Tristan und Isolde

Peter Schneider
Chor und Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele
9 August 2009
Festspielhaus Bayreuth
Recording Type
  live   studio
  live compilation   live and studio
Tristan Robert Dean Smith
Isolde Iréne Theorin
Brangäne Michelle Breedt
Kurwenal Jukka Rasilainen
König Marke Robert Holl
Melot Ralf Lukas
Ein junger Seemann Clemens Bieber
Ein Hirt Arnold Bezuyen
Steuermann Martin Snell
Stage director Christoph Marthaler
Set designer Anna Viebrock
TV director Michael Beyer
Mostly Opera

I reviewed this production in detail when I saw it in Bayreuth (with the same cast) in 2008 and my opinion of both singers and staging essentially remains the same. With the notion, however, that Marthaler wins by the DVD transmittion, while some of the singers lose: Marthaler´s sets are still drab and nothing you´d really want to look at. But the close-up filming focusing of the faces of various characters tend to shift the attention from the fact that we are inside an Eastern-European nightmare to the characters themselves: Isolde, the archetype of a hausfrau, with the shy though polished smile; Brangäne, the typical 1950´s lady, upholding conventions; Tristan, a man without any passion, who only loves Isolde because he has to. People caught in the conventions of the time, not really capable (or wanting?) of passionate love.This is the kind of staging that Marthaler always does, and it does have it´s merits. Though, it still takes more from Wagners timeless, mythical drama than it gives.

What Marthaler wins on the DVD, Iréne Theorin looses, with audible straining in the middle and occasionally the higher register. But her acting is wonderfully restrained and exactly how one imagines a Eastern-European hausfrau looks. Ditto for Brangäne, but I will never learn to love Michelle Breedt´s shrill voice. Also Rasilainen seemed tired, while Robert Dean Smith is a fine, though passionless Tristan.

While Peter Schneider certainly knows his way with the score, also he lacks passion and the sense of contrapunct essential to release the score.

Certainly a DVD worth watching, but the Tristan DVD competition is becoming rather stiff. With this, I have reviewed 10 Tristan DVDs, and for one-set owners I´d recommend one of Daniel Barenboim´s three magnificent productions. This set will mostly appeal to Tristan or Wagner afficionados.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):
Iréne Theorin: 4
Robert Dean Smith: 4
Jukka Rasilainen: 3
Michelle Breedt: 3
Robert Holl: 3

Marthaler: 3
Schneider: 4

Overall impression: 3

This production of Tristan by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler was first seen at Bayreuth in 2005, revived in 2008, and then opened the 2009 Bayreuth Season. It met with a mixed reception, to say the least, and it is not hard to see why. Traditionalists are likely to be up in arms at the absence of boats, trees, castles, sword fights and other staples of Tristan productions. At the other extreme, enthusiasts for Wieland Wagner’s 1950s minimalist psychodramas will be appalled at Marthaler’s determinedly affect-free approach, with characters turning their backs to the audience and staring hopelessly at empty walls.

I do not have much sympathy for the booing audience in 2005, however. After a while one begins to appreciate the atmosphere of desolation created by the sets, costumes, and extreme understated acting. Tristan and Isolde’s doom was sealed long before the curtain rises on the first act, and the production is built around the inexorable slide towards the carnage of the final scene. The dowdy costumes and drab interiors accentuate the sense of futility and the production culminates in a dramatic masterstroke, as Isolde lies down on Tristan’s hospital gurney and pulls a white sheet over her head as she expires at the end of the Leibestod.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus of the production, the first and last acts are more successful than the second. Each of the principals is most convincing in the absence of the other. Iréne Theorin’s Isolde is visceral in Act 1 as she laments her betrayal by Tristan/Tantris. Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan comes into his own in Act 3 as he regains consciousness and slowly builds to the delirium scene where he hallucinates Isolde’s arrival. His finest moment is “O dieser sonne”. Both are less convincing in Act 2, although the “O sink herneider” duet is sung with delicacy and Robert Holl is a commanding König Marke.

The outstanding singer in this production is Iréne Theorin, whose Isolde is deeply felt and thrillingly sung. In the final stages of Act 3 she moves compellingly from fury with the dead Tristan to a transcendent “Mild und leise”. Robert Dean Smith has much less psychological depth as Tristan, with a tendency to stand and belt out his lines. Jukka Rasilainen is a very creditable Kurwenal, particularly fine in the first part of Act 3. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is a very worthy partner to Theorin in the first two acts.

Peter Schneider’s conducts well. I found his pacing worked well in Act 1, with the interlude between scenes 4 and 5 working particularly well. Act 2 was somewhat less convincing, with the two key dramatic entries of Tristan and Kurwenal not as effective as they might have been. But momentum and tension were maintained well in Act 3.

