Wagnerian Score: Music 10; Drama 1

Despite the sometimes vociferous booing and hooting
of ìoffendingî production teams, year after year, show after show, the
damn thing still sells out. So, either somebody likes this artistic
philosophy, or perhaps hope springs eternal that somehow, sometime,
something, no matter how weird, will actually ìlandî and illuminate a
familiar piece with a fresh perspective. Letís dispatch the bad news up

Director Christoph Marthalerís ìtakeî on Tristan und Isolde
was more of a ìtook.î Or was it that we were being ìtakenî? Whatever
the conjugation, his is a bare bones, stylized, confusing mounting that is
quite bereft of engaging theatrical values. Or even sensible story telling of
the ìconjugationî of two of operaís most complex and deeply felt
characterizations. At least he had his remarkable soloists often iconically
singing full front to maximum advantage, although that usually did pretty
much negate any relationships developing.

Mr. Marthaler was abetted by the ugliest costume and set designs I ever
hope to see from Anna Viebrock. Remember that name. And avoid it if possible.
In fairness, she wins awards. She works a lot. But on the basis of this mess
of a visually dreary ìKonzept,î it beats me why. Act Oneís ship deck
was more a Bauernhof-as-waiting-room with scattered overstuffed chairs among
overturned, well. . .lawn chairs I guess is the best description. The Sailor
and Isolde are discovered hidden seated in the comfy seats, and the ìopen
skyî above is hung with gently shifting and sputtering fluorescent light
circles as ìstarsî (one guesses).

The generally murky lighting gradually (finally) gets bright enough to see
that our Isolde is really a quite lovely woman, albeit gowned in a drab
garment that is unflatteringly belted at the hips. Kurwenal is in a kilt,
Brangaene in a plaid skirt and burgundy sweater. A cursing, agitated Isolde
angrily overturned all the lawn chairs that were not already downed.
Brangaene having subsequently righted them all, Isolde again deliberately put
every last blessed one of them on their side when Tristan entered got up in
some preppy blue blazer outfit that makes him look, not old, but too old for
Buster Brown. Before the Sailor exited, he and Kurwenal faced front at
separate upstage locations and played patty-cake in the air as the Sailor
sang. (Are you following any of this?)

For Act Two, a layer of institutional walls had been placed under the
ersatz farmeríís courtyard of Act One which had been jacked up one story
in the air. The fluorescent circles were back as proper light fixtures (one
guesses) and Isolde spent the first part of the act sparring with Brangaenee
as she threatened to turn off the lights via modern day wall switches. When
she finally plunged the stage into darkness, it took a long. . .long. . .long
time before we got enough light restored to see the lovers. The great love
duet was mostly played on and around a silly gold Naugahyde double seater
center stage, straight out of your doctorís waiting room, and the only set
piece in the entire empty space.

At one point, for no apparent reason, Kurwenal oh-so-slowly wandered the
perimeter of the enclosing box set, touching the walls and looking at them
with such intense concentration as if to wish to discover something. (Perhaps
a cogent staging idea?) Once the pair were interrupted, the odd overhead
light started flickering, with only Isolde noticing, daftly lying on her back
and pointing at the stuttering fixtures. The stabbing of Tristan with what
appeared to be a switchblade was particularly clumsy. And once Mister ìTî
impaled himself, damn if Melot did not really get into it, and violently
stabbed the hell out our hero until he really seemed quite dead. Act Two
closed then with Tristan-as-ìdoor- nail.î Hmmmm, where to go with Act
Three? How about ìnowhereî?

Another layer of walls (ìDungeonî? ìCatacomb?î) had been added to
the mix so we now had all three unattractive sets on display for the price of
one. Tristan was lying in state on a modern hospital bed on a slightly
elevated platform, enclosed by a waist high brass railing. Think Leninís
tomb. In fact, a line of lower-middle class men in work clothes filed past to
view it. Servants? Friends? The Grey Line Tour? Who knows?

Kurwenal had aged noticeably, and now doddered around on wobbly legs. And
he repeatedly traversed the perimeter of the railing. Oh, and once, in a
demented flash-back moment, he played patty-cake with the air again,
oh-so-briefly. (ìMan, those were the good old days in Act One. Patty cake
and potions.î). The fluorescent circles were hanging on bars on the walls
now, occasionally flickering and trying to come to life, but really quite out
of service. The electric bill had come due.

