On Tuesday, August 9, we had a break from the Ring here in Bayreuth, with a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde taking over the stage for the night. I might have hoped for a break from Regietheater and a chance instead to revel in Wagner’s vision—presented faithfully if not in the original context. Fat chance. The Regie was in full force (along with an aggressive postmodernism—a separate issue, thought they so often go together that they often feel like the same thing).
Tristan and Isolde, which is drawn from Medieval German interpretations of the Arthurian legends, tells a simple tale, though one with a complicated backstory. Before the opera begins, Tristan, a knight, had killed Isolde’s fiance, Morold, in a duel over whether Tristan’s uncle, King Marke of Cornwall, would have to pay tribute to Ireland. Gravely wounded by Morold, he had been found by Isolde in Ireland. Though he called himself “Tantris,” she recognized him and tried to kill him, only to be smitten when he looked not at the sword she was holding but deep into her eyes. So instead, Isolde nursed Tristan back to health. Tristan repaid her kindness by showing up some time later to kidnap her and haul her off to marry his uncle, Marke.
The opera opens on Tristan’s ship, where Isolde invites Tristan down to drink a toast with her; the glass is poisoned, as she wants both to kill him and die herself. But when they drink it, they do not die but fall deeply in love with one another: It turns out that Isolde’s frightened maid had mixed in a love potion instead of poison. Yet now the couple has a new problem: They’ve just dropped anchor in Cornwall, and King Marke is still expecting his bride. Act II consists of a nighttime meeting in Marke’s castle between the two illicit lovers, who inevitably get caught. Tristan is wounded in the ensuing scuffle.
In Act III, Tristan has been brought home to his castle in Brittany to die. He slips in and out of delirium, dreaming of Isolde, while his attendants keep watch for King Marke. Instead, Isolde shows up—but in his excitement on hearing the news, Tristan rips off his bandages and dies. Then Marke does arrive; after a brief and deadly scuffle between his attendants and Tristan’s, he reveals that he had actually been coming not to kill but to pardon the couple. Instead, Isolde sings an incomparably beautiful lament over Tristan’s body, the famous Liebestod. Overwhelmed by love and loss, she then drops dead on the spot.
Or at least, that’s the way it goes in Richard Wagner’s version. But this opera is directed by Katharina Wagner, the latest of the clan to try her hand at both running the festival and directing. And in Regietheater, it’s the director’s vision which has primacy. So we get Katherina’s Tristan und Isolde, in which Tristan and Isolde are trying from the opening moments to reach one another and embrace, separated by their chief attendants—Kurwenal his helmsman (Iain Patterson) and Brangräne her handmaiden (Christa Mayer)—and the huge set. This consists of staircases to nowhere, locked gates, and moving gangways; per the program material, it seems to have been inspired by an M.C. Escher sketch. Tristan and Isolde’s latent desires, the mental and societal obstacles between them—the whole subtext has become text.
Act II is set in what can only be described as a giant bicycle shed/futuristic prison. It’s guarded by soldiers with spotlights on top of a very tall wall. I thought the fact that the prison’s contents looked an awful lot like the sort of big, half-circle bicycle racks you see outside of college libraries was a coincidence; then Tristan pulls out a bag of bicycle lights and begins to hang them, like stars, on the shawl that Isolde has hung to “hide” them from the guard’s spotlights. In the third act, Tristan, nearly alone in a sea of black, repeatedly hallucinates false Isoldes, who appear in open-faced tetrahedrons. These then lose their heads, collapse into nothingness, or similarly suffer ham-fistedly symbolic fates. At the end, Marke hauls off a real but very much still alive Isolde to be his wife.
Some of the production’s problems are aesthetic in nature. The sets aren’t just bizarre (particularly in Act II), they’re passé. (A classic work set in a futuristic dictatorship? Yawn.) And the costumes are just ugly: Tristan spends the entire production seemingly in blue pajamas and his bathrobe, while King Marke struts around in a yellow pimp-suit.
But other problems go beyond aesthetic issues and do damage to the dramatic and intellectual vision at the heart of Wagner’s work. Tristan and Isolde is driven by the tension between the real emotions of the characters, revealed in the music and poetry, and the front they put up at first for themselves and then for others. Dramatically, this tension is what makes a four-hour-long opera without much action in it sizzle; when you take that out, there’s actually not much going on. The supercharged sexual tension between the two lead characters is the fire that makes this opera glow. Wagner’s era—mid to late 19th-century Germany—wasn’t an exact parallel to Victorian England, but it shared with it strict sexual mores. Part of this was driven by Christian morality, and part of it was driven by the prevalence of syphilis: the connection between sexual misconduct and death would have been much more direct in the minds of Wagner’s original audience. Marriage was for life; adultery was a crime and a social disgrace; promiscuous sex could and did kill.
