Following hot on the heels of Christian Thielemann's Ring – released, unusually for Opus Arte, on CD – the company is back in its usual medium for this Tristan und Isolde. Again from Bayreuth, the performance has appeared on DVD with unusual speed, but enters a catalogue already well stocked with filmed versions of Wagner's great opus metaphysicum.
Christoph Marthaler's production was first seen in 2005 but he left this 2009 revival to Anna-Sophie Mahler; given the critical drubbing it received in earlier outings, Marthaler's motivation to return to revive it on this occasion might have been limited. The main feature of Anna Viebrock's designs is the way a large room – a non-descript waiting-room or lobby-cum-lounge – is shifted up in each act to expose another stratum beneath. Viebrock explains its significance in a rather bizarre geological metaphor with time passing to reveal new layers of sediment. The protagonists' costumes similarly pass through various eras. For example, in Act One Isolde is rather dowdy, in Act Two she has something of the Stepford Wives about her, but in the final act she's dressed in smart, contemporary style. This sartorial transformation seems to reflect similar shifts in emotional engagement, and Tristan goes through the same process. Viebrock explains an additional motif of circular tube lighting through the text's obsession with night and day. In the first act, these float in the air above the set in a manner that seemed to suggest the same distinction between real and dream worlds made in Christoph Loy's recent Covent Garden production. In any case they allow for a nice effect during the prelude, as the camera drifts dreamily among them, although their repositioning at ground level in Act Three, extinguished but for the occasional folorn flicker, seems a rather obvious touch.
Whereas it's easy to imagine Marthaler's production being somewhat dreary in the theatre – there's a studied lack of emotional engagement from the singers in much of the first two acts – it is enlivened greatly by an unusually active style of video direction (by Michael Beyer) that displays evident cinematic pretentions, and is choreographed to match the music's grand sweep. Yet some of the panned shots enabled by the use of remote controlled cameras are more successful than others, and there's the usual tendency for didactic underlining of details we are supposed to notice, including some which, arguably, we'd be better off not. The production, however, does seem painfully static at times, and at least the imaginative video direction gives more of a visual counterpoint to Wagner's passionate score.
Otherwise, Marthaler seems to have assembled his ideas from the Regie handbook without quite coming up with an original take on the opera. Nevertheless, there's a certain effectiveness in the way he highlights Tristan's emotional journey from a proud, emotionally frigid cypher in Act One, to pubescent excitement in Act Two and finally uncontrollable passion in Act three, even if Robert Dean Smith lacks the natural acting ability to pull it off as successfully as others might have. The introduction of certain humorous touches was interesting, particularly in the way Kurwenal seems impatient with his master's self-indulgence. The end of Act Two is particularly powerful, too, given the apparent levity of some of what's come before.
There's no doubt, at least, that we're in safe hands musically, and Peter Schneider draws playing of great passion and beauty from the Bayreuth orchestra, while with his lively, amusing contributions he's the artist who comes out best in the faintly embarrassing 'make of' featurette (to a jarringly un-Wagnerian soundtrack) that is included as an extra. As Isolde, Irène Theorin is no match for Nina Stemme – on Opus Arte's superior Tristan from Glyndebourne – but maintains strength in the top of the voice, even if her middle range can sound breathy. In terms of acting, she is clearly shackled to Marthaler's concept, but carries out his aims with dignity. I feel as though I should enjoy Smith's Tristan more than I do, given the astonishing ease with which he seems to get through the role, yet the voice, despite its almost bel canto facility, is not one to inspire sympathy or tug at the heart strings; mine, at least, remained untugged. Jukka Rasilainen makes an unusually sympathetic Kurwenal, and sings strongly throughout, the briefest of glitches in Act Three notwithstanding, but I failed to warm to Michelle Breedt's rather matronly Brangäne. As Marke, on the other hand, Robert Holl is dignified and moving.
Neither this nor Thielemann's Ring represent the unqualified triumphs that might have been hoped for as a result of Opus Arte's new agreement with Bayreuth. This DVD in particular seems unlikely to make its mark among so many excellent filmed accounts, yet while it's not vintage Bayreuth, it still comes across here as an engaging performance.
By Hugo Shirley