Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth 2009

Are we seeing spots swimming in the
lovers’ eyeballs, as ecstasy makes the blood drain from their heads? Are
we seeing an abstract kinetic visualization of the music, as in the Bach
toccata episode in Disney’s Fantasia? All these things, from the
deliriously silly to the deliriously fatal, are relevant to Christoph
Marthaler’s bizarre, bizarrely moving Tristan.

The production is more or less modern-day, set in a 1940s or 1950s
seedy-plush ocean liner: in each act we move a floor lower, until we’re
in the ship’s innards at the end. There are two principal virtues to this
updating: first, the actors know how to register emotional shifts delicately
and instantly, without thinking to themselves, How does a bloodthirsty Irish
princess from the Middle Ages express (say) ironically subdued courtesy?;
second, uncanny events register as especially uncanny when transposed into an
unmagical world. The fluorescent circles, for example, turn out to be ceiling
decorations on the ocean liner; but in the last act, as Tristan’s fever
grows, disconnected light-circles, casually slung onto hooks, start, eerily, to

Nietzsche considered that Wagner’s heroines were all modern neurotics,
Madame Bovarys; Marthaler goes Nietzsche one better by making the cast into
grown-up children improvising various sexy absurdities. When Tristan and
Kurwenal sing their nyah-nyah ditty about how Morold’s head is a payment
of a toll, they pantomime a patty-cake patty-cake baker’s man game;
during the orchestral interlude, as Tristan and Isolde drink the potion and
intend to die, Isolde casually checks her own pulse—she is, after all, a
physician, and knows how to Play Doctor; during the love duet, when Brang‰ne
sings her aubade, Isolde removes her glove by biting the third finger and
pulling it off, a brutal vulgar gesture that undercuts the sober magnificence
of the music.

Still, there are ways in which the production is unusually faithful to
Wagner’s aesthetic and philosophy. Because the acting is subtly
naturalistic—especially the acting of the Isolde, IrÈne Theorin—the
strange quotation-games in the first act register with a clarity I’ve
never seen before. Brang‰ne quotes Isolde’s “Befehlen liess dem
Eigenholde”; Isolde quotes Brang‰ne’s “f¸r bˆse Gifte
Gegengift”—the characters keep switching lines, for emphasis, or
new shading, or mockery. Wagner’s philosopher hero Schopenhauer thought
that individuality is a delusion, and that one will gropes through every living
thing in the universe—and the easy trading of words and tunes suggests
how effortlessly each of us can turn into someone else. These ideas are more
familiar in the metaphysically intense undoings of identity in the love duet,
but they haunt the whole opera: in the Marthaler production, Isolde begins to
sing the “Liebestod” from Tristan’s sickbed, and pulls his
sheet over her head as her private shroud or final-act curtain, as if she were
turning into his corpse before our eyes.

Theorin’s singing is a bit unsteady, but deep, penetrative, thrilling;
Robert Dean Smith is not in her league as an actor, but has a perfectly
controlled, slightly sapless voice, always at the exact center of each
note—I was slightly reminded of Gunnar Graarud, the light but impressive
Tristan in the 1930 Elmendorff recording. For pure excellence of singing, best
of all is Michelle Breedt, the phlegmatic but powerful Brang‰ne. And I
mustn’t neglect to mention Jukka Rasilainen’s Kurwenal: almost
tenorial, at once puppyish and an endearing coot, the jester at the court of

Daniel Albright


image_description=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_by=Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: IrÈne Theorin; Marke: Robert Holl; Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Ralf Lukas; Brang‰ne: Michelle Breedt; A young Sailor: Clemens Bieber; A Shepherd: Arnold Bezuyen; A Steersman: Martin Snell. Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra. Peter Schneider, conductor. Christoph Marthaler, stage director. Recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival, Germany, in August 2009.
product_id=Opus Arte OABD7067D [Blu-Ray]