Worth it: Tristan und Isolde at Bayreuth
Tristan und Isolde
Mitte Loge, Reiner 3 Platz 9, €230
1 August 2019
I had fallen into a rut of assuming I was about as likely to go to Bayreuth as to the moon i.e. only under an extreme change of circumstance. Fortunately I have a friend of a more pragmatic bent who procured two tickets for Tristan through a set of simple steps he claims not to be able to remember. Thus I saw Tristan at Bayreuth, and could judge for myself whether it was worth four days’ travel, five days’ leave, an extravagant ticket price, the lack of air conditioning and the lack of surtitles.
Unfortunately for my future budget and leave allowance one visit has only fired me to see more. The major downside of Bayreuth – the lack of surtitles – is insignificant beside the benefits of seeing Wager’s music performed by that orchestra in that theatre; and of being in a place that has the history Bayreuth does, deeply uncomfortable though it is to be forced so continually to think about the horrific uses to which this music has been put and the implications of enjoying it today as I do.
Having now seen the Festspielhaus I’m put out that there are no other opera houses like it that I know of. Its design is both interesting as a physical manifestation of Wagner’s views on opera and an acoustic phenomenon, a fact interesting in its own that his ideas should prove so successful. In orientation it’s similar to a cinema, few seats with an obstructed view. The orchestra pit is so deeply recessed that it forms a moat between stage and audience. Given the height and plainness of the proscenium arch the effect is like watching an enormous cathode ray tube, prompting the fun thought that cinema and television represent the immersive Gesamtkunstwerk.
With such a recessed pit I expected the orchestra to sound distant, and indeed they did, a little, from my original seat in the Mittelloge. But when I swapped to my friend’s seat further around I was overcome: the sound from the invisible players is as rich, textured and detailed as you could wish, and exquisitely performed under Christian Thielemann. But the truly amazing thing is in the balance with the singers. While the orchestra is fully present and audible, the attack is entirely with the singers – and this gives them the freedom to play with text and voice production as I’ve never before heard in a live Wagner performance. This, surely, is the best way to hear Wagner.
Even with this boost, the calibre of the singers was mixed – by which I mean Stephen Gould as Tristan was horrifyingly flat for almost all of it, a musical assault that could not be forgiven no matter the fortitude of his sound. More unalloyed joy could be found in Petra Lang’s Isolde, whose tirelessness and beauteousness made her seem almost a different singer from when I’ve seen her before. Everyone else sounded superb. I expected this from Georg Zeppenfeld as King Marke but Christa Mayer as Brangäne and Greer Grimsley as Kurwenal were completely new to me, Mayer in particular a revelation in her control and variety of tone.
Now to the staging. Thinking I knew Tristan pretty well I had felt sanguine about the lack of surtitles; but as well, I think, as being challenging full-stop for a non-native speaker the difficulties are exacerbated when the production gives you nothing to go by. Even so, I was mostly mildly bemused by Katharina Wagner’s Regietheater in the first two acts, and enthralled by her coups de théâtres in the third; which made the raucous boos that greeted her curtain call by far the worst thing about Bayreuth. Even if I had no idea what she was getting at two thirds of the time I could nonetheless see and appreciate the extraordinary time and effort represented by the production, and to be in the midst of an ugly sound indiscriminately expressing a mob’s annoyance was unpleasant – especially given Bayreuth’s early history of tribal reactivism.
Act III was Katharina Wagner’s unmitigated triumph. In Tristan’s monologue we go with him into a feverish nightmare where false Isoldes taunt him ghoulishly. I can’t decide if my favourite was the one were her head fell off or the one where she toppled appallingly from a great height. You get the idea. Gould looked as about as bothered as he did about singing the right notes, but I guess you can’t have everything.
The previous two acts, however, left me at sea. Act I was in a kind of Escherian staircase, around and through which there was much rattling. Act II seemed to have a bathroom theme: Kurwenal attempted to climb out of a department store’s bathroom section but the rungs kept on falling off, T&I were slowly munched and then unmunched by a towel rail-cum-solenoid-cum-bike rack, Tristan made a tent out of a shower curtain which he then sweetly decorated with fairylights. I completely fail the Regie test and have no idea where even to begin to join the dots with Wagner’s Tristan. No matter: Thielemann, his orchestra, this theatre and this score made it all worth it.