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Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Waltraud Meier (Isolde), Siegfried Jerusalem (Tristan), Uta Priew (Brangäne), Matthias Hölle (King Marke), Falk Struckmann (Kurwenal), Poul Elming (Melot, Young Sailor), Pater Maus (Shepherd), Sandor Solyom-Nagy (Helmsman), Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival, Norbert Balatsch (Chorus Master), Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)
Heiner Müller (Director), Erich Wonder (Set Design), Yohji Yamamoto (Costume Design)
Recorded in Bayreuth (July 1995) – 265’
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4439

This gripping DVD is of the 1993 Bayreuth Festival production of Tristan und Isolde, filmed at the Festspielhaus in early July, 1995, as it was being readied for that year’s festival. As they begin their third season of the presentation, the performers are solidly into it, but give no hint of deadening routine. Recorded as it was during a week of rehearsals for a revival, the DVD has all the excitement of a live performance with none of the potential drawbacks, such as glitches or audience noises.

Under the direction of noted playwright Heiner Müller (who, incidentally, died just a few months after the filming), the setting and action are quite simple and even abstract, hearkening back to the production style of Wieland Wagner. Set designer Erich Wonder creates pure magic with the use of shimmering colour fields reminiscent of the paintings of Mark Rothko. Yohji Yamamoto’s costumes are simple but weighty robes and cloaks. There is no attempt to create the stated settings of the action - no ship, no rocky coast, etc. In Act II a phalanx of breastplates reminds us that this is the era of knightly questing and fealty. The few props are very simple.

This description might lead one to think this is a boring production, but such is definitely not the case. The focus is on the performers and they in turn are focused on their performances in a way one rarely experiences. Waltraud Meier especially is transcendent throughout both vocally and visually. Siegfried Jerusalem is somewhat dry of voice, but equally focused and charismatic, and he rises to the demanding heights of Act III. Matthias Hölle is a riveting King Marke and Uta Priew a fine, if somewhat bland, Bangäne. Poul Elming is luxury casting as both Melot and the young sailor.

The all-important colours change as the works progresses. Act I is bright, with much yellow; Isolde has red hair and Tristan is blonde. The dominant colour is Act II is blue, and the performers’ hair has lost colour. Act II is grey and the performers have a chalky look, emphasizing that act’s atmosphere of existential bleakness.

The sound of the orchestra is full and vivid, but never overpowers the singers. The running time of 265 minutes might seem a bit leisurely (I have a recording by Furtwängler of 255 minutes, and one by von Karajan of 245 minutes), but it never drags.

Friends whose opinion I value attended the 1993 Bayreuth Festival, and this was the production they raved about. I now understand why. A highly recommended DVD.

Michael Johnson




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