Bayreuth's 'Tristan': Love in the GDR
In Christoph Marthaler's uncompromising but highly intelligent reading, revived at the legendary month-long summer music festival for the fourth time, nothing happens.
Bayreuth -- A telling moment in Christoph Marthaler's production of "Tristan and Isolde," which opened this year's Bayreuth Festival on Saturday, is when the eponymous heroes drink the love potion in Act I.
In Richard Wagner's score, it's the moment when the dam holding back the pair's love for each other finally breaks, unleashing some of the composer's most passionate music.
In Marthaler's uncompromising, but highly intelligent reading, revived at the legendary month-long summer music festival for the fourth time, nothing happens.
Isolde merely sits and waits, checking her pulse just in case it has quickened as an effect of the love draught.
For the Swiss theatre director, the love between Tristan and Isolde is characterised by their sheer inability to communicate on any real level. It's a frighteningly cold and barren world, where no-one is able to express their emotions.
There's no overwhelming passion or no electrifying eroticism.
The star-crossed lovers kiss only once, and barely touch at all throughout the six-hour evening: the climax of their passionate night-time rendezvous in Act II is when Isolde unbuttons her nylon blouse and Tristan loosens his tie.
And when Isolde's husband, King Marke, discovers their illicit love affair, his helpless response is simply to re-button Isolde's blouse. There's no jealous passion or wounded pride. There's only emotional paralysis on all sides.
The secondary characters mill vacantly around, locked away in their own worlds, staring near-autistically at bare walls.
The stage, by Anna Viebrock, is all drab browns and yellows typical of the former communist East Germany or German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Since the production was first unveiled in 2005, Marthaler himself has never actually returned to the world-famous Festspielhaus, the theatre built to Wagner's own designs, to oversee the subsequent revivals.
His assistant Anne-Sophie Mahler has introduced a number of small, but significant details this year: next to the gesture of Isolde taking her pulse, we see a gust of wind and the salt spray of the sea when a door momentarily opens, to help remind us that the characters are onboard a ship.
Isolde and her maid Brangaene battle over light switches in Act II: the heroine wants to turn them off as a signal to Tristan that the coast is clear for their rendezvous, but her maid insists the lights stay on and Tristan stay away, in case Marke and his men are still close by.
Many in the audience find Marthaler's reading hard to stomach, with its uncompromising minimalism and drabness.
It will be interesting to see what the wider public make of it: the production will be broadcast live on to a huge open-air screen on Bayreuth's Festplatz square on August 9 in the festival's second-ever free public viewing.
The same performance will also be broadcast live on the Internet, and later made available on demand at a cost of 14.90 euros. In addition, it is being recorded for subsequent release on DVD.
Even conductor, German kapellmeister Peter Schneider, candidly conceded to journalists that "some of the stage directions don't exactly help (the music), let's put it that way."
Schneider himself was booed when he took his bows at the end of the evening, for conducting that sometimes verged on the soporific.
Among the singers, only Dutch bass Robert Holl as King Marke and Finnish baritone Jukka Rasilainen came close to the standards that should be expected at a festival such as Bayreuth.
Swedish soprano, Irene Theorin, singing Isolde for the second year in a row, was a shrill and squally Isolde, while the reedy-voiced US tenor Robert Dean Smith was variable as Tristan, strong in Acts I and III, but tailing off noticeably in Act II.
But they received rapturous applause and cheers from the first-night audience nevertheless.
The Bayreuth Festival, in its 98th edition, is set to continue Sunday with the second re-run of a production of "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg" by the composer's great granddaughter and festival co-head, Katharina Wagner.
Her staging has sharply divided both audiences and critics alike since it was premiered in 2007.