Dark Night of the Soul: Tristan und Isolde at the Wiener Staatsoper

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Andreas Schager
König Marke – René Pape
Isolde – Martina Serafin
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
Melot – Attila Mokus
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Ein Hirt – Daniel Jenz
Ein Steuermann – Martin Häßler
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Josh Lovell

Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper / Philippe Jordan.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.

Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna, Austria.  Sunday, May 1st, 2022.

What are the hidden depths of the human condition that we discover through physical relations with each other and with ourselves?  To what length are sex and death intertwined?  These are the starting points for Calixto Bieito’s new staging of Tristan und Isolde for the Wiener Staatsoper.  Bieito gives us a staging of immense ambition and detail, so much so that I fear that I won’t be able to do it justice here.  It’s an overwhelming and all-encompassing evening – one that magnifies and amplifies the music, providing us with an experience that is so much more than simply watching events unfolding on stage.  Instead, he gives us an evening that overtakes and encompasses all the senses. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

In a way, it’s tempting to take Bieito’s staging literally, to ask why the principals are hanging from swings over a pool of water in Act 1.  But that would be missing the point.  Instead, Bieito mines the profound depths of this complex, multi-layered score, taking us into the lives of people who barely understand themselves and their own desires, yet remain in constant need of connection – anything that will take them out of the boxes of their quotidian experiences.  That overwhelming desire for release is of course something so inherent to the score.  After all, it consists of four hours of music desperately seeking resolution.  In doing so, he encourages us to use the music and drama to reflect, and above all to feel. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Bieito, together with set designer Rebecca Ringst, gives us extremely memorable stage pictures.  In Act 2, we see Tristan and Isolde initially addressing each other from two boxes suspended over the stage – he in an elegant living room, she in a suburban kitchen.  As the love duet progresses, we see them destroying the boxes as they fight to eventually come closer together, literally wrecking their homes to experience sexual closeness with each other.  I found how Bieito illustrated that pending coupling, through Andreas Schager’s Tristan and Martin Serafin’s Isolde, to be so utterly compelling, the desperation and search for release palpable.  Even more so since Tristan slashes his stomach, combining that overwhelming desire for sexual fulfilment with pain and eventual death.  Moreover, Bieito also manages to mine and bring out the sense of betrayal Marke felt – emphasized by the fact that two children appeared with him.  One of whom took the stomach-slashing knife that Isolde was also about to hurt herself with from her hand, as if she had already done it multiple times previously.  Rather than injure Tristan, Melot instead shows his disgust by pushing Tristan away, when Tristan tries to rub his blood on him, as if unwilling to be tarnished by Tristan’s sexual freedom. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

The night is ever-present in the score’s tinta, especially so in the barren loneliness of the dark night of the soul at the start of Act 3.  The way that Bieito illustrates this in that opening of Act 3 is immensely powerful.  He gives us a wall of naked people, of multiple ages and genders – perhaps Tristan’s former lovers, perhaps also people in search of physical and erotic fulfilment, perhaps us in the audience.  The visuals, of these people frozen in time felt so deeply connected to the music.  This is a staging that abounds in detail – on sexual freedom, of eroticism and release, of death and life, of fidelity and monogamy.  It is a staging that contributes greatly to our understanding of the work and deserves to be widely seen and discussed.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

If dramatically this was a major evening, musically it didn’t always rise to the occasion.  I’ll get the biggest disappointment out of the way first. That was Serafin’s Isolde.  She’s a committed actress and communicated so much through the text.  Serafin was clearly at one with Bieito’s vision of the work.  Sadly, her singing was far from the level one would expect to hear at this house.  Her chalky soprano sounded threadbare, lacking in any nuances of vocal colour.  The top sounded short, with fuller volumes achieved through physical force, and her tuning was woozy.  The Liebestod was hard going – for her and for us – with Serafin at one point resorting to vocalise in order to be able to sustain the line.  It pains me to say this, but this was a disappointing assumption.  Serafin was however warmly received by her local audience. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Philippe Jordan’s conducting was also variable.  The prelude was taken an extremely languorous tempo, that felt aimless, only to suddenly accelerate from nowhere.  There were also a few places where tension sagged, not least in Marke’s monologue.  That said, Jordan was able to exploit those uniquely Viennese strings to produce a deep pile carpet of sound and a wealth of instrumental colour.  The orchestra acquitted themselves well, the odd split note from the brass and occasionally approximate tuning from the cellos were forgivable given the length of the evening. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Fortunately, the musical side was much more positive elsewhere.  Schager gave us a mighty Tristan.  He rode the orchestra with ease, allowing Jordan and his players to let rip in a way they couldn’t with Serafin.  He revelled in the trials of Act 3, singing with ecstatic freedom.  Schager is currently undertaking a punishing schedule, alternating these Tristans with Lohengrin in Berlin.  Understandable, then, that he did sound tired in the love duet with intonation sinking and an audible need to work hard to sustain the line at lower dynamics.  Still, Schager’s ability to ride the band, his total dedication to the production, and his positive energy on stage were inspirational.

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Ekaterina Gubanova gave us an elegantly-sung Brangäne, sung in her rich claret-toned mezzo.  She found a wide range of vocal colour, the words always clear and rendered full of meaning.  Iain Paterson gave us a granite-toned Kurwenal, the voice firm throughout the range, although he did lack a little in power to ride the orchestra.  René Pape sang Marke in his inky bass with complex depth of tone, combined with a lieder singer’s sensitivity to text.  The remaining roles reflected the quality expected of the house – not least Attila Mokus’s handsomely-sung Melot and Daniel Jenz’s radiant tenor as the Hirt. 

Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

Tonight was another evening that reminded us why opera matters.  Bieito’s staging took us deep into the human condition, amplifying this glorious score, bringing it to life and encouraging us to explore inside ourselves through the music.  This is music theatre that makes us feel, that moves and transports us through its sheer power.  Bieito’s Tristan feels completely revolutionary.  Perhaps some will find it disorientating and strange.  Yet in that respect he makes a familiar work seem new, heightening the impact so that we may also experience how revolutionary this work must have seemed when it was first heard.  Musically, it was generally satisfactory, although let down by a highly problematic assumption of the title female role.  Still, the sound of the Viennese strings and horns, Schager’s Tristan, and Gubanova’s Brangäne will certainly stay with me.  The evening was greeted with a generous ovation from the Staatsoper public. 

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