by Kyriakos P. Loukakos
The instructive power of a random trilogy
After having attended, in summer 2014, a disconcerting Ring cycle by Frank Castorff, the rather notorious director of the 101 years old Berlin Volksbühne, we cautiously refrained from the treacherous pleasures of this production’s immediate “progress”, even if that signified our missing what came out to be Kirill Petrenko’s last Bayreuth appearance, due to his recent designation as the new first conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker in the succession of Sir Simon Rattle. In any case, our self evident interest for the much awaited new production of Tristan und Isolde by Katharina Wagner, an event marking also Christian Thielemann’s return to this masterpiece after a voluntary gap of 12 years, proved a thought provoking one. Especially in combination to Der fliegende Holländer’s update in Jan Philipp Gloger’s uneventful presentation and to our 3rd consecutive viewing of Lohengrin in the wayward but expertly done production by Hans Neuenfels featuring an already fabled title hero. In other words, this largely random selection of the performances we attended formed, an interestingly coherent succession of erratic love stories, an instructive trilogy of passionate affairs about true and reciprocated eros fatally hindered by either surrounding conflict or the man’s -or woman’s- doubt.
A new Tristan strong in concept, questionable in realization
Many love stories are originated from a situation of deep conflict. Tristan und Isolde is a much older case of enemy offsprings falling in love than the almost proverbial Romeo and Juliet. In the original Handlung by Richard Wagner only wronged Isolde’s hesitancy to avenge the death of her fiancé, Sir Morold, hints to the feelings she might nurture for his assassin, lord Tristan, who lies wounded at her mercy long enough for him to recover through her medical and magical powers and to abduct her as a marital trophy for his beloved uncle king Marke of Cornwall. For this traumatic meeting to become a credible love story of irrational intensity, Richard Wagner (following the homonymous medieval epos from which he drew his inspiration) uses a magic potion, a filter of love being forwarded to the lovers, instead of the initially intended one of death, by Isolde’s lady in waiting Brangaene. Being himself the culprit of several marital offences, Wagner, who, in our opinion, used his works, albeit unintentionally, as a means of confessional soul alleviation, seems to imply in Tristan that also his own misbehavior was a result of some superhuman enforcement, dictating the immoral triumph of love over any other consideration of duty and personal decency.
Coming from a post Freudian age, Katharina Wagner sees the whole story as a devoid one of pretenses and excuses. In her adoption of the Wagnerian drama, what is referred to in Isolde’s narrative of act 1 could be an -already from the beginning- rush, passionate and probably reciprocate love affair, with remorseful Tristan later recurring to his formal duties and wanting to seal once and forever this option through the compulsory marriage of the defeated princess to his uncle. Being well aware of his weakness in front of her, Tristan denies to confront Isolde in person for more than halfway act 1. And because both lovers are unable to resist their feelings, the potion episode becomes only a scheme merely intended to enable bringing them face to face. Therefore, in this production, the lovers don’t need to drink anything in order to succumb immediately after their reunion to a passionate kiss. And the philter’s demonstrative pouring to the ground serves only as a way to underline this fact to the unsuspecting spectator.
But also regarding the other men in Isolde’s life, this Benjamin among the composer’s great grand daughters traces a feministic core in the story. Why is Isolde so eager to show mercy and even fall in love with her fiancé ‘s murderer, if Morold were not some autocratic male imposed on her by the social status of even a royal woman in medieval Ireland? And if that could be so, why then King Marke’s disposition should be expected to manifest itself as less autocratic, even providing for the kind verses with which the poet Wagner has ennobled this wronged husband’s and uncle’s character? Following this concept it becomes clear and fairly consequent that Isolde’s Liebestod could be envisaged as a state of pointless marital survival in the royal ménage for the rest of her mortal existence, a fate towards which she is brutally led by His Cornish Majesty as the curtain falls.
