Bayreuth may have its annual Wagner festival, but since 2006 Budapest has continued to develop a solid reputation for outstanding musical performances during its Wagner Days during the month of June, all under the inspired artistic direction of Ádám Fischer. Müpa's Béla Bartók National Concert Hall has the added advantage of superb acoustics which some other venues struggle to come even remotely close to. This allowed some of the delights in the orchestral playing of the Hungarian National Philharmonic in this performance of Tristan und Isolde (secure horns, savage snarls of the brass when required, a heart-stoppingly beautiful cor anglais and rich, supple strings) to enchant the ear.

Allison Oakes (Isolde) and Peter Seiffert (Tristan)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

For this is an opera about magic, a work of “such dangerous fascination, of such shivery and sweet infinity” (Nietzsche). The potion that Brangäne mixes is designed to bring about the  immediate deaths of the two protagonists – initially sworn enemies – yet it achieves the same result only at the end of a passionate and unexpected love relationship. Many great Heldentenors (like Windgassen) sang the role of Tristan into very mature age, and Peter Seiffert demonstrated why he can still hold his own, with a voice capable of producing incredible levels of volume and intensity, as well as a flexibility that moved effortlessly from the controlled lyricism of the second act to the anguished delirium towards the close of the opera. Allison Oakes, in the role of Isolde, made up for a slight deficiency in sheer beauty and sensuousness with fervent commitment and utter fearlessness in her steel-capped top notes. Her vocal skills embraced both the sharpness of her character before the potion is administered – smarting at Tristan’s killing of her betrothed Morold, this is not a woman you would want to meddle with – and the yielding femininity she displayed in the love exchanges of the second act. Underpinning everything was the judicious conducting of Fischer, not yielding to the temptation to linger anywhere or coast along to the next highlight, but shaping the vast paragraphs with an unerring sense of structure and style.

Liang Li (Marke)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

Two of the secondary roles were brilliantly cast. Liang Li, blessed with an ink-black voice as King Marke, rock-steady in his lowest register, was a commanding stage presence in his mixture of controlled fury and bitterness at Tristan’s betrayal, as events unfolded at the end of the second act. As the faithful Kurwenal, Boaz Daniel was invariably confident and mellifluous in tone. Brangäne was sung by a local favourite and stalwart of Hungarian Opera, Atala Schöck, the voice, though warm, tending towards a wide vibrato.

No matter how good the vocal and orchestral elements are in any opera, a less than satisfactory approach to the scenic realisation will inevitably mar the overall impression. I am prepared to go along with any novel approach as long as it is coherent and thought-provoking, but I draw the line at stylistic mismatches and failed attempts at symbolism. The default setting at the beginning of each of the three acts was an elaborate white print wallpaper on a burgundy background which would not have been out of place in a French château. This then gave way to the wake of a ship stretching into infinity, the white foam set against the darkness of the surrounding waters. So far, so good. However, as Brangäne prepared her potion swarms of aggressive seagulls flapped their wings across the entire screen – Hitchcock, my friend, you have much to answer for – only for the picture to be frozen at the appearance of Kurwenal. By the second act we were in very aquatic territory, with daphnia (unless plankton have wriggling legs) ascending from murky waters below, to be joined later by fronds of seaweed (yes, this is supposed to be a garden!), a giant sting-ray and, as the love duet reached its climax, a collection of rosy-coloured jellyfish.

Peter Seiffert (Tristan) and Allison Oakes (Isolde)
© Zsófia Pályi, Müpa Budapest

The stage was dominated throughout by an impossibly over-extended sofa covered in purple upholstery, upended into a see-saw position for the second act (the world out of kilter?) and broken in half and stripped of nearly all its plush covering in the final act. On either side of the stage hung two modern global lights (straight from your nearest DIY store) and below stood three large cabin trunks, one of which housed the box of potions.

I am tempted to draw a veil over the costume designs. When Brangäne is clad in a sari-equivalent and sports a bindi, something is clearly wrong. The men (except the barefoot Tristan in the final act) all wore black jackboots. Does any of this matter? Just as the Ancient Greeks had their classical unities, if the impact of a sterling musical performance is not to be unnecessarily compromised, set and costume designers need to work hand-in-hand with the stage director.