Pierre Audi's production of Tristan und Isolde is out of this world.
When the opera starts, a black square hangs over the stage. During the overture large panels are ridden on the stage. "Why don't they keep the prelude free from stagenoise?" were my first thoughts but soon those panels, reminiscent of parts of a shipyard, turned out to be the setting of a scene that depicts what preceded the opera. It shows Tristan who, severely injured after his battle with Morold, goes to Isolde to be healed. (It are Isolde's words that reveal that he does this under the pseudonym 'Tantris' - we cannot completely suppress a smile because of so much supposed boldness.) When she looks Tristan in the eyes - and only then recognizes him (the pseudonym worked pretty well anyway) - she doesn't have the heart to kill him. As in more of his operas, Wagner chooses in Tristan und Isolde to start the story (by analogy with ancient Greek drama) just before the final climax - when most of the story (and the bulk of the action) has already been taken place. That story comes to us during the opera through retrospection. In this way Wagner is able to zoom in on what his main characters are really going through. The real story of Tristan und Isolde takes place in the heart and minds of the protagonists, their inner world. Here Tristan, Isolde, Brangäne, King Marke and Kurwenal walk around in an almost symphonic world that could be interpreted as Schopenhauer's world of the Will: the primeval forces that drive the world and everything in it. By the time Wagner started composing his Tristan, he was completely captivated by Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer who, in short, stated that we and everything we observe are only expressions (phenomenal manifestations) of the all-determining Will. The Will, the noumenal world, which lies beyond sensory perception, is a place where only music is able to provide us with a possible impression of it. It is the only place, outside the known world, where Tristan and Isolde really can be together.
Following this premise Wagner made Tristan und Isolde the opera in which he abandones the idea of equating text with music. He turns this music drama into a world in which the music, the only thing that can lead us to the noumenal world, is predominant. This music draws itself along infinite melodic lines that represent a fierce desire of which the ultimate musical (and dramatic) solution comes with a B major chord, played by the orchestra at the very end of Isolde's "Mild und Leise" (by Franz Liszt coined, by means of his piano transcription, with the title "Liebestod").
Against this background (I take advantage of the possibility to interpret the stage scenery in a broad way) you might think of the big black square on stage as an artist's impression of this noumenal world. A black hole that conceals and suggests a space that is unattainable for observation.
Before I stick an epilogue to this review that wanders to regions outside the world of opera (and classical music) this production and its stellar line-up deserves all attention. The American Stephen Gould is probably the best Tristan around at the moment. His experienced and purified Tristan (he has sung the role almost 70 times now) is joined by Ricard Merbeth, who, despite being relatively new to the role, made a convincing Isolde. (Merbeth was, incidentally, timid in comparison with the mighty Tristan of Gould, but she showed no signs of vocal limitations when she had to deliver on big moments - the high C in the second act was solid, no need for Elizabeth Schwarzkopf there). Merbeth's acting qualities were undisputed and together with Gould she delivered a couple of beautiful scenes (the love duet in the second act was most impressive).
This Tristan was a bit of a Bayreuther Festspiele reunion. Next to Stephen Gould, who sang the title role in Katharina Wagner's production of Tristan und Isolde, were Günther Groissböck (König Marke) and Iain Paterson (Kurwenal) who played in Das Rheingold last summer. Paterson ("I hear a lot of heavy metal and rock in Wagner, it's music with balls." Check) played Wotan and Groissböck (no stranger to Metallica, Slayer and Sepultura. Check. Rammstein is still open to debate) gave Fasolt an impressive impersonation in which he, by stumbling, gave new ideas to director Frank Castorf to spice up the staging. Chasing Freia, Groissböck (Fasolt) slid across the wetted stage floor (the daughters of the Rhine had kept themselves busy with splashing in the pool) and fell, head first, on top of his face. His first thought "I hope my teeth are still there" was quickly followed by a second one "Frank [Castorf] is going to ask me if I can do this again". That was exactly what happened. "Günther, Machen Sie das"! In Bayreuth, Groissböck also sang the role of Veit Pogner in Barry Kosky's new production of Die Meistersinger.
Dates 22 January until 14 February
Conductor: Marc Albrecht
Netherlands Philharmonisch Orchestra
Stage direction: Pierre Audi
Sets and customs: Christof Hetzer
Tristan: Stephen Gould
Isolde: Ricarda Merbeth
Brangäne: Michelle Breedt
König Marke : Günther Groissböck
Kurwenal: Iain Paterson
Melot: Andrew Rees
When Jeff Buckley died (in 1997 he drowned at the age of 27 in Memphis, Tennessee), for me pop music died. Jeff Buckley was the last real musician in the pop scene, perhaps even a musician in the category of Jimi Hendrix. His art did not so much transcend genres as it simply did not care about the whole concept of genre. Jeff Buckley ruined me for everything that existed next to him and came after him: U2, Radiohead, Coldplay, the whole Britpop scene, I didn't need to hear it anymore and I never listened to it again until this very day.
The death of Jeff Buckley was the sign that I had to look for something else. At places I did not consider before. Because although my interest in metal never completely vanished, it was also in that genre a long time ago that I had heard something that really surprised me. That the thing I was looking for would manifest itself on a stage in the Amsterdam Muziektheater in the form of an incestuous love affair between brother and sister I couldn't have envisioned by then. In 2001 I attended Die Walküre. A performance that would turn me into a Wagner aficionado. A hobby with the characteristics of an addiction. A condition that made my CD cabinet soon turn out to be too small because of all the existing Wagner operas I had to have different versions (of course). This is a problem of space shortage that has been going on until now because, despite the digital revolution, YouTube and streaming services, I have remained an old-fashioned CD buyer (who has to be careful not to pursue a complete Ring on vinyl in the near future).
This Tristan brought back the Pierre Audi Ring and the time that preceded it. It surpassed, even more than usually with Wagner, the world of entertainment and became a catharsis. An experience that gave me a glimpse into my own soul and by doing so, cleared up and rearranged what has accumulated in the mind over time.