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<<  -- 8 --  Malcolm Miller    THE BAYREUTH EXPERIENCE

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Tristan und Isolde, 12 August 2005

Tristan und Isolde was the thrilling climax of our week in Bayreuth, with great singing by the soloists Nina Stemme as Isolde, Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, and Kwangchul Youn as King Mark, with strong support from Andreas Schmidt as Kurvenal, Petra Land as Brangäne and Norbert Ernst as the Steersman. As the first Japanese conductor at Bayreuth, Eiji Oue displayed admirable virtues; he was unusually good on the lightness of and delicacy of the score, as in the first movement pizzicato strings and in Act II where Isolde almost danced at some passages. The motifs in the orchestra were always clear and transparent, yet Oue's often brisk, rubato-less pace, while helping to avoid a too languorous mood, also weakened the sense of building to a climax. Indeed, some of the more expressive moments were underplayed, such as Liebestod, which lacked its necessary sublime climactic resolution. Here the fast tempo did not allow the singer to breath, and missed the impact and toning down of the orchestra. Tristan too was pushed in Act III, which explains his stalling due to a sore throat. No wonder then that there was the odd boo or two for the conductor at the first curtain call, ingeniously avoided in the remaining enthusiastically cheered curtain calls by his appearing alongside all the soloists.

The staging was in general minimalist, with a use of wide spaces and little movement, which helped to focus on the singing yet also created an overly clinical detached mood. In Act I the Irish maids are wearing long knitted skirts while Tristan is in a blue captain's uniform and Kurvenal in a kilt, yet in Act II the women wear bright pre-WWII dresses. Nina Stemme's formidable portrayal of Isolde was vocally rich, particularly intense in the long solos at the start of the first Act where she recounts to Bragäne the reasons she cannot kill Tristan. Anna Vierbrock's set was a large spacious lounge of a 1930s ocean liner, with folding chairs and benches and footstools (one of which rolled across the stage and back during the prelude to suggest the rolling sea). Amongst the main action was Isolde's furious 'chair-throwing' (a curious gesture which seemed to echo the frequent upside-down chair-throwing during The Flying Dutchman). The first duet for Tristan and Kurvenal, which takes place at the back of the stage/ship, concluded with a curious clapping dance which seemed to contradict Tristan's inner state of mind. The first Isolde-Tristan dialogue was excitingly tense and their first gaze following the love potion (kept in a leather holdall) was wonderfully evocative, and intensified by the frustrated tension as Kurvenal announces their arrival.

For Act II the stage-set was raised one level, so the action takes place one level lower in a large foyer such as a public detention centre, awaiting official clearance. The vast stage had just one centrally positioned seat, resembling the Mies van der Rohe chair famously exhibited in the 30s in Barcelona. The hall was filed with light switches controlling the harsh neon lights on the ceiling, a translation of the 'harsh light of day' of Wagner's original, scorching suffering, which is evident in the love duet. Isolde's demeanour had changed radically from the sombre intensity of Act I to a girlish playfulness, yet the lovers' duet lacked warmth, as they moved separately around the walls, until the hushed 'O sink hernieder', which was all the more effective as it was the first time they touched, Tristan lying on Isolde on the central seat. Nevertheless one longed here for just a bit more mystery and allure, both in the staging and in the musical phrasing, particularly the falling appoggiaturas. At the climax of the duet's anticipation of the Liebestod, the entrance of King Mark and Melot (depicted as a modern statesman and bodyguard) on a diminished seventh just missed the target and was somewhat rushed. Kwangchul Youn's King Mark was, however, phenomenal, his rich booming bass, deep and dense, balancing compassion with steely authority in his extended soliloquy and questions to Tristan, while Tristan's reply was similarly expressive. The fight between Melot and Tristan as Mark leaves Tristan and Isolde together, marked an unjustified departure from the original: Tristan is stabbed with his back turned; -- in the original, Tristan throws away his sword. In Wagner's screenplay, Melot would surely not have attacked an unarmed Tristan.

The bleak setting for Act III seemed an evocative equivalent of the desolation suggested by Wagner's stage directions, though without the symbolic tree and coastline. The stage had moved one layer lower (the levels clearly symbolic of the unconscious), the walls now raised even further displaying a large cellar, with rings of lights on the wall around, a single hospital bed in the centre, on which Tristan is lying, visited by an assortment of people in anoraks walking round him as though he was a leader lying in state. Another departure from the original was Isolde's arrival. At this point Tristan rises from his bed with his bloody wounds on his back, crawling on the floor, and so he does not remove his bandages as marked in Wagner's stage directions, though he presumably is so weak it does not matter; but this is still far from the consciously suicidal act implied in the original.

What emphasised the detached ethos of the production was Isolde's coolness when she greets Tristan; rather than search for him and tend his wounds, she stands still, as if a hospital visitor in an empty ward. When later she finds him, she calmly tosses his body over, without any sense of a lover's tenderness. Despite her stunning singing, the orchestral tapestry was already beginning to engulf the voice in an insensitive way, with a lack of breathing space between phrases. While King Mark's final entrance was full of suspense and pathos, and Isolde's final Liebestod flowed with passion, yet it lacked an essential degree of yearning and soaring; the climax was rushed, too loud for the voice, with the orchestra running away with the music. The ending was thin and cool, without the sense of repose and reconciliation, an absence that was reflected also in the staging, Isolde's climbing into the hospital bed and pulling the sheet over herself, and the lovers separated rather than wrapped in each other's arms. One 'first-night' review had called the production 'clinical', a description borne out by the conclusion. However there were still many felicities to enjoy in the production as a whole, not least the uncluttered staging that allowed one to focus on the music itself, always projected with precision, conviction and tonal beauty by the excellent cast.

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Copyright © 25 July 2006 Malcolm Miller, London UK

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