In 2018, when this production was new, director / designer Dmitri Tcherniakov’s deceptively simple “Tristan” showcased the splendid Staatskapelle, the building’s newly improved acoustics and the company’s knack for putting together Wagner dream casts that could make Bayreuth green with envy.
The Russian director, previously seen here with Parsifal and responsible for the company’s new Ring starting in 2020, provided a sparse and elegant modern dress production that mostly let the music speak for itself. It replaces Harry Kupfer’s long-running production, part of that director’s full ten part Wagner cycle, with a rotating stone angel from 2000, last performed at the Schiller Theater (the Staatsoper’s temporary home during its seven-year-long renovation) in 2014. In between, a strikingly abstract 2006 staging by Stefan Bachmann, designed by the architecture film Herzog & de Meuron, the Swiss starchitects behind Hamburg’s sparkling Elbphilharmonie, became one of two productions in the Staatsoper’s previous multi-director Wagner cycle never to be revived (the other was Stefan Herheim’s sublime 2009 Lohengrin).
In a famous letter from 1854, Wagner wrote to Liszt: “I have in my head Tristan and Isolde, the simplest but most full-blooded musical conception.” Simple and full-blooded are words that describe Tcherniakov’s production to a tee. In the past, the director has taken more playful and subversive approaches to his material; in the case of Tristan, his directorial approach was surprisingly hands-off. Beyond the sleek, wooden-paneled set of the first two acts, and the unadorned interior of a prewar Berlin apartment in act three, Tcherniakov’s influence was primarily felt in the carefully thought-through and intensely emotional dramatic performances. Despite a few overused theatrical gestures – outstretched arms and the like – that were misjudged, I’ve never before seen a Tristan and Isolde who so convincingly act out their tumultuous, confused and extreme relationship. There were some pleasant surprises. After drinking the potion, the lovers erupted in uncontrollable giggles, as if this was the only possible response to something so unexpected they couldn’t even begin to process it. During the love duet, they seemed intellectually on fire; far from seeming desperate, tragic or lustful, Tristan and Isolde were possessed solely by the burning desire to make sense of their wild passions and compulsively communicate it to each other. At the end of that act, Tristan was not laid low by any physical wound – he and Melot have nothing more than a fist fight – but rather by the profound shock that Isolde has chosen to follow Marke.
Daniel Barenboim has said that Tristan is his favorite score, and he never tolerates anything less than perfection from his orchestra. The miraculous music sounds full, transparent and spine tingling in the meticulously refurbished theater.
UPCOMING PERFORMANCES: 15. 20. 25. 28. June 2019