Staatsoper Berlin, 2014
Daniel Barenboim, Harry Kupfer, Peter Seiffert, Stephen Milling, Waltraud Meier, Boaz Daniel, Stephen Chambers, Ekaterina Gubanova, Florian Hoffmann, Maximilian Krummen
Staatsoper am Schiller Theater, Berlin - 18 October 2014
How representational do you really need to make Tristan und Isolde? Isn't the journey undertaken by the two protagonists more an emotional journey than one taken at sea from Ireland to Cornwall? Should you not be thinking more about the philosophical content of Schopenhauer and Feuerbach that Wagner is exploring in the opera rather than wondering where the characters are physically located? Can you represent all that, for example, in the huge figure of a fallen angel?
Well, that image - based on a photograph by Isolde Ohlbaum - is the basis of the set for Harry Kupfer's original 2000 production for the Berlin Staatsoper, and it seems to be a powerfully iconic image to build a production around, even if it is difficult to relate it in any direct way to the tragedy of Tristan und Isolde (or Schopenhauer or Feuerbach for that matter). Dominating the stage, the huge angel lies prone, fallen forward, its elbows sunk into the ground, its right wing splayed, the left one shattered. Other than a few headstones scattered on either side of it, this giant is the only set for each of the three acts, occasionally slowly revolved and viewed from 360°. Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne, Kurwenal, King Marke and the others climb over it, lie on it and crawl beneath the broken wings.
There's a post-apocalyptic quality to the imagery which is also reminiscent here of the place beyond space and time occupied by Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production of Parsifal. There is something similarly apocalyptic about the subject of Wagner's retelling of the legend of Tristan und Isolde, the majority of the work taking place far beyond any physical place where the laws of man and rational behaviour hold sway. The forbidden love of Tristan and Isolde, freed from any inhibitions, knows no boundaries, subverts day and night, transcends life and only really finds its purest form in death. This is a work that likewise seeks to destroy the world as we know it and be reborn into something that transcends the physical and aspires to the divine.
That's something of a challenge for any composer to undertake, but I don't think anyone would question the genius of Richard Wagner's ability to convert that into the most sublime musical expression. Much like its abandoned first performances, the work itself still remains a challenge to perform, but the pay-off when it works and when everything comes together is enormous. There really is nothing else like it in all of opera - Wagner's own final masterpiece Parsifal excepted. The Berlin Staatoper, still currently residing at the Schiller Theatre while their Unter den Linden opera house undergoes renovation, with Daniel Barenboim at the helm for Kupfer's production, have one of the best teams in place to do this work justice, and the assembled cast for its 2014 revival certainly impresses.
The actual directing of Tristan und Isolde, as opposed to the production design, is undoubtedly just as complex as it appears to be simple. The motivation of the characters is to all basic intents that of all-consuming love, but obviously it goes beyond that to life-consuming love. You get a true sense of that in the Berlin production. By the end of Act I, having imbibed the love potion, it's not so much a case here of Tristan and Isolde barely being able to restrain themselves, as much as Brangäne and Kurwenal being scarcely able to prise them apart, even as they (notionally) arrive in Cornwall and King Marke strides up the back of the fallen angel to claim the wife Tristan has brought back for him.
Much intensified then, the same sense of burning ardour seeking consummation has therefore to be correspondingly heightened in each of the subsequent acts. That is undoubtedly the strength of this production and much of the reason for its success is down to Daniel Barenboim, one of the finest Wagnerian conductors in the world today. Barenboim seems to have an unerring ability to navigate the complex tidal surges in Wagner's operas, knowing when to hold back the immense forces, how to measure their release and when to let them completely overwhelm. In Tristan und Isolde, that force is deep, intense and slow-building, occasionally rising to an almost unbearable need for release. It's hard to believe that you can raise the stakes this early in Act I and continue to build intensity, but Barenboim and Kupfer's production does just that.
The complex nature of Tristan und Isolde however means that it also needs space to open up and expand, even as the outer world closes down on the two lovers. It needs a human-aspiring-to-superhuman quality to keep the metaphysical thinking grounded in reality and not merely floating off into the realm of abstract philosophical theorising. It needs great singers basically. I've detected some weakening in Waltraud Meier's voice in recent recordings and performances, but working perfectly with Barenboim's management of Wagner's score, her Isolde here was simply outstanding. It's true that her voice doesn't have the same soaring quality that is evident in the 2007 Barenboim/Chéreau Tristan und Isolde on DVD, and some adjustments have to be made, but she remains one of the foremost interpreters of the role. It was a gripping and utterly mesmerising performance.
Peter Seiffert was an impressive Tristan, the intensity of the performance stretching him once or twice, but he was equal to the challenge. Stephen Milling sang wonderfully and with gravity, but there wasn't great personality to his King Marke. Boaz Daniel was a last minute stand-in for a stranded Tómas Tómasson as Kurwenal, and he made a terrific impression, his singing energetic and passionate, making his presence fully felt. Likewise Ekaterina Gubanova gave us a beautifully sung Brangäne that was warm and heartfelt. If there were any weak link this perhaps mightn't have worked so well, but with such a fine cast and a strong conceptual approach backing up the unbeatable combination of Meier, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin, this was every bit as emotionally devastating and transcendentally uplifting as you would expect Tristan und Isolde to be.