The audio and visual quality of this Opus Arte DVD are characteristically excellent. It would probably not be an ideal “starter” Tristan, but is certainly to be recommended for Theorin’s excellent Isolde and Marthaler’s idiosyncratic and thought-provoking production.

José Luis Bermúdez

Following hot on the heels of Christian Thielemann’s Ring – released, unusually for Opus Arte, on CD – the company is back in its usual medium for this Tristan und Isolde. Again from Bayreuth, the performance has appeared on DVD with unusual speed, but enters a catalogue already well stocked with filmed versions of Wagner’s great opus metaphysicum.

Christoph Marthaler’s production was first seen in 2005 but he left this 2009 revival to Anna-Sophie Mahler; given the critical drubbing it received in earlier outings, Marthaler’s motivation to return to revive it on this occasion might have been limited. The main feature of Anna Viebrock’s designs is the way a large room – a non-descript waiting-room or lobby-cum-lounge – is shifted up in each act to expose another stratum beneath. Viebrock explains its significance in a rather bizarre geological metaphor with time passing to reveal new layers of sediment. The protagonists’ costumes similarly pass through various eras. For example, in Act One Isolde is rather dowdy, in Act Two she has something of the Stepford Wives about her, but in the final act she’s dressed in smart, contemporary style. This sartorial transformation seems to reflect similar shifts in emotional engagement, and Tristan goes through the same process. Viebrock explains an additional motif of circular tube lighting through the text’s obsession with night and day. In the first act, these float in the air above the set in a manner that seemed to suggest the same distinction between real and dream worlds made in Christoph Loy’s recent Covent Garden production. In any case they allow for a nice effect during the prelude, as the camera drifts dreamily among them, although their repositioning at ground level in Act Three, extinguished but for the occasional folorn flicker, seems a rather obvious touch.

Whereas it’s easy to imagine Marthaler’s production being somewhat dreary in the theatre – there’s a studied lack of emotional engagement from the singers in much of the first two acts – it is enlivened greatly by an unusually active style of video direction (by Michael Beyer) that displays evident cinematic pretentions, and is choreographed to match the music’s grand sweep. Yet some of the panned shots enabled by the use of remote controlled cameras are more successful than others, and there’s the usual tendency for didactic underlining of details we are supposed to notice, including some which, arguably, we’d be better off not. The production, however, does seem painfully static at times, and at least the imaginative video direction gives more of a visual counterpoint to Wagner’s passionate score.

Otherwise, Marthaler seems to have assembled his ideas from the Regie handbook without quite coming up with an original take on the opera. Nevertheless, there’s a certain effectiveness in the way he highlights Tristan’s emotional journey from a proud, emotionally frigid cypher in Act One, to pubescent excitement in Act Two and finally uncontrollable passion in Act three, even if Robert Dean Smith lacks the natural acting ability to pull it off as successfully as others might have. The introduction of certain humorous touches was interesting, particularly in the way Kurwenal seems impatient with his master’s self-indulgence. The end of Act Two is particularly powerful, too, given the apparent levity of some of what’s come before.

There’s no doubt, at least, that we’re in safe hands musically, and Peter Schneider draws playing of great passion and beauty from the Bayreuth orchestra, while with his lively, amusing contributions he’s the artist who comes out best in the faintly embarrassing ‘make of’ featurette (to a jarringly un-Wagnerian soundtrack) that is included as an extra. As Isolde, Irène Theorin is no match for Nina Stemme – on Opus Arte’s superior Tristan from Glyndebourne – but maintains strength in the top of the voice, even if her middle range can sound breathy. In terms of acting, she is clearly shackled to Marthaler’s concept, but carries out his aims with dignity. I feel as though I should enjoy Smith’s Tristan more than I do, given the astonishing ease with which he seems to get through the role, yet the voice, despite its almost bel canto facility, is not one to inspire sympathy or tug at the heart strings; mine, at least, remained untugged. Jukka Rasilainen makes an unusually sympathetic Kurwenal, and sings strongly throughout, the briefest of glitches in Act Three notwithstanding, but I failed to warm to Michelle Breedt’s rather matronly Brangäne. As Marke, on the other hand, Robert Holl is dignified and moving.

Neither this nor Thielemann’s Ring represent the unqualified triumphs that might have been hoped for as a result of Opus Arte’s new agreement with Bayreuth. This DVD in particular seems unlikely to make its mark among so many excellent filmed accounts, yet while it’s not vintage Bayreuth, it still comes across here as an engaging performance.

Hugo Shirley

Financial Times

The rationale for taping performances at Bayreuth used to be that they bore the stamp of accumulated tradition, filtered through the best Wagner voices of the day and spiced with innovative perspectives. The wider world heard or saw only the best.

