Tristan Robert Dean Smith
Isolde Iréne Theorin
Brangäne Michelle Breedt
King Marke Robert Holl
Kurwenal Jukka Rasilainen
Melot Ralf Lukas
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Peter Schneider. Produced by Christoph Marthaler. Recorded live at the Bayreuth Festival, 9 August 2009
This production of Tristan by Swiss director Christoph Marthaler was first seen at Bayreuth in 2005, revived in 2008, and then opened the 2009 Bayreuth Season. It met with a mixed reception, to say the least, and it is not hard to see why. Traditionalists are likely to be up in arms at the absence of boats, trees, castles, sword fights and other staples of Tristan productions. At the other extreme, enthusiasts for Wieland Wagner’s 1950s minimalist psychodramas will be appalled at Marthaler’s determinedly affect-free approach, with characters turning their backs to the audience and staring hopelessly at empty walls.
I do not have much sympathy for the booing audience in 2005, however. After a while one begins to appreciate the atmosphere of desolation created by the sets, costumes, and extreme understated acting. Tristan and Isolde’s doom was sealed long before the curtain rises on the first act, and the production is built around the inexorable slide towards the carnage of the final scene. The dowdy costumes and drab interiors accentuate the sense of futility and the production culminates in a dramatic masterstroke, as Isolde lies down on Tristan’s hospital gurney and pulls a white sheet over her head as she expires at the end of the Leibestod.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus of the production, the first and last acts are more successful than the second. Each of the principals is most convincing in the absence of the other. Iréne Theorin’s Isolde is visceral in Act 1 as she laments her betrayal by Tristan/Tantris. Robert Dean Smith’s Tristan comes into his own in Act 3 as he regains consciousness and slowly builds to the delirium scene where he hallucinates Isolde’s arrival. His finest moment is ‘O dieser sonne’. Both are less convincing in Act 2, although the ‘O sink herneider’ duet is sung with delicacy and Robert Holl is a commanding Konig Marke.
The outstanding singer in this production is Iréne Theorin, whose Isolde is deeply felt and thrillingly sung. In the final stages of Act 3 she moves compellingly from fury with the dead Tristan to a transcendent ‘Mild und leise’. Robert Dean Smith has much less psychological depth as Tristan, with a tendency to stand and belt out his lines. Jukka Rasilainen is a very creditable Kurwenal, particularly fine in the first part of Act 3. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne is a very worthy partner to Theorin in the first two acts.
Peter Schneider’s conducts well. I appreciated his pacing in Act 1. It came across particularly well in the interlude between scenes 4 and 5. Act 2 was somewhat less convincing, with the two key dramatic entries of Tristan and Kurwenal not as effective as they might have been. But momentum and tension were maintained in Act 3.
The audio and visual quality of this Opus Arte CD are characteristically excellent. It would probably not be an ideal “starter” Tristan, but is certainly to be recommended for Theorin’s excellent Isolde and Marthaler’s idiosyncratic and thought-provoking production.