Posted August 10, 2015

Posted August 10, 2015

Gripping in every way Bayreuth 2015 is shaping up to be a vintage year, by Hugh Canning, London Sunday Times, August 9, 2015

The big news from Bayreuth this summer is the appointment of Christian Thielemann, the leading German conductor of his generation and its most “perfect Wagnerite”, as the Wagner Festival’s music director, a position only previously held, and then briefly, by Wilhelm Furtwängler in the early 1930s, after the death of the composer’s son, Siegfried. This summer, Thielemann becomes the first conductor to have presided over the entire Wagner canon at Bayreuth. A new production of Tristan und Isolde by the festival’s co-director, Katharina Wagner, the composer’s great-granddaughter, completes his set on Bayreuth’s fabled “Green Hill”. 

There had been speculation that Thielemann’s almost unprecedented appointment is a consolation prize for losing the Berlin Philharmonic chief conductorship to Kirill Petrenko, who also happens to be conducting Frank Castorf’s much barracked staging of the Ring at Bayreuth this summer. Right now, these are the hottest conductors in Germany, greeted by Bayreuth audiences with equally thunderous acclaim. For their conducting alone — last weekend I attended only Götterdämmerung of the Ring operas — Bayreuth 2015 will surely go down in the annals as a vintage year, certainly for the musical performances of Tristan und Isolde and the Ring. 

Katharina’s Tristan could hardly be less like her Bayreuth debut production, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg: this Tristan is as austere and restrained as her Mastersingers was cluttered and chaotic. As designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann and Matthias Lippert, the three acts share a geometrical unity derived from the love triangle at the heart of Wagner’s plot. 

Act I could conceivably be set in the innards of the ship carrying the opera’s heroine from Ireland to her arranged marriage with Cornwall’s “tired” King Marke, but its crisscrossing stairways and gantries are essentially abstract. The same is true of the triangular courtyard of what appears to be a prison, overseen by Marke’s militiamen. Far from arranging a secret tryst, Tristan and Isolde are forcibly thrown together under the glare of searchlights, although they put together a makeshift tent for their Love-Night duet, while Tristan’s henchman, Kurwenal, makes vain attempts to escape. Marke, far from the wounded, betrayed husband, is an oligarchic bully in a gangster’s trilby and fur collar who drags Isolde off like a chattel at the end of both Act II and Act III. The final act is played behind a scrim to facilitate beautiful lighting effects as pyramid-like spaces containing eight doubles — and a dummy of Isolde — magically appear: delusions of Tristan’s mortal delirium. 

Thanks to the principals, and Thielemann’s rapt conducting, the cumulative effect is rather moving: Evelyn Herlitzius may have been Bayreuth’s third choice as Isolde, after Eva Maria Westbroek and Anja Kampe pulled out, but she sings and acts with a visceral intensity that grips both eye and ear. By last Sunday’s second performance, she had ironed out some of the reported ragged vocalism that earned her some boos from first-nighters — she had sung five performances of Strauss’s killer role Elektra during the rehearsal period — and sang as well as I have ever heard her. She doesn’t have the voluptuous, all-encompassing timbre of a classic Isolde, but her voice has the requisite power without sacrificing musical nuance and, above all, the text. She has no peers as an actor-singer today. Her “Liebestod” was heartrending, unforgettable. 

As in London last year, Stephen Gould’s Tristan triumphantly survived the rigours of an uncut Tristan and the agonies of his protracted death scene with rocklike tone and untiring top notes. At the end he sounds as if he could sing it all again. These wonderful performers had outstanding foils in Christa Mayer’s lush-sounding Brangäne and Iain Paterson’s virile, energetic Kurwenal. Georg Zeppenfeld’s noble singing of Marke’s lament belied the thuggish persona imposed on the character by the director.