Under Katharina Wagner’s new marketing-led regime, everything at the Festspielhaus is being disseminated, mediocre as well as good. In principle, it’s not a bad idea: tickets to the heavily subsidised festival are so hard to come by that performances might as well be shared on CD and DVD. But such an undiscriminating approach dilutes rather than enhances the Bayreuth brand: it shows how variable standards can be at the Wagner mecca.

This Tristan sums up the problem. It is extremely well conducted by Peter Schneider, an old Bayreuth hand, but Christoph Marthaler’s anti-romantic staging – set in an impersonal Communist-era reception room, with Tristan dying on a hospital bed – will be of interest only to students of German Regietheater.

Iréne Theorin’s radiant red-head has temperament, presence and a big voice, which sounded more imposing in the theatre than it does on DVD. Robert Dean Smith is vocally clean but emotionally inert. The supporting cast is nothing to write home about, and we’re left wondering why there should be so much fuss about Bayreuth when you can get a performance of this standard at your local metropolitan opera house.

The DVD has one truly cringe-making feature – a backstage sweep featuring feeble artist interviews, a plug for sponsor Siemens and the sight of Katharina advertising herself, all accompanied by an overlay of beat music. If you want a Bayreuth Tristan on DVD, go for the Barenboim/Müller production on DG.

Andrew Clark

Opera Today

As the prelude plays, we see circles of fluorescent light moving slowly in uncertain black space. Are we seeing flights of flying saucers, as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde.

Are we seeing spots swimming in the lovers’ eyeballs, as ecstasy makes the blood drain from their heads? Are we seeing an abstract kinetic visualization of the music, as in the Bach toccata episode in Disney’s Fantasia? All these things, from the deliriously silly to the deliriously fatal, are relevant to Christoph Marthaler’s bizarre, bizarrely moving Tristan.

The production is more or less modern-day, set in a 1940s or 1950s seedy-plush ocean liner: in each act we move a floor lower, until we’re in the ship’s innards at the end. There are two principal virtues to this updating: first, the actors know how to register emotional shifts delicately and instantly, without thinking to themselves, How does a bloodthirsty Irish princess from the Middle Ages express (say) ironically subdued courtesy?; second, uncanny events register as especially uncanny when transposed into an unmagical world. The fluorescent circles, for example, turn out to be ceiling decorations on the ocean liner; but in the last act, as Tristan’s fever grows, disconnected light-circles, casually slung onto hooks, start, eerily, to glow.

Nietzsche considered that Wagner’s heroines were all modern neurotics, Madame Bovarys; Marthaler goes Nietzsche one better by making the cast into grown-up children improvising various sexy absurdities. When Tristan and Kurwenal sing their nyah-nyah ditty about how Morold’s head is a payment of a toll, they pantomime a patty-cake patty-cake baker’s man game; during the orchestral interlude, as Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and intend to die, Isolde casually checks her own pulse—she is, after all, a physician, and knows how to Play Doctor; during the love duet, when Brangäne sings her aubade, Isolde removes her glove by biting the third finger and pulling it off, a brutal vulgar gesture that undercuts the sober magnificence of the music.

Still, there are ways in which the production is unusually faithful to Wagner’s aesthetic and philosophy. Because the acting is subtly naturalistic—especially the acting of the Isolde, Iréne Theorin—the strange quotation-games in the first act register with a clarity I’ve never seen before. Brangäne quotes Isolde’s “Befehlen liess dem Eigenholde”; Isolde quotes Brangäne’s “für böse Gifte Gegengift”—the characters keep switching lines, for emphasis, or new shading, or mockery. Wagner’s philosopher hero Schopenhauer thought that individuality is a delusion, and that one will gropes through every living thing in the universe—and the easy trading of words and tunes suggests how effortlessly each of us can turn into someone else. These ideas are more familiar in the metaphysically intense undoings of identity in the love duet, but they haunt the whole opera: in the Marthaler production, Isolde begins to sing the “Liebestod” from Tristan’s sickbed, and pulls his sheet over her head as her private shroud or final-act curtain, as if she were turning into his corpse before our eyes.

Theorin’s singing is a bit unsteady, but deep, penetrative, thrilling; Robert Dean Smith is not in her league as an actor, but has a perfectly controlled, slightly sapless voice, always at the exact center of each note—I was slightly reminded of Gunnar Graarud, the light but impressive Tristan in the 1930 Elmendorff recording. For pure excellence of singing, best of all is Michelle Breedt, the phlegmatic but powerful Brangäne. And I mustn’t neglect to mention Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal: almost tenorial, at once puppyish and an endearing coot, the jester at the court of Thanat-Eros.

Daniel Albright

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Media Type/Label
Opus Arte
Opus Arte
Technical Specifications
1920×1080, 11.3 Mbit/s, 18.7 GByte, 5.0 ch (MPEG-4)
DTS 5.0 (DVD)
1920×1080, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 (BD)
From the Bayreuth festival