King Marke has a mean collection of bicycle stands. Kurvenal grasps their sinister implications, and trembles in a corner. Marke and his men watch from above, helped by spot-lights, as Tristan and Isolde build themselves a cubby-house with a blanket and a bunch of clip-on, battery-operated stars which they happen to have with them. Later they use the edge of one of the bicycle stands to slash their wrists, but this seems to have no lasting effect on either of them.
Katharina Wagner’s new production of Tristan und Isolde for the Bayreuth Festival has been widely acclaimed as thoughtful and mature. But in all frankness: the empress has no clothes. Individual opinions are fair game, but there is precious little substance in what Wagner’s great-granddaughter has dreamed up this year.
True, Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert’s set’s are elaborate and impressive. The first act plays in a vast room of moving staircases, the second in the aforementioned bicycle cellar from hell, the third largely in darkness. But fancy design is no substitute for directorial handiwork, and it is here that Katharina Wagner remains spectacularly dilettantish. Her singers are marched to a spot on the stage and abandoned. Some stay rooted to the spot, others, like the indomitable Evelyn Herlitzius, make their own individual melodrama out of their part. The whole does not add up to real direction.
The concept, such as it is, revolves around Marke’s supposed brutality and the inevitably tragic outcome of the lovers’ passion. Marke is depicted as a sadistic mafia boss (part of a group of men who wear universally hideous mustard-coloured clothes), with no concession to the grief and warmth so audible in the music Wagner wrote for the betrayed king.
In the pit, Christian Thielemann ensures that no detail of Wagner’s score is left to chance. The best things about this Tristan are musical, starting with Stephen Gould in the title role. He is that rare creature, a Wagner singer who actually sings the words. You understand what he is saying, both because of his diction and because of his well-sculpted phrasing. A voice that sounds overwhelmingly powerful in the first act still unfolds as the evening progresses, and by the third act, when most tenors sound at least a little tired, Gould sounds as if he could easily sing the entire opera all over again. He is phenomenal.
Herlitzius, by contrast, sounds worn from the beginning, and, as she so often does, as if she is doing herself damage. The tone is hard, the vibrato wide, the sound frayed at the edges. But she remains the consummate stage animal, giving the part her unconditional and considerable all, and while she seldom sounds beautiful, she is invariably moving.
Georg Zeppenfeld's Marke, despite having to wear piles of wool and fur in baby-poo yellow in the Bayreuth swelter, sings with warmth and charisma, and Iain Paterson’s Kurvenal is a vocal delight. Thielemans is portentous but irresistible, building a vortex of sound from which there is no escape. And so, in the end, this Tristan does move.
Christoph Marthaler’s Tristan und Isolde production for Bayreuth, which preceded this one, was original and well-crafted, if controversial. Katharina Wagner’s new staging is none of those things. How long can the young Intendant continue to lead her ancestor’s Festival backwards?