Wagner not only rejected these sexual mores; he insisted on sharing his private life with the world. He was no proto-feminist (Wagner’s works, including Tristan, are full of fantasies of women sacrificing themselves for the love of a man), but he shared with the proto-feminists, the Romantics, and a clutch of other petite-bourgouisie revolutionary types a rejection of social control over the sexual sphere. And Wagner didn’t just philosophize about this. When he began composing Tristan, Wagner was living in Zurich and paying a great deal of attention to Mathilde, the wife of his then-patron Otto Wesendonck. Whether this relationship was platonic, as Wagner claimed, or otherwise, as virtually everyone around the couple believed, it was the final straw that led to Wagner’s estrangement from his long-suffering first wife, Minna Wagner. The relationship also caused Otto Wesendonck to pay the composer a princely sum to relocate.
Tristan und Isolde premiered on June 10, 1865, under the conducting of Hans von Bülow, one of the foremost German conductors of the age. By that time, Wagner was having a definitely non-platonic affair with von Bulow’s wife, Cosima von Bülow, herself the illegitimate daughter of Wagner’s friend the great composer Franz Liszt. That spring, Cosima had given birth to a daughter, legally von Bülow’s—named Isolde. Richard and Cosima’s affair would eventually result in scandal, divorce, and remarriage; it is by their descendants that the Bayreuth Festival is run today. The scandal would also severely damage Richard’s relationship with his new patron, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose trust in Wagner “never recovered” from the discovery that the composer had been lying to him about the affair.
Katharina Wagner may have thought that, by making Tristan and Isolde’s desires unconflicted and open from the start, she was simply exploring their initially unconscious desires more fully. But without the conflict between their emotions and the expectations of society, a great deal of the opera makes no sense. The only obstacles to the main characters’ sexual interests in this production are the crudely physical: the obstacles of the set and the actual, physical restraint provided by their friends in Act I, the fear of King Marke thereafter. In such a world, a lot of what Wagner was trying to say is gone, and it’s not clear what fills it. For instance, the forgiving King Marke of Wagner’s Act III represents Wagner’s dream of a state or society (or perhaps Ludwig or von Bülow himself?) that would accept and bless what he felt overpowering love compelled him to do. That passionate, even desperate sharing of his inner aspirations with the wider world through art is what makes Tristan; Katharina Wagner has other fish to fry.
In her production, Marke is a rather uninteresting, standard petty tyrant. His nephew sleeps with his girl, so he throws them in prison, orders his henchman to stab the nephew, and drags off the wife. “Might makes right,” may be true—but handled this way, it’s rather limp and obvious. As to the couple themselves, Katharina Wagner may think that our age is one of no restraints on sexual activity and that she’s just reflecting the times. Yet even in supposedly freewheeling Europe, monogamy somehow stubbornly remains the rule; here in the U.S., sexual codes are making a comeback in college campuses and state legislatures. The need for rules governing sexual conduct, the inability to live up to them, and the drive to break them are all in the human heart, not just products of a given age. That reality is what makes Richard Wagner’s work universal.
This dramatic and intellectual tension between Wagner the composer and his great-granddaughter the director is underlined by another that occurs within theater, between the stage and the orchestra pit. There seems to be an informal but real compromise on the Festival Hill: the left and the modernists (not quite the same thing, though they overlap) get to control the stage productions, while the traditionalists and conservatives reign over the music. The director can do whatever sort of insane postmodern, Regietheater inversions or diversions from the plot she or he like when it comes to the acting and the sets. But not a note of music nor a syllable of text is to be altered from the original score. The singers sing Wagner’s lyrics with full commitment to the emotions dictated by his words and his music, not the director’s wishes. And while the Festival hires conductors with varying styles, all are committed to the highest standards of classical music.
The line of delineation is stark. In Wagner’s script and the music, Isolde spends much of Act I plotting to kill Tristan; in Katharina’s production, Isolde is running around the Escher-prison to find and kiss Tristan from the start. So Petra Lang, the sublime soprano playing Isolde, moves about the stage and makes awkward hugging motions toward Tristan—but when she sings, “Curse you, vile creature, a curse upon your head! Vengeance! Death! Death for us both!,” you can hear that she means it. (Translation via the very useful rwagner.net) Throughout Act III, Katharina Wagner directs King Marke to act not in the spirit of forgiveness and charity but as an overlord come to reclaim what is his. Fine: Georg Zeppenfeld, the bass playing Marke, will stand around menacingly and scowl as told. But the notes and words of the music tell him to let his voice swell full of mercy and tenderness, and he does. As Martin Kettle pointed out in the Guardian last year, Zeppenfeld’s Marke still sings like the model of charity and forgiveness that Richard Wagner imagined.
