes sui generis. I find it closer to the St Matthew Passion than to most conventional 'opera'.

The Wagnerian said...

Mark, as always, you make very good observations and yet (at least in this instance) I am not convinced about your argument. First, while I think you are right to say that Tristan is one of Wagner’s most successful “Gesamtkunstwerks” I do not believe (assuming I am reading your argument correctly) that this is because its success, as such, is so tightly bound to the text and that any interpretation of said text thus acts a distraction. But, I would need to explain how “I” perceive Tristan before progression. To me, the characters in Tristan are some of the most “human: ever found in an opera. They could be you, me or anyone of us - at least as we were when we were young and certainly to a degree immature. Wagner, might have said they were “driven” by “Will”, Freud by libido, Dawkins by “the selfish gene”, ( my old aunt by “being too randy”) or by whatever is the “buzz” word or concept of the time but they certainly represent that “insanity” of “passion” that can overtake two people at anytime. Now, to me that can be represented in any time period and in any circumstance (social, economic, etc). As long as that - let us call it “insane passion” – is present then everything is “fine”. Put them in a "bourgeois drama", put them in D.H Laurence’s socially divided world, put them in a future world on a distant planet, put them in a dystopian communist society, a "dictatorship" like Orwell’s in 1984 – put them anywhere but keep them human and “full” of “passion” and the text, and thus the Gesamtkunstwerk, still “works”.

Now, while this is going in the text, in the music we have (although this occasionally arises in the text also) Wagner’s explanation as to “why” it is happening. The music is the” Will” (“at work” as Wagner said on occasion), the libido, the selfish genes, or whatever. (Yes, I know there is much more going on in both the text and music but this simple analysis, I think, will do for now). To me as long as the drama on stage matches what is going on “on the stage” then any “interpretation” is valid and will work. Of course, what you cannot do is then reinterpret the text that then removes this “passion” - as clearly has happened in the “new” Bayreuth Tristan.

Oddly, I think you might have guessed why I think this comparison with St Matthaus Passion (Tristan as oratorio) is something although much said I cannot agree with. Tristan is such a successful Gesamtkunstwerk because it is not like an oratorio. It is the opposite to this and is as distant from St Matthaus Passion as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is from Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung

Anonymous said...

Just saw the August 16 performance of Tristan, probably the most dreadfully dispiriting and depressing opera staging I ever saw. The director's idea of depicting passion seems to be for Tristan to loosen his tie. The most exciting thing happening on the nearly static stage was the occasional flickering of some of the harsh fluorescent lights, and even then you weren't sure for several minutes whether it was intentional or a technical failure. Horrible horrible horrible. At least the orchestra was magnificent. What a contrast to the spectacular Parsifal of the night before, and even to the Lohengrin laboratory rats the night before that, which although absurd at least were never as relentlessly boring as tonight's Tristan!