The orchestral playing is, again, a key to the interpretation of the Second Act. We don’t see the ocean, but we hear it swirling invisibly, all the more malevolent for that The tides are controlled by the moon, an impersonal, sinister force, but one which gives Tristan and Isolde the cover of nightfall in which to proclaim their feelings. Gould and Herlitizius sit under a tent (a bit like a canopy over a bed) and play with star shapes sparkling with electrical light. We know that Tristan never felt free as a child, and quite possibly neither did Isolde. So if they marvel at fragile tricks of light with the innocence of children, who are we to sneer ? For me, this enhanced the overall tragedy. There aren’t all that many good Tristans around, so we should cherish Stephen Gould, who sang the part last year in London, and has Tannhäuser, Siegfried and Erik in his repertoire, plus an extremely sympathetic Paul in Die tote Stadt. He’s a big man with the heft in his voice to create these roles, yet also the ability to express the vulnerability integral to their true portrayal. Tristan is a hero to everyone around him, but not to himself. Like so many ultra-macho action me, he hides self destructive urges. Perhaps Death by Melot isn’t an accident. The orchestra hovers over the love scenes like a demonic presence, haunting the lyrical raptures. Gould and Herlitzius can play with stars but the stars will control their fate.
In Kareol, almost absolute darkness reigns. The Shepherds Flute sings its mournful yet oddly seductive song. Wagner defines the different stages of Tristan’s delirium. Gould and Theielemann mark the changes sensitively. Gould’s voice glows heroically. This is Tristan’s greatest battle, and Gould’s singing is well up to the challenge. Very impressive. Yet we know he’s dying, for he “sees” a vision of Isolde before him as he sings. At the end, blood pours from the mannequin, but by then Tristan is too far gone to notice. Ian Patterson’s Kurewal is firmly sung and characterized, emphasizing by contrast the Wahn that overtakes Tristan. The rapport between Gould and Pattersonis musically crucial, for Tristan quietly begins to expire as Kurnewal’s voice strengthens. Tristan rallies as he hears the ship in the orchestra, whichTheielemann conducts with such fervour that we can almost see it too. When the surge subsides, Gould as he sings that last “Isolde!” and dies, wreathed in the gentle sounds of the harp.
This tenderness is important. In thus staging, Kurnewal covers Tristan’s body with a cross and lilies, a beautiful moment, throwing Isolde’s heart rending grief into even higher profile. Yet again, the contrast between two spheres of reality is painfully poignant. King Marke (Georg Zeppenfield) and his knights arrive, in glowing shades of gold. Tristan’s dead, Kurnewal is dying and Isolde’s overwhelmed. “Tod denn, alles,. Alles tod” Zeppenfeld sings. “Wahn, Wahn, uberall Wahn!” all over again, and so sad. As the Liebestod begins, Herlitzius moves towards Gould’s inert body, and tries to raise him, ,literally, from the dead. In the music, we hear transfiguration, for in Isolde’s mind she is again one with Tristan, on a different plane of existence, no longer “of this world”. “Mild and Liese”, the happiness of release and transformation. In an act of kindness, Marlke takes the “living” Isolde by the hand, much as one comforts the grieving at a time of trauma. Will she ever return to the “real” world ? Will she live on or die ? Maybe she’ll whip up other potions, but one thing’s for sure. She’s not baking cupcakes in domestic bliss. Brangäne stands over Tristan’s body, thinking “Why?” As so should we. This ending made me think of the ending in Parsifal, with its message of compassion. “Gesegnet sei dein Leiden, das Mitleids höchste Kraft und reinsten Wissens Macht dem zagen Toren gab”
In the film, Thielemann is seen wearing a red polo shirt. At first I thought, it’s been mighty hot in Europe this year, but now I wonder if the choice of colour might not have been deliberate. Although the set is dark, the singers are clothed in luminous jewel like colours, blue, green and gold. (He switches to a black shirt for his bows). Perhaps Thielemann’s red shirt brings him into the picture, so to speak, for this is very much “his” production. He has always been a brilliant Wagner conductor but this Tristan und Isolde is extraordinarily strong musically, and accesses the infernal, demonic depths of the drama. If Thielemann’s politics aren’t acceptable, it’s also not acceptable to destroy a person because you don’t like what he thinks. Heed the music.
Original Source: Thielemann’s Tristan und Isolde, Bayreuth