By Rhodri Bradley Jones and Dr Lourdes st George
“This was my first time at Bayreuth and it didn’t disappoint. The beauty of the theatre itself, the exquisite sound of the orchestra, the intensity of the audience and the class and style of everything were exceptional. And such a very powerful sense of history too. (Not all of it by any means good.)
For me it was the experience of a lifetime!
To give some background to my comments, I am an opera lover but not a musician. I love Wagner’s music and will go to a production whenever the opportunity arises but I would more often go to a Verdi or Janacek or Mozart or Britten opera amongst many others.
If the staging enhances the pleasure, so much the better but, for me, everything is in the music (orchestra and voices) and whatever else happens, nothing in the staging must interfere with or distract from the music. That should never be allowed to happen! (But it did!)
Nowhere is that more the case than Tristan and Isolde. The music is sublime. It is the greatest love music ever written.
It climaxes after over 4 hours when the last few bars resolve everything and let the listener breathe again. The music says everything. And this production that we saw on Friday 23 August, especially the second act, was an absolute travesty of distraction and confusion and obfuscation.
I understand that every director wants to make a mark artistically. It must be dull (from their point of view but not necessarily from the audience’s) to repeat the same good ideas that their predecessors have had. I have seen many productions of operas that have changed the period and the dress and sometimes turned the meaning upside down. Sometimes it works! But when it doesn’t it can spoil the audience’s enjoyment and for those who are seeing the opera for the first time, it can make it impossible to understand.
The second act of Tristan was, for me, just such an occasion. This is a sizzling love scene where Isolde (who is not imprisoned except in a loveless marriage) is desperate to see Tristan, who is going to slip away from his hunting, when he can, to be with Isolde but also, she is nervous for his safety. It is all in the music. When Tristan bursts in (rather than being dragged in, as in this production) the excitement is overwhelming and a night of passion ensues. In this production, the best they could manage was a very clumsy jump into back to back positions and what could be described as a rather silly touching of bottoms. It was rivetingly inappropriate and incompetent and distracting. The beautiful, rich, flowing music had become background music to an on-stage farce. What was going on on-stage was utterly amateur. Someone was crawling around for no apparent reason and from time to time breaking hoops off the wall. (Why were the hoops on the wall?) There was a long metal bicycle rack on stage whose purpose remained a mystery. At one point, this unnecessary artefact clunked itself, noisily, into a sort of cell. Tristan and Isolde appear not to have been given any instructions beforehand (or perhaps it was Ikea?) about how to manipulate the arms of this visual monstrosity. So, not only were we unable to relax and enjoy the music but we had on- stage visual distractions, mechanical anxieties and complete puzzlement about the meaning of everything. There was a fight going on between the music and the staging and acting. Unforgivable! Isolde had difficulty in putting a curtain up and they both had no idea of what they were supposed to do with the fairy lights. Tristan was the clumsiest actor I have seen in a very long time and he shouldn’t have been asked to rip things up even if he had any idea (which I didn’t) about why he was doing so! As you can see, it all made me very angry and I still haven’t got over it.
The first act stage set clearly wasn’t to everyone’s taste but I was ok with that. The innards of a 1950s naval vessel perhaps and the steps worked well, I thought, to separate Tristan and Isolde and to allow them to come together as well. For me, it didn’t get in the way of the music.
There were some wonderfully theatrical moments around the love potion that they usually drink but in this production they don’t. Lots of intense and drawn out suspense which married well with the music. I’ve always thought that the potion in this story is love, not magic, although this causes problems for King Marke in the final act denouement as it is harder for him to forgive his friend for his treachery if there is no magic potion involved. So this production turned King Marke into an out and out baddie and Isolde doesn’t get her wish to die with Tristan but gets dragged off for more unhappiness with Marke.
Fortunately, I thought that the last act was sublime. I was happy enough with Tristan hallucinating, although I didn’t fully understand the significance of the range of dolls that appeared. But that is a tiny criticism of a thrilling final act in which the music was allowed priority. The orchestra was magnificent, the music compelling and, for me, it was a great way to finish the evening and a very special trip to Bayreuth.
To a lesser extent, I have the same criticism of Parsifal (22/8/19). I haven’t seen it as often as I have Tristan although I know the music. I should have read the reviews beforehand to better understand the strange goings on on-stage. I suppose it made some kind of sense, particularly in the context of Germany’s immigration generosity around the time of the production’s first outing. But once again, I found some of the action on-stage puzzling and distracting.
I feel quite guilty about being so critical. We are incredibly lucky in so many ways to be there in the first place and everyone involved is trying their best to provide an enjoyable and happy experience for the audience. And I really enjoyed the whole thing.”