For a second time in her still recent career in Bayreuth, Katharina Wagner seems to take us by surprise. As with her debut production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, what she has to say -according to our perception of it- grows in us with the passage of time from the evening of the performance. Her message remains clear to the contrary of much indecipherable nonsense in contemporary Regietheater. What though differentiates her Meistersinger from the new Tristan, to the detriment of the latter, is the relative negligence of the eye’s seduction regarding scenery (Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert), lighting (Reinhard Traub) and costumes (Thomas Kaiser). Despite the work’s nocturnal nature, the prevalence of darkness throughout the long evening became excessively tiring for a work that emphatically belies its claim of being a Handlung. That proved especially painful in act 2, with total black reigning and being dispersed only by blinding yellow light to signify an atmosphere of detention camp for the love duet and Brangaene’s warning. Costumes were grossly inconsiderate to the singers and to the powerful atmosphere they must assist to create, as they had also been in the Marthaler production that preceded this latest one, which by the way managed to discourage even the (still) reigning Isolde of our time, Nina Stemme, from returning to Bayreuth. A fact that also diminished any impact of the King’s mustard – yellow mantle and fancy hat, depriving them of any special mark and significance. We therefore sincerely hope that in her next Bayreuth assumption Katharina Wagner will insist in making her point by realising her ideas in a way less conceptual and more favourable to the diversion of the eye and the relief of the soul.
Considering its almost last minute changes, the cast proved a strong one, headed by a Tristan at last vocally fully endowed for the role. After years of absence from the Green Hill, where he had first appeared back in 2004, incidentally already under Christian Thielemann’s conducting, the American Heldentenor Stephen Gould, a fairly recent Österreichischer Kammersänger, not only defied the declamatory exigencies of his role in the interminable monologues of act 3 but also offered consistently resourceful lyrical singing of great beauty and indisputable line, as in the extensive love duet or his poignant answer to his uncle King “O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen” towards the end of act 2. His acting though remained rudimentary as much during his act 1 wanderings to meaningfully dead end staircases as also during his above mentioned act 3 delirium, during which he kept moving nervously all over the empty stage envisaging imaginary triangles (containing several Isolde – like stuntwomen) and with no sign of his supposed heavy injuries that led to his scenic death after a while!
Isolde, alongside the Siegfried Brünnhilde, seems to be the vocally heaviest among Wagnerian heroines, so Anja Kampe’s giving up of the role at the 11th hour could prove a considerable blow to Bayreuth perfectionist production values. Mercifully it led to an inspired last minute replacement by Evelyn Herlitzius, an artist seasoned and treasured in this so special of all venues. Miss Herlitzius readily obliged appearing in this most demanding role just after a series of performances as the equally demanding R. Strauss’s Elektra, which led to her voiceless participation to the dress rehearsal and a premiere that was greeted with some fair criticism for untidiness and shrillness in her singing. Much of that had receded by the time we attended the 4th performance of this year’s Festival (August 12th 2015), although one has to admit that Herlitzius will never offer the defiant “Preis” note of a Birgit Nilsson in the act 1 narrative and that she is likely to remain nervous in some extremely exposed high notes here and there. What however she has to offer is really inestimable in these days of colourless singing. As in her Brünnhilde that graced the Tankred Dorst Bayreuth Ring production, Herlitzius proved that she remains a singing actress of exceptional and all too rare class, singing and acting with wholehearted intensity and imbuing her vocal line with a personal touch of vulnerable femininity that most of the time delects the ear and throughout touches the soul. Beyond any -forgivable by us- vocal blemishes, her Liebestod was the profound culmination of an exhausting and exhaustive portrayal, a special reason for lasting gratitude for whatever she touches with her interpretative genius (and how much we would like to savour Elektra from an artist so unforgettably and inimitably capable to inflect the crucial phrase “O Siegfried, dein war ich von je” in Siegfried’s lengthy final love duet!)…
The vocally luscious Brangaene of Christa Mayer, the authoritative bass Georg Zeppenfeld as an outstandingly well articulated King Marke, acted with restrained brutality conforming to the production’s requirements, and the somewhat pale Kurwenal of Irish baritone Iain Paterson rounded up a line – up of soloists, more than decently supported by the melodious Melot of Raimund Nolte, the fresh voiced young sailor / shepherd of accordingly youthful Turkish – German tenor Tansel Akzeybek as well as Kay Stiefermann ‘s sailor.
