Tristan und Isolde

Roman Brogli-Sacher
Herren des Haus- und Extrachores des Theater Lübeck
Philharmonisches Orchester der Hansestadt Lübeck
23 March 2014
Theater Lübeck
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJeffrey Dowd
IsoldeRebecca Teem
BrangäneWioletta Hebrowska
KurwenalMichael Vier
König MarkeMartin Blasius
MelotMark McConnell
Ein junger SeemannDaniel Jenz
Ein HirtDaniel Jenz
SteuermannKong Seok Choi
Distant Sounds

After its groundbreaking Ring cycle and perceptive Parsifal, Theater Lübeck has now added a fascinating take on Tristan to its Wagnerian portfolio. The defining feature of Anthony Pilavachi’s direction of all three works has been his ability to make compelling human dramas of these oft-reinterpreted masterpieces. His broad remit has been to set them in the context of the theatre’s ongoing celebration of the city’s most famous literary son in its ‘Wagner meets Mann’ strand. In this case, Thomas Mann had a particular obsession with Wagner’s drama, and wrote a novella, Tristan, that obliquely references the operatic version. Moreover, his epic novel Buddenbrooks was written, like Wagner’s ‘Handlung’, heavily under the influence of Schopenhauer.

There is a hint of Buddenbrooks’s bourgeois milieu in Tatjana Ivschina’s set, which serves all three acts in progressive decrepitude and seems to mirror the declining fortunes of Mann’s eponymous family. (A visit to Lübeck’s Buddenbrooks House, the former home of Mann’s grandparents a couple of minutes from the theatre, and now a museum to the master and his literary relations that includes a mock-up of the fictional interiors as described in the novel, proved to be an apt Vorspiel to the performance.) There is a further Mannian reference in Act III, as we shall see, but Pilavachi’s broader conceit takes a different line. He uses the characters of Tristan and Isolde instead to allude to the affair between Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck that inspired the work. This director has an obvious penchant for telling a story onstage that isn’t necessarily that prescribed by the composer but which always follow its own internal logic and on the whole enhances rather than detracts from the line of the original. In so doing, he also has the ability to get around some, if not all, of the inconsistencies between text and new setting in ingenious ways.

Act I takes place not on a ship taking Tristan and his captive Irish princess to Cornwall but in a 19th-century salon, perhaps the Wesendonck villa, laid out ready for a wedding feast and where Tristan has already brought Isolde to await her reluctant marriage to King Mark – in other words, the king is the one arriving by boat at the end of the act. There are telling moments from the first, with the Young Sailor as a member of the house retinue taunting Isolde to her face (he, the Steersman, Kurwenal and Melot are all effectively house staff and come and go through all three acts), and Tristan, rather than being consigned to the usual aft deck is very much in the foreground from the beginning, with Isolde addressing her ‘Mir erkoren’ to his face. And with Melot already on the scene before the arrival of Mark, he is able to witness the growing erotic intoxication of the illicit lovers and in his jealousy concoct his plan of betrayal. Pilavachi’s Personenregie in this final scene of Act I is particularly perceptive – we see the transformative effect on Isolde as Tristan snatches a kiss, seemingly their first and what they are expecting to be their last, before taking the potion. Oblivious to the world around they begin to abandon decorum and layers of clothing, which Brangäne and Kurwenal (maid and valet, respectively) desperately try to retrieve as Mark arrives, and Isolde, dragged reluctantly to meet him, falls with a faint at his feet.

For Act II we’ve moved to the king’s garden house. Here we see what is perhaps Pilavachi’s theme coming to fruition: that Tristan is not only Wagner’s self-proclaimed ‘monument to love’ but also a monument to artistic creativity inspired by love. The Wagner–Mathilde parallel is openly drawn: at ‘O sink hernieder’ Isolde repeats Tristan’s words and writes them on to his manuscript paper as if capturing the moment of inspiration. The end of the act reveals Mark’s tragedy more than in any other staging I’ve seen. After the recoil at being shown the truth of Melot’s accusation, he seems to crumple. Sitting together on the sofa with his wife, he makes one last attempt to win her over, but she has eyes only for Tristan, carefully rebuffs Mark’s proffered hand and the king appears to have a seizure, sitting stock still staring into the distance for the remainder of the act.

The prelude to Act III plays out to a front gauze depicting the Venetian Grand Canal: we are now obviously in Death in Venice territory (and in fairness, Wagner’s own death in Venice is a gift for a director drawing parallels between Wagner and Mann, between the opera and its creator). The action is initially confusing, though: each time the ‘alte Weise’ plays out, a ‘young Tristan’ (presumably the result of the offstage quicky his parents grabbed during Brangäne’s first warning in Act II) walks on with a wreath and a coffin is carried across the back of the set – on its third appearance Isolde herself is revealed as mourner. The main action is therefore presumed to be in flashback, and for the Liebestod, Tristan rises from his death to sit at the piano and write down Isolde’s words as she sings them. In the final moments, Isolde is back in widow’s weeds grasping the manuscript as if to demonstrate that love is the fount of creativity.

The production opened in the early autumn of 2013 and reappeared, with subtly varying casts, more or less monthly for the rest of the season, until I caught this penultimate performance in April. Jeffrey Dowd, who had been a fine Parsifal but disappointing Siegfried during my Wagner bicentenary travels last year (see TWJ, November 2013), was in fine voice as Tristan, combining impetuousness with obsession. Rebecca Team, previously Lübeck’s triumphant Brünnhilde, made a very human Isolde, with firm singing and a crisp projection of the words – given Pilavachi’s detailed direction, both leads presented their roles as far from the statuesque Wagnerian cliché as could be imagined.

All the subsidiary roles were well taken by members of the company, though Michael Vier’s Kurwenal didn’t have quite the vocal sheen of Wioletta Hebrowska’s Brangäne or Martin Blasius’s sympathetic Mark. Roman Brogli-Sacher conducted with his customary combination of forward impetus and textural detail, and the theatre orchestra surpassed itself in warmth and passion. By the time you read this, Lübeck’s Wagnerian odyssey will have moved on to Tannhäuser, and a post-Pilavachi/Brogli-Sacher era will have replaced one that has so enriched this city’s cultural life in recent years.

Matthew Rye | Theater Lübeck – 27 April 2014

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Media Type/Label
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 508 MByte (MP3)
In-house recording
A production by Anthony Pilavach (2013)