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José Luis Bermúdez
Classical Net, April 2012

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. 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”. 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 found his pacing worked well in Act 1, with the interlude between scenes 4 and 5 working particularly well.

The audio and visual quality of this Opus Arte DVD are characteristically excellent. It…is certainly to be recommended for Theorin’s excellent Isolde and Marthaler’s idiosyncratic and thought-provoking production. © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review

Mike Ashman
Gramophone, May 2010

WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Bayreuth Festival, 2009) (NTSC) OA1033D
WAGNER, R.: Tristan und Isolde (Bayreuth Festival, 2009) (Blu-ray, HD) OABD7067D

A production which references 1950s cinema as much as 19th-century opera

It’s clear from about a minute after the curtain first parts on this Bayreuth Festival production that we are in a very assured hands indeed onstage. Over a long period of work at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus, Christoph Marthaler and Anna Viebrock have invented a new aesthetic of “modern dress” representations (often, as here, 1950s) of the great dramas from Aeschylus to Brecht, inevitably set in painstakingly detailed, often shabby, interior mid-European courtyards. Onto this design Marthaler grafts an intricate ground production that can be both as “naturalistic” as conventional Chekhov (as here in the Brangäne/Isolde and Tristan/Isolde dialogues of Act 1) or as abstract and unrealistic as the hand-jive dances invented for ensemble work by Peter Sellars (seen here in Kurwenal’s “fight” with Melot in Act 3 and subsequent death).

The employment of the Marthaler/Viebrock aesthetic for Wagner’s Tristan works in a manner that reinvents the wheels of both grand opera and 19th-century stage conventions about sex. For example, there are distinct “stand and deliver” moments—after the potion has taken effect on the lovers in Act 1, in the Act 2 duet, and in Tristan’s deathbed agonies. And growing sexual desire is expressed, 1950s movie style (think Audrey Hepburn), by the loosening of a tie or a suit jacket, or the seductive removal of a glove, finger by finger. Brilliant, because these “stagey” moments have been bought by Marthaler’s attention to psychological detail. As in all great stagings—and I have no doubt that this is one—a list of unforgettable links between text, music and action soon accumulates. Two such are the shy little grin Isolde gives Tristan when they both realise in Act 1 that they’re still alive and so in love, and the manner in which Marke questions Melot’s boasting account of having delivered apparently concrete evidence of Tristan’s infidelity (“Tatest du’s? Wirklich?”)

It’s hard to know where to point the awards finger first in such a complete ensemble performance (and the revival director Anna-Sophia Mahler deserves credit too). But Iréne Theorin’s multi-faceted Isolde, Jukka Rasilainen’s bullishly not-the-sharpest-tool-in-the-box Kurwenal and Robert Holl’s insanely (or Schopenhauer-ily?) calm Marke have to be mentioned in dispatches. Musically everything is fine under the super-experienced Peter Schneider. The Blu-ray version catches perfectly the sometimes lurid colours and texture of Viebrock’s work on both clothes and setting. Despite the ferocious competition (see above), absolutely unmissable.

Hugo Shirley, February 2010

Following hot on the heels of Christian Thielemann’s Ring—released, unusually for Opus Arte, on CD—the company is back in its usual medium for this Tristan und Isolde. Again from Bayreuth, the performance has appeared on DVD with unusual speed, but enters a catalogue already well stocked with filmed versions of Wagner’s great opus metaphysicum.

Christoph Marthaler’s production was first seen in 2005 but he left this 2009 revival to Anna-Sophie Mahler; given the critical drubbing it received in earlier outings, Marthaler’s motivation to return to revive it on this occasion might have been limited. The main feature of Anna Viebrock’s designs is the way a large room—a non-descript waiting-room or lobby-cum-lounge—is shifted up in each act to expose another stratum beneath. Viebrock explains its significance in a rather bizarre geological metaphor with time passing to reveal new layers of sediment. The protagonists’ costumes similarly pass through various eras. For example, in Act One Isolde is rather dowdy, in Act Two she has something of the Stepford Wives about her, but in the final act she’s dressed in smart, contemporary style. This sartorial transformation seems to reflect similar shifts in emotional engagement, and Tristan goes through the same process. Viebrock explains an additional motif of circular tube lighting through the text’s obsession with night and day. In the first act, these float in the air above the set in a manner that seemed to suggest the same distinction between real and dream worlds made in Christoph Loy’s recent Covent Garden production. In any case they allow for a nice effect during the prelude, as the camera drifts dreamily among them, although their repositioning at ground level in Act Three, extinguished but for the occasional forlorn flicker, seems a rather obvious touch.

Whereas it’s easy to imagine Marthaler’s production being somewhat dreary in the theatre—there’s a studied lack of emotional engagement from the singers in much of the first two acts—it is enlivened greatly by an unusually active style of video direction (by Michael Beyer) that displays evident cinematic pretentions, and is choreographed to match the music’s grand sweep. Yet some of the panned shots enabled by the use of remote controlled cameras are more successful than others, and there’s the usual tendency for didactic underlining of details we are supposed to notice, including some which, arguably, we’d be better off not. The production, however, does seem painfully static at times, and at least the imaginative video direction gives more of a visual counterpoint to Wagner’s passionate score.

Otherwise, Marthaler seems to have assembled his ideas from the Regie handbook without quite coming up with an original take on the opera. Nevertheless, there’s a certain effectiveness in the way he highlights Tristan’s emotional journey from a proud, emotionally frigid cypher in Act One, to pubescent excitement in Act Two and finally uncontrollable passion in Act three, even if Robert Dean Smith lacks the natural acting ability to pull it off as successfully as others might have. The introduction of certain humorous touches was interesting, particularly in the way Kurwenal seems impatient with his master’s self-indulgence. The end of Act Two is particularly powerful, too, given the apparent levity of some of what’s come before.

There’s no doubt, at least, that we’re in safe hands musically, and Peter Schneider draws playing of great passion and beauty from the Bayreuth orchestra, while with his lively, amusing contributions he’s the artist who comes out best in the faintly embarrassing ‘make of’ featurette (to a jarringly un-Wagnerian soundtrack) that is included as an extra. As Isolde, Irène Theorin is no match for Nina Stemme—on Opus Arte’s superior Tristan from Glyndebourne—but maintains strength in the top of the voice, even if her middle range can sound breathy. In terms of acting, she is clearly shackled to Marthaler’s concept, but carries out his aims with dignity. I feel as though I should enjoy Smith’s Tristan more than I do, given the astonishing ease with which he seems to get through the role, yet the voice, despite its almost bel canto facility, is not one to inspire sympathy or tug at the heart strings; mine, at least, remained untugged. Jukka Rasilainen makes an unusually sympathetic Kurwenal, and sings strongly throughout, the briefest of glitches in Act Three notwithstanding, but I failed to warm to Michelle Breedt’s rather matronly Brangäne. As Marke, on the other hand, Robert Holl is dignified and moving.

Neither this nor Thielemann’s Ring represent the unqualified triumphs that might have been hoped for as a result of Opus Arte’s new agreement with Bayreuth. This DVD in particular seems unlikely to make its mark among so many excellent filmed accounts, yet while it’s not vintage Bayreuth, it still comes across here as an engaging performance.

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