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Christoph Marthaler's premiere of Richard Wagner's opera "Tristan and Isolde" opened the Bayreuth Festival this year. Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich did not approve.


Hero to Zero

The unspectacular failure of "Tristan and Isolde" at Bayreuth. By Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich

It's pleasantly quiet in Bayreuth in the week of rehearsals leading up to the premiere of "Tristan"; none of the news of scandal and panic that surrounded Schlingensief's "Parsifal" activities last year. This year the hottest announcement coming from the Green Hill was that the moustache on Wagner's bust in the festival park had been freshly combed and the city gardeners had gone to much trouble with the blue-blooming flowers. Whether the quiet industry of the "Tristan" team could be attributed to their search for the blue flower of the Romantic period remains to be seen.

At any rate, their production presented the key and crowning work of the night-blue music of the Romantic period in a decidedly sober state. It was sobering but not annoying: an unspectacular disappointment. The idea was interesting: putting the opera of the most extreme rebellions and exaltations together with the directorial master of abysmally shrewd and pensive staidness. What resulted was the insight that a good piece plus a good director does not necessary equal an extraordinary performance if those 'goods' are of a controversial nature, as was the case here. Christoph Mathaler's "Tristan and Isolde" didn't really send up sparks. If they'd done "Lohengrin", an uncanny funniness, a devilishly grounded funny uncanniness might have resulted.

Tristan und Isolde - Act 1. Isolde: Nina Stemme, Kurwenal: Andreas Schmidt, Tristan: Robert Dean Smith, Brangäne: Petra Lang. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen QuastTristan und Isolde - Act 1. Isolde: Nina Stemme, Kurwenal: Andreas Schmidt, Tristan: Robert Dean Smith, Brangäne: Petra Lang. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen Quast
The stage design strategy of Marthaler's seasoned co-worker Anna Viebrock was more or less predictable. It was clear that the stage would be one interior space (which hardly changed) for all three acts. At the beginning it was something like a club-house room with a gallery, messily filled with fold-up and upholstered furniture (one could also interpret it as a ship's salon with a view of the upper deck). Every act, the space was extended by a floor so that in the second act, a yellowish tile wall appeared, in the third, conspicuous doors in the middle of the rear wall which opened uselessly onto nothingness. These optics provided little inspiration; they were supposed to imply the temporal, but that was only clear if you'd been briefed on the director's intentions. The other interpretive principle was more effective; the reinterpretation of the starry sky romanticism as electric energy, gently ironic and represented with still-standing or wandering arrangements of lamps from above.

Scenic progress in the opening act was barely discernable; more conspicuous was the sticky atmosphere, the nervous and bored wandering of Isolde and Brangäne from one seat to the next. A few small and fine psychological nuances followed the imbibing of the love elixir. What was not realised, of course, was the end of the act with its unsettling intertwining of two opposing realities (the sailor's choir sang from off-stage, King Marke and his entourage did not appear).

Tristan und Isolde - Act 2. Tristan: Robert Dean Smith, Isolde: Nina Stemme. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen QuastTristan und Isolde - Act 2. Tristan: Robert Dean Smith, Isolde: Nina Stemme. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen Quast
The middle act, flooded with all of Eros' demons, awakened more of Marthaler's parodying life spirit. While waiting for Tristan, the fatigued Isolde keeps nodding off. Then, in a 1950s cocktail dress, looking like Doris Day as a college girl, she meets up with a stuffed Jerry Lewis, in the role of a shy young bank branch director on a first date. Things get erotically charged when Isolde slowly peels the glove off her hand and sticks it in her mouth, where the ecstatic Tristan grabs at it. But of course the delirium is just an adolescent little breeze (was the relationship between Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck strictly platonic?) You might as well sleep through the third act. Nothing exciting happens on stage. In order to undermine Tristan's monologue of pain, Marthaler has the ever-faithful Kurwenal, by now wizened and doddling, steadfastly and compulsively dragging himself around the high-tech catafalque deathbed (on hearing the happy news of Isolde's arrival, he risks a few little hops - a truly Marthaleresque moment). Isolde celebrates her entirely unromantic love-induced death on this same bed, before hiding herself under a white cover. Isolde's outfit (costume by Anna Viebrock) - a knitted dress in the first act – is now more practical than magical: sea-faring slacks and an anorak.

At the end of the second act is a long scene which normally appears weirdly alien in a love story and so frustrating, after the intoxicating music that precedes it, that one is inclined to tune out. It deals with King Marke and his "Why?", his existentially excessive pose of self-pity. Six people, each with their own emotions, are on the stage with him: the betrayer, the betrayed, the faithful, the unfaithful, the deceiving and the cuckolded. This constellation – embarrassingly and sublimely sappy – is as close as it gets to Marthaler's poetics. And so this creeping, half-comedic, strangely accented end of the act becomes the lone climax of the Tristan performance and as such, lends the whole performance a curious accent. One can only describe it as a all-round failure. The last Tristan in Bayreuth, directed by Heiner Müller, was also an anti-Tristan, a clear-cut negation of the metaphysical love signal. With images from Erich Wonder, this performance had the character of a puzzle and a greatness. Which is precisely what Mathaler and Viebrock chose not to evoke. But what they end up with, after all the reserve they impose (and which curtails their creative impetus) is merely anecdotal. Nonetheless, Marthaler remains a major figure of the theatre.

Tristan und Isolde - Act 3. Tristan: Robert Dean Smith. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen QuastTristan und Isolde - Act 3. Tristan: Robert Dean Smith. © Bayreuther Festspiele GmbH / Jochen Quast
The music pales under the direction of Eiji Oue. Although the Japanese conductor from Hannover cites Bernstein as a role model, he avoids extremes in his interpretations. What he offers in Bayreuth is a Tristan interpretation that is distilled from all the others, a standardised average: not particularly fiery, not particularyl lyrical; not fast and not slow; nicely toned and maintained without emphasis; neither old Frankish nor radically novel. Somehow accurately mid-Frankish. The initial and flagrant impression of an honest and correct copy-conductor is, unfortunately, only mildly wavers over the course of the performance.

The singing was profound and lovely. Nina Stemme is an extraordinary Isolde, right up until the finale – a heartening model of highly dramatic relaxedness and brilliance. Robert Dean Smith's Tristan tenor also has notable merits and does not degenerate into bellowing or gasping over-actedness in the third act. The Kurwenal voice of Andreas Schmidt is no longer fresh as daisy. Notable is Alexander Marco-Buhrmester's stentorian organ as Melot, which sounds as exhilarating as an infantryman's call in the second act. Steady and powerful is the regal bass of Kwangchul Youn; full of character, Petra Lang's Brangäne. The audience applauded the lead singers with full volume and heartiness. But nobody in the auditorium would have felt that this new interpretation represents anything earth-shattering in the history of Tristan performances.

"Tristan und Isolde" is shown at the Festspiele Bayreuth, 31. Juli, 7., 12., 18., 26 August.


The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Rundschau on July 27, 2005.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich is an editor at the Frankfurter Rundschau.

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