Culture Magazine

Treuloser Holder! Konwitschny's Tristan on DVD

By Singingscholar @singingscholar
I have not forgotten your collective request for opera DVD posts, Gentle Readers! Now, I do realize that reviews of recent DVD releases are more likely to be valuable than ones for those with a decade's figurative dust on them. But I found Peter Konwitschny's take on Götterdämmerung so impressive that I tracked down his Tristan. Then the unexpected affordability of summer festival events (hooray for student tickets) lured me away and has let this languish... but here it is! Enjoy, and if you've seen it, please do comment with your thoughts; my vague sense is that my positive response may be a minority one. It's a deceptively simple production, but don't let the streamlined visuals fool you, and don't let the hideous couch put you off. I thought this was brilliant, and I found it profoundly moving. I'm not sure how to judge a Tristan orchestra on a DVD; how am I supposed to tell what they're doing if I can't feel it through my bones? That said, I liked the warm sound of the Bayrisches Staatsorchester, which played sensitively and passionately for Zubin Mehta. If there's a choice between the drama and the philosophy of the piece, they emphasized the former.
The dramatic performances are all scrupulously detailed. Brangane and Kurwenal (Marjana Lipovšek and Bernd Weikl) are well-characterized and well sung. Kurt Moll is a Marke of immense dignity; his voice is too worn for pure beauty, but he uses it masterfully. The King in this production is a frail old man, but he loves Tristan and Isolde and they love him, and the fact that, nonetheless, tragedy divides and breaks them... yes, it's always tragic, but it was very humanly so, here. Jon Fredric West gave a conscientiously thought-out Tristan, but he never sounded fully comfortable to me; there was a tendency to come out of his vocal lines with a shout. I was dreading Act III, but the vocal issues bothered me there least. Waltraud Meier took my breath away. Repeatedly. The first time through the DVD, I wondered whether the production would work without an Isolde whose every thought you could see, and whose erotic energy was (for me, at least) a force of destabilizing intensity. The second time through, I became fairly certain that it would. Welcome to the Tristan where the realm of eternal night is staged. Oh, and there is no love potion. Frau Minne kenntest Du nicht? Nicht ihres Zaubers Macht?
The best way I can think of to describe Konwitschny's visual vocabulary for this Tristan is that it's like a modern Grimm tale: elements of the familiar, skewing into the unexpected, even into the impossible. There were a few things which distracted me (I was intrigued by Tristan being shaved in the first act, but I didn't quite see the point of it in the third. And Mark's retainers being dressed like a campy version of Robin Hood's merry men was... strange.) I am sure that, even after two viewings (and three, in parts) there is much that I may be missing, because I was just so gobsmacked-grateful for a Tristan which made me laugh with delight at the lovers' discovering each other, and gasp with horror at their discovery by Melot, and cry through the entirety of Isolde's entering monolog in Act III. It's not that the ideas didn't matter: the social liberation, and disruption, of Isolde and Tristan's exchanging identities, was breathtakingly clear, as were the implications and opportunities of their renunciation of the world. But these things mattered because of what was at stake between the characters.
Don't misunderstand me; I love an abstract staging of Tristan. But I thought this worked as well... and I was, frankly, shocked by how well it worked. In the first act, on a cruise ship, Isolde suffers from the world's most hideous wedding dress, and the indignity of being confined to a deck chair and served fruity drinks with straws in them, while scarred men in oilskins make rough jokes about "Tristan der Held," who keeps loftily aloof in his cabin, with Kurwenal as valet and bodyguard. Brangane serves to highlight that Tristan and Isolde's story is not mindless romantic idealization of the other: she's a blindly optimistic magazine-reader who tries to spin Harlequin-romance stories for Isolde, who is having none of it. The keynote of her narrative and curse is not wrath, but profound misery. When Tristan finally appears before her, the mutual impact of their locked gaze is visible; you can watch her face soften, twist with tenderness... and close again, as he makes an exaggerated bow, suffering as visibly as she, and angry.  Which of them is more reckless is hard to say. But when he grabs her hand to place it on the razor that rests against his throat, it's an erotic challenge, and she knows it, returns it. Before they take the drinks--straws and all--they are in each other's arms, and suddenly it seems that Wagner must have meant this music to describe the undoing of buckles, the unbuttoning of a dress. There is no urgency; they have finally found each other. As the curtain falls, they are marched into the blinding light of the royal presence.
Marke's castle is regal in medieval blues and reds. Isolde's coat, too, is a cut straight out of an illumination in a romance, and a deep blue embroidered with stars. She is clothed in the darkness she desires... but not yet in the true night. That comes later. But never has that opening scene seemed less doomed: Brangane may fuss, but Isolde is radiant in her confidence, in her joy. I don't think I've ever heard an initial "Tristan!" that ecstatic... or that hungry. He brings with him the infamous couch (it really is ugly in its own right, and then beyond that it clashes with the colors of the castle.) But, with the help of some DVD closeups, all that is easily forgettable. And I think this is intended. I won't burden you with a blow-by-blow description of how the lovers cross and recross the boundary between the world and their world, but it was managed so that I was choked with emotion, and on edge from the dramatic suspense. It was aided, of course, by Meier's Isolde, wise and generous and radiant in her love.
The third act was more clearly affected by the DVD direction than the first two, but as seen on disc, I found it effective and poignant. Tristan and Kurwenal sit in a room lit by the glow of a slide projector which shows us images of the sea--with a boy and his dog, with a youth, with a woman, empty. English horn players come on stage, though not quite into the "real world," and Tristan holds the instrument as if seeking oracular wisdom from it. And Konwitschny solves the "Why is the tenor so stupid?" moment brilliantly: Tristan has to remove his bandages to be ready for joining Isolde in the world where they are free, clothed only in black. Isolde is carried in by Kurwenal. She appears in light, of course, but it also almost seems that she herself is luminous. And when her lover fades away from her after the first tender exchanges, she grieves, and rages, and trembles in pure shock... and at last--for once!--her impassioned plea is envisioned as successful. Er wacht, er lebt... and the lovers are united, and unaffected by the chaos that follows upon Marke's arrival. (One of the elements of the production which I did not understand was the free-for-all battle which erupted with the king's advent, and ended with a level of carnage somewhere between those of Hamlet and Inglourious Basterds. Why? I thought I was following everything so well, and this seemed to come out of nowhere. Pointless violence is... pointless?) Marke and Brangane make their speeches to the garments which lie where the lovers have fallen... but Tristan and Isolde are already beyond this misery. They shut out the world, and Isolde sings their triumph: at last they are inseparable. 

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