Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde
Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna - 2022
Philippe Jordan, Calixto Bieito, Andreas Schager, René Pape, Martina Serafin, Iain Paterson, Ekaterina Gubanova, Clemens Unterreiner, Daniel Jenz, Martin Häßler, Josh Lovell
Wiener Staatsoper Live - 27 April 2022
All of Wagner's mature works have their own particular qualities and strengths, and his final work Parsifal may well be the pinnacle of all opera, but nothing matches Tristan und Isolde for sheer sustained intensity. Some will be dismayed at the often controversial - more often baffling - concept and aesthetic of Calixto Bieito's stage productions being imposed upon such a work as Tristan und Isolde under the current administration of the Vienna State Opera directed by Bogdan Roščić. If you are able to get past this however, it's surely possible to recognise that the director has nonetheless found his own way of tapping into and representing the essential inner strength and intensity of a piece that should never fail to challenge.
If you can get the intensity of the inner emotional content of this opera across not just at the love potion conclusion of the first Act, but can even create that intensity from the outset and build it up to that conclusion, you're are definitely in tune with the intent of the work. There may not be a ship at sea but water does play a part throughout. Act I is a fairly sparse affair, looking like it takes place in an Irish fishing market with a couple of shallow pools of water, sluice channels, on the darkened stage while blindfolded children sit on rows of swings. There is evidently a lot of psychopathology to unpack as far as the red-haired Irish princess in her green polka dotted frock is concerned, and Isolde wields her history, her family, her regal position and her Irish heritage as a weapon to unleash against the betraying Tristan and her own self-betrayal.
Not only has she healed and fallen in love with the man she later discovers is responsible for killing her betrothed Morold, but Tristan is now bringing her as a 'tribute' to be married to his uncle King Mark of Cornwall. That outpouring of loathing and self loathing is fully felt on the stage here, with a duffel coated Tristan right there in front of her and subjected to her fury as he rolls around in the shallow waters. Such is the power and intensity of Martina Serafin's Act I performance that you don't need a love potion for it to develop into something dangerous, and indeed - since it's Bieito, there obviously isn't a flask as such. Each drink the frustration, rage, anger, delirium and love out of the hands of the other, while Brangäne walks past carrying a fish in a plastic bag in each hand. There's nothing of elevated medieval royalty about this, the production demonstrating more that it is an exercise in the human capacity to elevate themselves though love, and for love to exceed human boundaries.
Act II similarly avoids any more typical depiction of Isolde and Tristan's ill-advised and not so surreptitious encounter together, the two instead appearing in separate floating rooms - the more earthbound Brangäne scaling and gutting a fish - that they proceed to tear down. It's simple enough symbolism, the lovers rising above the earth, still trying to strip away any physical boundaries and mortal impediments that would prevent them achieving a union of perfect bliss. All the jumping around, tearing books and unbuttoning dresses does distract and impede the singers a little from fully getting across the emotional depths to which they are wrapped in each other.
At this stage however, union is of course not possible, the two of them still in separate rooms, distinct corporeal entities, unable to consummate that union on any physical or earthly plane. The necessary impossible intensity of this situation is still fully felt, and King Mark's arrival almost seems a welcome appearance that prevents them from spontaneous combustion. Much as I still enjoy seeing what René Pape brings to this role, his grave intoning precisely what is needed here, it has to be said that he is no longer the force he once was and it's beginning to show. The dynamic that he brings however is still effective as Tristan is not struck down by Melot in this scene (both Melot and Mark are sidelined as minor figures in this production), but attempts to perish by his own hand, Isolde attempting to join him.
Despite the usual provocation of full-frontal nudity - a wall of naked male and female figures slowly advance and decorate Kareol like statues, many in embrace - Calixto Bieito otherwise plays out Act III without any significant reworking of Wagner's mood and mysticism. Andreas Schager's Tristan is a bloodied, agonised figure, his anxiety and longing matched in intensity only by Iain Paterson's faithful Kurwenal here. Tristan expires on an overturned table, which is righted by Isolde who sinks to her own love-death reaching out across the table to him. It's an affecting moment however you play it.
The part that Philippe Jordan's conducting of the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra plays in this can't be underestimated. It's a perfectly controlled affair, unleashing forces in response to the stage directions, working in accordance with them, ensuring that everything seen or suggested is brought out with full impact. The performance of Andreas Schager should also be acknowledged. Any prior reservations about his singing or acting abilities are quickly dismissed as he makes a huge impression in Act I, conflicted between his heroism, his love and his betrayal. Already everything that needs to be put in place has been firmly established right from the start, the direction working beyond the surface to bring out all the competing, conflicting forces, the love/hate and love/death paradoxes. He carries this through to Act III with complete commitment. Much the same goes for Martina Serafin's performance. It's perhaps not as strong and consistent vocally, but she is utterly engaging and no less impressive alongside Schager as Isolde.
Any reservations put forward by naysayers quick to denounce anything challenging that strays too far from the familiar are also easily countered. Some will still complain at anything Calixto Bieito turns his hands to, but I would be amazed that anyone could fail to be moved by what takes place on stage and in the pit in this production, or seriously believe that the stage direction takes anything away from it. Jordan's conducting finds the rhythms and moods well, and Schager and Serafin's interpretation of Tristan and Isolde is deeply felt. Regardless of what you make of the strangeness of the set designs, there is little doubt that Bieito's direction of the cast/actors has been instrumental in achieving that, and the fact that the Vienna production carries the force of the work entirely should be abundantly clear.