This is a very imperfect compromise. On the one hand, this means that the regie (the director), has only the most crude and limited means with which to tell her or his story: the set, the costumes, and the action, without any assist from either the words or the music, which normally carry at least half of the weight of the storytelling in opera. (In other regie theaters, but not at Bayreuth, directors have more latitude to change texts in plays and music in operas.) The director is doubly disadvantaged since Bayreuth prefers its opera singers fit the old mold: singers first and actors second. So the directors wind up trying to tell a story essentially in mime, often with the music working against their purposes. No wonder the stories the directors impose on the music wind up being crude, simple, and often reliant on stale left-wing political or (in this case) postmodern theatrical tropes. If you are a regie director or a fan of the style, the situation actually has to be pretty maddening.
On the other hand, the compromise is a persistent source of dissatisfaction for the traditionalist, too. That category would include here not just those who want the work to be performed in its original setting (though there are still a few die-hards around), but those who would just like it performed with its original plot, never mind when or where the production is set. Such people not only remember the more faithful performances they’ve seen elsewhere or read about historically; they hear a faithful performance as they’re sitting there. So what appears before their eyes, when it’s skewed from or diametrically opposed to the message conveyed by the music, seems completely inconsistent.
There seems to be a kind of sustainable decadence in this situation, to borrow a phrase from Ross Douthat in another context: Katharina and the other directors she hires get to keep putting on Regietheater pieces with the Thielemanns of the world conducting, and the audiences go on trying to work it out, or, failing that, boo one and cheer the other. A headline from this year’s Festival: “Ovations for the Ensemble, Boos for the Director.” That seems to have become standard. Katharina didn’t come onstage on our night of Tristan; perhaps she had had enough after being booed a week ago in front of Chancellor Merkel. But the audience made a point of holding its applause to a minimum until the musicians came out, and (spoiler alert) there was a lusty boo for the assistant director the next night at Siegfried.
I will say this for the imperfect compromise: I would have watched anything in order to hear the singing and the orchestra. This production should have been called Tristan and Isolde and Christian Thielemann. Those were the three reasons to come: the singing of Stephen Gould (Tristan), Petra Lang (Isolde), and the orchestra under the baton of Christian Thielemann, the Festival’s Music Director and perhaps the world’s greatest Wagner conductor. Together they received almost 15 minutes of applause at the end, which culminated in rhythmic stomping and clapping from the audience to make Thielemann come out again even after they had turned up the house lights. Tristan und Isolde is a challenging score even for Wagner, requiring at once a great deal of delicacy on some breathless, airy passages and then the ability to flood the theater with swelling, romantic notes from the full orchestra the next minute. Thielemann—and the soloists singing over him—performed magnificently.
At the end of the day, I suspect that the tension between the Regietheater productions and the traditionalist musical performance accompanying it reflects something larger. Never before in Europe has there been such an enormous array of resources available to those who would produce opera or classical music. Millions of hours and euros are poured into the training of musicians and conductors at conservatories, who then perform to unheard of levels of technical perfection, not to mention the building of acoustically engineered concert halls, and the maintenance of orchestras and opera companies. This doesn’t just apply to the producers of music either; the creators—contemporary composers—have technical training far beyond anything available to Richard Wagner. And yet, while Europe produces many very good works, it hasn’t produced many, if any, great ones in some time. There are new works that are technically accomplished or interesting to the expert listener, but there are few that we can expect will draw a crowd to listen to every summer 140 years from now (the length of time since Wagner established the Bayreuth Festival.) If there were new Wagners out there producing operas, the pressure would likely be off the Regietheater directors to make old works out of new ones. And the attachment of the traditionalists to preserving what now seems like a scarce resource—good opera—might be less fierce.
As the crowd around Wagner indicates—he was friends not only with Liszt but with Brahms; Tchaikovsky came to the first Bayreuth Festival as the Russian correspondent—the dearth of masters producing great works is by historical terms unusual. Unlike America, where, despite the presence of a great many buffs like myself, opera does not have and has never had a central place in the country’s cultural life, Europe still cares a great deal about the art form. Here, the Vienna and Berlin operas and philharmonics, as well as festivals such as Bayreuth and Salzburg, are still important national cultural institutions. The Chancellor still inaugurates Bayreuth each year. Public funding is poured into opera companies and cultural institutions of all descriptions. There is in short a wealth of resources—but a poverty of spirit.
Ultimately, the great works in the canon of European classical music sprung from the Continent’s Christian ideals. Men like Bach, Monteverdi, and Mozart were not only devout Christians but used their gifts to reflect deeply on man’s place in the divine order. Then the revolt against those Christian ideals by men such as Wagner in turn created great art. But now, postmodern values and beliefs don’t seem to have the same dramatic appeal. Unfortunately, this is never more painfully clear than in productions in which the postmodernists superimpose new ideas on the more muscular works of their (in this case literal) ancestors. Daubing graffiti on the cathedrals your predecessors built is not quite the same thing as building monuments of your own time.