Katharina Wagner’s production of Tristan und Isolde, first seen at last year’s Bayreuth Festival, presents some striking images and thought-provoking broad ideas. Act I is set in a labyrinth of staircases and platforms, giving the Escher-like impression that they effectively lead nowhere. Indeed, these cul-de-sacs thwart Tristan’s attempts to get closer to Isolde, as he tries every possible option during her long narrations, and gives a visual analogy to the way they are trapped in their impossible love for each other. It is obvious that these two already have a passionate history, and they don’t need the love potion to bring them together when the time comes – having made their suicide pact they seem relieved when Brangäne reveals she has switched the drugs.

Stephen Gould (Tristan), Christa Mayer (Brangäne) and Petra Lang (Isolde) © Enrico Nawrath
Stephen Gould (Tristan), Christa Mayer (Brangäne) and Petra Lang (Isolde)
© Enrico Nawrath

Act II moves to a prison compound, or perhaps a secure mental institution in which the lovers are cast and then kept under watch from above. Again there’s the suggestion that they are trapped in their emotional lives and that their only escape is through death – they spend much of the latter stages of the love duet using the seeming torture equipment in the compound to do themselves in. Earlier comes a striking visual accompaniment using holograms, with Tristan and Isolde appearing to walk into the future but on parallel paths, never meeting. King Mark, in contradiction to the tenet of the text, is not forgiving but sadistic in this interpretation. It is obviously he who is trying to punish the lovers and commands Melot to kill Tristan, an act the lieutenant attempts with some misgivings.

Act III is presented as a kind of hallucination. A front gauze gives a foggy foreground behind which visions of Isolde come and go as the delirious, mortally wounded Tristan attempts to interact with them and each time they dissolve before our eyes – a clever visual presentation of the text here. The ‘fog’ only clears once Isolde proper finally arrives on the scene, by which time Tristan is already dead. As she concludes her Liebestod, clinging to her lover’s dead body, Mark – still showing no signs of forgiveness – tears her from Tristan and in a striking final image is seen dragging her away. It all works in general, if one can cope with the inconsistencies – particularly the portrayal of Mark, and the discord between text and presentation (after Frank Castorf’s Ring, anything becomes possible) – and annoyances such as Kurwenal’s distracting restlessness in Act II as he seeks escape from the prison.

Petra Lang (Isolde) © Enrico Nawrath
Petra Lang (Isolde)
© Enrico Nawrath

Musically, this revival is seriously hampered by the first Isolde from one-time Brangäne, Petra Lang. There’s nothing novel about a mezzo-soprano taking on this role – Waltraud Meier is the supreme example – but the timbre of Lang’s voice sounds utterly wrong for the part. Or at least her lower range does – almost plummy contralto territory – since she exhibits two or three different voices depending on the pitch. Her upper notes have a certain clarion ring about them, but here she loses all consonants and we just have an unfocused, swoopy procession of vowel sounds. Fortunately, the Tristan of Stephen Gould was everything his Isolde wasn’t: tireless, crisply enunciated, shapely phrased and even in vocal weight right across the range.

Georg Zeppenfeld (Marke) and Stephen Gould (Tristan) © Enrico Nawrath
Georg Zeppenfeld (Marke) and Stephen Gould (Tristan)
© Enrico Nawrath

Iain Paterson was much more successful as Kurwenal than he had been as Rheingold’s Wotan earlier in the week, with more focused projection and vocal warmth. Claudia Mahnke replaced an indisposed Christa Mayer as Brangäne and won well-deserved applause for a sympathetic and astute portrayal. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Mark impressed in its sonorous clarity, even if the characterisation turns him into a Hunding rather than a benevolent king. The remaining roles – Raimund Nolte’s Melot, Tansel Akzeybek’s Shepherd/Young Sailor, Kay Stiefermann’s Helmsman – were all consummately performed.

Christian Thielemann’s conducting began with a searing account of the Prelude and an emotional fire that wasn’t always maintained subsequently. There was an admirable flexibility to his pacing, tempo choices and dynamics, however – holding back the lead-up to the Liebestod’s climax made for a breathtaking final surge – and the orchestra, if a little less kind in its balancing with the singers than in the Ring, sounded sumptuous and suave.