Review: 'Tristan and Isolde' - Bayerische Staatsoper

Here’s an entirely hypothetical question: when not very familiar with an opera, is a Regietheater production with hotly anticipated role debuts the best opportunity to form an emotional understanding? Answers may vary, but take it from a someone whose opera education had a shamefully large Tristan-shaped hole: Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Tristan und Isolde at Bayerische Staatsoper is a production to to gnaw on – conceptually elusive and a puzzle with many pieces, but finally a great reward in scenery and in music.


Jonas Kaufmann lends Tristan his well-known baritonal timbre, although it’s not quite as prominent as usual. His voice is dense and rich, though not artificially darkened, and brings delicate piani as well as strength to the role. The third act with Tristan’s near-incessant monologues of increasing volume and intensity provide an audible challenge that doesn’t leave Kaufmann’s voice untouched: he sounds somewhat taxed by the time he’s finally allowed to collapse once and for all. Granted, it’s a punishing and brutal feat; the sheer amount of energy required to sing oneself to death likely isn’t equivalent to the amount a badly wounded man would still have. Kaufmann thus doesn’t quite look to be on death’s door despite a shirt soaked in progressively darker shades of red, but he nonetheless he provides a well-grounded interpretation of one titular character. He steers away from classic hero territory into something more nuanced and disconcerting if one only looks closely enough – Isolde, for that matter, hits the nail on the head when she replies “Frag deine Furcht!” to his “Und welchen Feind?”. He’s scared – or perhaps haunted by thoughts that won’t leave him alone, unable to keep his hands and his gaze still when not singing. He doesn’t outright long for death, but from the very start, he sure doesn’t seem at ease with life, either. Something isn’t quite right with Tristan – and just the right person is needed to unleash it fully.


That just-right-person is Anja Harteros as Isolde, who deserves perhaps the audience’s grandest ovation. Vocally, she is still in excellent shape until the last measures of her delicately sung Liebestod, having preserved her gleaming heights and pristine sound over all three acts. Her middle register, uniquely crystalline and incredibly poignant, could conceivably serve to distinguish her voice from thousands. Yet her singing by far isn’t too pretty to show feelings – Harteros’ voice suits a seething young woman with a rich inner life that progressively unfolds throughout the opera. “Lass’ uns Sühne trinken!“ is an actual threat, one that Tristan wholeheartedly embraces. After losing herself in love in the second act, she reemerges from it lonely and bitingly aware of it. Her grief, like her rage, is controlled yet bone-deep, and it inevitably leads her to die. Perhaps something wasn’t quite right with Isolde, too.


Wolfgang Koch sings Kurwenal with a vivacious, robust baritone that energetically prizes life – a great contrast to Tristan’s inclinations. However, Koch stays far from acting clownish, particularly in the third act, where he wears the worry about his friend on his sleeve, but ultimately remains powerless against Tristan’s impending death. While the latter ecstatically sings himself into delirium, Koch remains comparatively static, demonstrating his character’s inability to help and by extension, vastly different attitude towards life.


Okka von der Damerau’s Brangäne is a well-meaning figure trying her best to put Isolde at ease in this admittedly highly tense situation. While initially reminiscent of a caring aunt, the two women’s bond becomes far more sisterly in nature once the first act’s dialogue – or perhaps conspiracy – around Isolde’s secret potion stash unfolds. She braves the act’s finale with top notes of impressive volume and provides a surprisingly bright, silvery metallic sound for a mezzo. Considering the standout dynamic between the two women, it’s perhaps fitting that her voice blends so smoothly with Isolde’s and even elicits comparisons to a soprano’s sound.


Mika Kares as King Marke packs much disappointment into his clear, well-articulated bass, though it’s about far more than the good old besmirching of honour – this betrayal is personal to him and runs deep. Regrettably, he’s given little to do once he has discovered the wrongdoers in each other’s arms except stalk back and forth between Tristan and Isolde, so he resorts to various pronounced eye movements that verge on accidentally amusing. Brangäne’s single look of horror upon assessing the scene says more than any eye movement could.