Oh sure, ìTî finally died and ìIî finally arrived, although she
was attired in a trench coat over slacks and a blouse, and sort of strutted
around with her hands in her pockets, not caring about her dead lover all too
very much. The other soloists had wandered on, too, and ended up in various
stage positions with backs to us, facing the wall like school kids being

The sublime Love Death culminated with Isolde taking Tristanís place on
the hospital bed and pulling the sheet up over her expiring body, leaving us
with a final image worthy of ìCSI: Singing Victims Unit.î This was
shabby, willful, inexcusable stage-craft- without-the-ìcraft.î

But. . .the ridiculous was thankfully compensated by the sublime, for this
was the most persuasive musical performance I have yet heard of this
masterpiece. Peter Schneider led a magnificent, expansive, rhapsodic reading
with an orchestra that was in festival form. At the top, the elusive opening
phrases may have seemed to be a bit fragmentary, more stand-alone than
rhythmically connected, but once past those first few bars, there was an
inevitably in the unfolding phrasings, and a passionate forward propulsion
that never let up.

The love recognition after the potion has been drunk has never moved me
more, and the opening bars of Act Three were brutally painful. The covered
pit may not be to all tastes. It is true that some sharpness of detail in the
winds and, especially, the brass are inevitable, but the gains in terms of a
blended sound are significant. I had wished that the brass off stage at the
end of Act One had not been prematurely muted by the curtain fall. And while
I did find the odd moment when I thought that the estimable maestro might
have showed more restraint when his soloists were dipping into lower
registers, Mr. Schneiderís was nonetheless a memorable achievement.

And it would be difficult to field a better ensemble of soloists from
among current interpreters. It is hard to believe that Swedish soprano IrÈne
Theorin was making her role debut as Isolde, so vocally persuasive was she.
There are other ladies voicing it as well, to be sure, but Ms. Theorin found
a good deal more nuance and variety of utterance than any other I have heard.
If you could listen to her dramatic understanding and her fearless use of
pauses in some some of the brief unaccompanied bars alone, you would
immediately know just how much she ìgets it.î She can ride the orchestra,
0most usually with thrilling results, but it is her meaningful communication
of the text that won me over so totally. I wished sometimes that she would
not over-shoot impassioned leaps to pulverizing high notes, but that seems to
be standard issue these days. Suffice it to say hers is a remarkable

No less so was her Tristan, Robert Dean Smith. While this is not a weighty
sounding voice, it is the clearest, cleanest vocal production of any
interpreter in my experience. I never once felt that he was past his limit,
and although I donít think he had any more to give, what he presented was
right on the money, bright and focused, and of a good presence in
relationship to the band. He, too, invested his lines with meaning and
comprehension. His long death scene was solid and varied, far from the more
usual ìhope-I-make-it-to-the-endî rendition.

Michelle Breedt scored a big success with the public as Brangaene. But
while I always enjoy this fine singer, and while she performed it very very
well, I wasnít sure she had completely mastered this curious and demanding
role. She was assuredly not helped by the unimaginative direction she was
given (or not given). Jukka Rasilainen was just a tremendous ìKurwenal.î
His stentorian, emotionally rich declamations in Act Three zinged off the
back wall like laser beams. What a horn! Powerful portrayal. Also fine was
the orotund and commanding King Marke from veteran bass Robert Holl. Ralf
Lukas made the most of Melotís small role, and the fresh-voice Clemens
Bieber did commendable duty as the Sailor.

Given these triumphant musical values, moreís the pity then that the
theatrical side of this mounting was so wanting, with Richard Wagnerís
concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (ìintegrated,î or ìcomplete
artworkî) little in evidence. How do producers rationalize
ìintegratingî such astounding musical accomplishments with the deplorable
visuals on display? How?

We should be thankful that the Festspielhaus is way up the Green Hill,
some distance from Wahnfried, Wagnerís final home and resting place. While
we had to suffer through Marthalerís and Viebrockís distractions, at
least we were spared the ultimate distraction of the scraping sound of
Richard turning over in his grave.

James Sohre

image_description=Tristan & Isolde
product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_by= Tristan (Robert Dean Smith), Kˆnig Marke (Robert Holl), Isolde (IrÈne Theorin), Kurwenal (Jukka Rasilainen), Melot (Ralf Lukas), Brang‰ne (Michelle Breedt), Junger Seemann (Clemens Bieber), Ein Hirt (Arnold Bezuyen), Ein Steuermann (Martin Snell). Conductor: Peter Schneider. Production: Christoph Marthaler. Costumes & Stage Design: Anna Viebrock. Chorus Director: Eberhard Friedrich