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Bayreuth 2012: Tristan - Solid, Stolid, Staid, and Not a Little Boring

Bayreuth’s 2012 Tristan, directed by Christoph Marthaler, is now—after seven cycles—on its way to the recycling bin. It will go there with nary a tear cried after. The veterans among the usher-girls (the “Blue Girls”, even though their uniforms have been changed to an unpopular gray) who have seen this production some two dozen, thirty times, will heave a collective sigh of relief. Solid, stolid, staid, with a good and even cast, but without anything or anyone outstanding, except for Jukka Rasilainen’s excellently dramatized and very well sung Kurwenal, this Tristan is largely inoffensive, deliberately dour, and not a little boring.

Certainly the production’s heart is in the right place. Marthaler goes for deliberately minimalistic acting (already less minimalist now than originally), which should suit Tristan as an intimate opera about conversation very well. A glance or a touch of hands can and should be more powerful in this work than lofty operatic gestures. It’s just that the rest of the direction, including Anna Viebrock’s sets and costumes, doesn’t bring that quality out much. It focuses instead on the aspect of the passage of time and waiting. Dresses, hairdos, and the color schemes of mustard yellow, hunting green, and dark tan seem to come straight out of the 60s or—for whom that isn’t any longer a valid reference—Mad Men. Amid this: timelessness and aging by way of stasis.

Good and plain Tristan (the reliably voiced Robert Dean Smith, for whose personality this production seems to be tailored since he’s always that kind of Tristan) never ages, but the people around him do: Most notably Kurwenal, who starts virile and ends up a touching old dodderer by the third act. The latter brings by far the most moving couple of hours of this production, tenderly embedding the duologue between feverish Tristan and Kurwenal. Isolde (Iréne Theorin) is so lost in her own world that during the confrontation of the second act, she regresses into an infantile state and points, transfigured and transfixed, to a few flickering lights that promise to go out, as if the cloak of darkness might yet cover her illicit love, and instate a happy end. No such luck.

The sets grow out of the ground one level after another, each act’s set pushing the previous one’s one floor up… “like growth rings of a tree”, Viebrock suggests. By act three, the walls of an old ocean liner’s musty reading room tower above the dreary yellow office-building’s interior with decidedly hideous wallpaper, which in turn are situated above a modern day dungeon, on the water damaged walls of which Viebrock’s guiding stars – light tubes in various shapes (subtly spelling “TOT”) – hang and flicker. From the moving, suspended neon lamps of the first act, depicting a starry sky and ship’s passage, to the tubes that sputter in Tristan’s underground refuge (“ a storage depot for burned out bulbs”), light – “Day” – follow Tristan and Isolde, no matter how much they try to avoid it.

If you read Uwe Friedrich’s interview with Peter Schneider (Friends of the Bayreuth Festival 2012 Almanach), the 73 year old Austrian conductor comes across like a young radical, ever probing Wagner-discoverer. He reconsiders the scores anew every time he conducts them, he goes back to the original manuscripts, and he laments that famous colleagues of his take things for granted, only because ‘that’s how Knappertsbusch did it, so it is right.’ This cumulates with this statement: “To question tradition, over and over, and to come up with new solutions brings me a lot of pleasure, actually.” Had I conducted the interview, I might have had to ask: Who are you, and what did you do with Peter Schneider? This person sounds more like Thomas Hengelbrock or Pierre Boulez, than the predictable, reliable Kapellmeister we know.

Perhaps it comes as a relief then, that in the house, when the music plays, it’s back to the Peter Schneider one expects… except not at his best. The tempi of this Tristan were comparatively stiff (the extremely flexible Thielemann and even Nelsons being admittedly tough competition) and, a swift overture excepted, on the slow side. The orchestra was usually too loud and the singers were constantly covered. The latter mattered little for text-comprehension, though, since hardly anyone in the cast bothered much with diction, and by the time the Liebestod came around, Theorin, though vocally admirable throughout, might as well have vocalized her lines. Kwangchul Youn’s King Marke wasn’t half as superbly regal and authoritative as would is his Gurnemanz, much like Michelle Breedt couldn’t quite unleash her Brangäne from the dreary surroundings.

In 2015 Tristan will return to the Bayreuth Festival, conducted by Christian Thielemann and directed by the lady of the hill, Katharina Wagner.

(Recommended) recordings:

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
P.Schneider / Bayreuth FO
R.D.Smith / I.Theorin
M.Breedt / R.Holl
Marthaler / Mahler / Viebrock
opus arte Blu-ray

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
R.Kubelik / BRSO
J.King, G.Janowitz,
G.Jones, T.Stewart

available at Amazon
R.Wagner, Tristan & Isolde,
Z.Mehta / Bavarian State Orchesta
J.F.West, W.Meier,
M.Lipovšek, K.Moll
Konwitschny / Leiacker
opus arte Blu-ray

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Greatly enjoying these Bayreuth dispatches, Jens.

I, for one, would also be greatly interested to read your account of the visiting Bayreuth process-- getting tickets (as hard as they say?), how the day progresses (unusually long intermissions, it seems?), the crowd and atmosphere, etc. I've always wanted to do a Fear & Loathing in Bayreuth but that seems to be indefinitely postponed.

I did catch the Bayreuth Parsifal at the movie theater the other week and was greatly impressed. I was moved by Herheim's basic message as I understood it: that the boundless empathy of Parsifal can/should be Germany's way forward from the guilt/confusion of its WWII past. That or cross-dressing.