Kirill Petrenko’s conducting is fluid, gentle, a statement in and of itself never at the cost of the singers. He crafts the prelude into an intensely lyrical treat, promising much and delivering on that by keeping the orchestra’s sound light yet rich enough to satisfy. He eschews heaviness, but never at the expense of intensity. Particularly the tense moments of the first act are played out very well, and the performance is audibly a successful collaboration between singers, conductor and orchestra: the singers are never drowned out, the orchestra makes its mark, and Petrenko himself brings both together with excellent timing to savour a spectrum of emotions.


Director Krzysztof Warlikowski transplants the setting into a wood-panelled room with high ceilings that traps all characters within its high ceiling, allowing them little escape from what troubles them. This room serves as a continuous backdrop throughout all three acts, although each act adds elements uniquely suited to the current happenings. During the prelude, two silent extras dressed as almost frighteningly life-like dolls, one male and one female, appear. Their movements are tentative, childlike, evocative of a fragile state as they interact and cautiously touch each other. In the second act, a projection that previously illustrated the view outside a ship’s porthole serves as perhaps an emotional window into the lovers’ psyche. It shows grainy, black-and-white footage of Isolde sitting – waiting – alone on a bed, suggestive of a security camera’s spying eye. In the film, Tristan enters only during “O sink hernieder” and the two sit silently next to each other sans any eye contact, while the real-life Tristan of course has of course entered the stage some time ago. While both of these elements receive their resolution in the final act, the act two film is already subtly reflective of the singers’ actions onstage. While the first act was far more dynamic in terms of interaction, much of this movement disappeared once Tristan and Isolde fell in love, causing the lovers to remain comparatively static during their time together. This takes some time to notice and even more time to get used to, but it allows for much inference on the nature of this love. It’s of the paralysing sort, and it can’t coexist with normal life and regular interaction. There is wallowing in this love or interacting with the rest of the world – but ultimately, a choice will be have to be made. It’s a consuming love, yet clearly not of the physical or even romantic sort, judging from the frequent lack of touch and eye contact – perhaps it’s more of a kinship, a matter of two people having found a part of themselves in each other that they had lost. In any case, the concept avoids the stylisation of Tristan and Isolde’s love as something bright or pure – they may be enraptured, but their state of intoxication doesn’t induce wishful thinking in the audience. The music, more than anything else, connects the lovers with the onlookers. It’s a maddeningly subtle concept of interaction that can easily be taken as stiff or confused with lack of ideas, and the only time it doesn’t pay off is during King Marke’s confrontation in the second act, where Mika Kares isn’t given enough space to physically communicate the emotions of the normal world.


The place of Tristan’s youth in the third act finally unites the previously introduced ideas: Tristan awakes at a table surrounded by dolls seated at a dinner table and dressed like the one representing him in the prelude. As he recalls the early death of his parents, the suggestion that he grew up in a boarding-school atmosphere and carried the burden of being orphaned plants the core idea that he comes from a place of loneliness. Absent a place of emotional safety and affection, his outlook on life is shaped by the inner fragility and unsteadiness he was instead endowed with, and causes him to escape into a love – or a construct – that opposes this life. The question of whether his love is static and at odds with life by nature or rather by Tristan’s nature remains somewhat open, but both are conceivable. During Isolde’s Liebestod, the projections return, showing the lovers lying side by side on the bed again while the room floods with water. As the two inevitably drown, they gaze into each other’s eyes for the first time while the film turns colourful. What initially seems oddly romanticising of death and clichefully pleasant becomes exceptionally poignant when seen as the lovers’ attitude towards death and final fulfilment rather than the director’s views.


It’s an interpretation that becomes more wrenching the longer one thinks about it – multi-layered, elusive, and it refreshingly strays from unduly heroic characterisations that don’t fit the story well. Admittedly, the focus is somewhat aimed at Tristan, and by necessity of the set, much of the psychologization of Isolde in the first act has to occur in the same setting Tristan’s mind will eventually be dissected in. Partially bound by the story and partially by the staging, she can’t be given the same due, which, considering Harteros’ standout Isolde, is a slight shame. Nonetheless, the production doesn’t feel uneven, and when adding music and singers, it becomes a harmonising whole entity. I myself may have closed my eyes in an attempt to fall in love, and I don’t see anything more befitting this opera.


Lynn Sophie Guldin, November 2021

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