Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth Festival, July 2017

At the end of Petra Lang’s beautifully sung Liebestod following her glorious performance of Isolde, a loud lonely boo broke the magic of this sublimely sung performance under the baton of Christian Thielemann. This was no criticism of Ms Lang nor Mr Thielemann, but a clearly premeditated, and hugely ill-mannered, expression of one person’s anger at director Katharina Wagner’s change of ending where, rather than dying a ‘love-death’, Isolde is simply dragged back home by King Marke.

All images Bayreuth/ Enrico Nawrath

Many of us have reservations about the production, but the war cry to express them was absurd. Such sentiments are best left to the curtain calls where boos for the production team rang out clearly. Yet the multiple stairways and rising gantry of Act 1 well express the complex web in which Tristan and Isolde find themselves as they journey to King Marke’s realm. Act 2 is less engaging, with the lovers trapped and constantly observed in a den of night overseen by Marke, Melot and guards with searchlights, all clad in yellow, the colour nearest the light (die nächste Farbe am Licht) in Goethe’s theory of colours. This over-harsh dichotomy between day and night, plus the tedious observation and sense of entrapment had the extraordinary effect of creating a sense of boredom, felt by many, before Marke drags his wife swiftly back to the light as the act ends, in a foretaste of the production’s final moments.

Act 2 setting

Act 3 with its multiple, insubstantial Isoldes in holographic tetrahedra, which appear and vanish, well expresses the anguish of Tristan’s dreams, while four retainers, including Kurwenal and the shepherd, occupy one corner of the night realm with their red lanterns. After Isolde arrives and Tristan dies, the occupants of the second ship are seen as clay-like figures in a shadow world before they come to life, effecting unintended mayhem as Tristan’s retainers react to their presence, but what really gave this performance its energy and musical power were the singers themselves.

Marke drags his wife home at the end

Stephen Gould’s strongly restrained passion and huge power as Tristan, plus René Pape’s wonderfully nuanced singing of King Marke were superb, along with the strong Melot of Raimund Nolte, and an engaging if somewhat underpowered Kurwenal by Iain Paterson. Christa Mayer’s emotionally dramatic, high-powered Brangäne was marvellous, and in her glorious ascent from the mezzo repertoire, Petra Lang’s incredible Isolde invested the role with beautiful lyricism, given space by Christian Thielemann’s conducting, which allowed high moments to emerge almost imperceptibly from below.

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