There were few more hotly anticipated events in this strangest of operatic years than this new Bayerische Staatsoper production of Tristan und Isolde. Krzysztof Warlikowski, a regular at the Nationaltheater, provided the production; Kirill Petrenko was on the podium; and the cast was headed by two of the biggest names in opera tackling their roles for the first time. The main question was how Jonas Kaufmann and, in particular, Anja Harteros would apply their refined talents to these hugely demanding assignments. In the end, there were no revelations: we saw two intelligent artists tackle the challenges cannily and, on their own terms, convincingly.

Anja Harteros (Isolde)
© Wilfried Hösl

Kaufmann is the more experienced Wagnerian and made an impressive Tristan, carefully marshalling his resources to stay that course and rising to the challenges of Act 3 particularly well – both dramatically and vocally. Harteros was similarly canny in presenting an Isolde to suit her resources; but her noble, somewhat restrained stage presence and the hazy beauty of the voice – along with chic, sophisticated costuming – hardly felt ideal for the fiery Irish maiden of Act 1.

With less sensitive orchestral playing and conducting one could imagine both singers losing the battle to be heard, but part of the astonishing achievement of Petrenko and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester was not just to capture all the tender yearning and visceral thrill of the score, but also to help make the casting work. Orchestral outbursts were thrilling in their power, but textures were kept transparent when accompanying the singers, without any loss of intensity of feeling of being short-changed.

Jonas Kaufmann (Tristan)
© Wilfried Hösl

Neither star singer has the power and penetration that one ideally wants in this opera, but the payback for a lack of sheer roof-raising decibels came in the moments of tenderness: Harteros’s “er sah mir in die Augen” in the Act 1 narration was intensely beautiful; and rarely can that immense love scene in Act 2, kicked off by Kaufmann’s exquisite “O sink hernieder”, have been sung with such refinement and tenderness.

The leading couple were backed up by a superb supporting cast, many drawn from the theatre’s ensemble. Wolfgang Koch’s Kurwenal, tired and wan in Warlikoski’s staging, sang strongly and movingly, while the young Finnish bass Mika Kares – a towering stage presence – rolled out one beautiful cantabile phrase after another as King Marke. Okka von der Damerau’s spunky, mildly exasperated Brangäne was powerfully and urgently sung. Among the other roles, Sean Michael Plumb stood out as Melot for his strong, vibrant baritone.

Jonas Kaufmann (Tristan) and Anja Harteros (Isolde)
© Wilfried Hösl

It was less clear what to make of the production, though, some of whose eccentricities might or might not have been imposed by social distancing requirements (the chorus is kept safely offstage). All the Warlikowski hallmarks are there. The cast are largely in smart modern dress and inhabit a grandly imposing single set in wood (designs by Małgorzata Szczęśniak), with several openings and two large dividing screens, which can be lowered to accommodate an abundance of video projection (Kamil Polak). The director’s cool, keen intellect is detectable – arguably not the ideal attributes for this work – but the many varied ideas and elements fail to coalesce into coherent or compelling vision.

One idea sees a young couple in jeans and tracksuit tops and masked to resemble humanoid robots tentatively approach each other in the Prelude, while in Act 3 Kurwenal nurses one of them as Tristan takes his place on a table of similar-looking dummies – perhaps his ersatz family. The Act 2 duet, meanwhile, leads not towards physical closeness, but towards couple’s injecting themselves, while a video shows them in a parallel narrative being engulfed in water on a hotel bed; at the end of the Liebestod, Isolde injects herself and sinks to the ground as the video shows that water recedes from the flooded hotel room leaving the couple gently smiling at one another, empty pill bottles lying beside their hands.

Jonas Kaufmann (Tristan) and Anja Harteros (Isolde)
© Wilfried Hösl

Other ideas, of varying degrees of bafflement – Manuel Günther’s Sailor appears as, I think, some sort of injured boxer, for example – came and went, in a staging that never really seemed to know what it was trying to achieve.

Scenically, then, a disappointment, and in this theatre, of all places, one would hope for more from a production of this work. It did nothing, however, to detract from the fact that, musically, we were witnessing a magnificent company on unbeatable form. 

****1