What nevertheless we consider as the memorable apex of this production, besides Herlitzius’s unforgettable Isolde, was Christian Thielemann’s searing conducting of this endlessly fascinating masterpiece. Leading what must be one of the all too few top Wagner orchestras in the world, Thielemann thrilled us with the transcendental quality of his baton, eerie and passionate in a most personal way, to an extent that we hardly expected from him, occasionaly blamed as offering a merely decent imitation of old school conducting. Not the case here though, with fleeting but well considered and organic tempi, a supportive and inspiring ear for his singers, and this special sense of discreet cumulative power that so often eludes less experienced and erudite colleagues of his.
The chorus has only some offstage participation in act 1 of Tristan, but it definitely comes to its own in Der fliegende Holländer. Under the seasoned guidance of chorus master Eberhard Friedrich it indisputably became a star of the Festival and in particular of a production that its ripening has resulted to no more than slight improvement. Jan Philipp Gloger’s concept presents this romantic thriller as a dry allusion of mere capitalistic voraciousness for wealth, denuding the stuff of all its maritime atmosphere and idealistic aspirations. Black and grey prevailed throughout, the act 2 spinning Eingangsszene was limited to the packaging of cheap ventilators, cartons occupied the scene forming also the frame for Senta’s ultimate sacrifice, the latter being regarded upon by the bystanders as a pure curiosity just to take a photo of it. All in all, despite Werkstatt embellishments, it ultimately remains a reference for recent Bayreuth bad taste.
Retaining our conviction that such “trash” productions, regarding scenery (Christof Hetzer) and costumes (Karin Jud), should never have reached the Green Hill in the first place, we have not much to commend regarding the vocal team either. As the proverbial Dutchman, Korean Samuel Youn has long exhausted his evident limits of a basically lyrical baritone without offering any particularly idiomatic inflexion of the text in compensation. His equally lyrical Senta, Ricarda Merbeth, is no improvement to her predecessor Adrianne Pieczonka, despite her decent raising to the final scene’s requirements after an unstable ballad. By far the most convincing singing came from the tenors, the Croatian Tomislav Muzek, as an euphonious and passionate but visually unsympathetic Erik, and the Vienna State Opera member Benjamin Bruns as an ever present and overacting Steuermann, his nice metallic timbre and his clear text enunciation projecting marvellously in the theatre. Despite some slight vibrato and the fact that Daland is not the Wagnerian assignment one would readily associate with him, a second Korean in the cast, bass Kwanchul Youn remains one of the most valuable assets of the Festival, a noble singer, ever respectful of singing line and with remarkable clarity of diction, a marvellous specimen of Wagner appeal and nurturing in the Far East. Christa Mayer contributed a strongly characterized and splendidly sung Mary, Axel Kober led a dramatic, unpretentious and impulsive unfolding of the romantic drama.
After two evenings of mixed blessings and pleasures, largely variating between black and grey, Lohengrin provided -as expected- visual relief thankfully combined with the recession of the high temperatures that vexed Germany for weeks. Hans Neuenfels ‘s cunningly executed production, some exceptional singing and a deliriously welcomed debut of maestro Alain Altinoglu were to us as much of a blessing as rain that fell at last on the thirsty plants of the Siegfried Wagner alley leading to the Festspielhaus.
For this last series of performances, the Neuenfels production exposed clearly its assets over the others we attended. His not always clear metaphors of the plot, including the Brabant noblemen dressed as rats and exposed to laboratory experiments, as well as duke Gottfried presented as some kind of monstrous newborn, have been thankfully kept to a limit that does not obscure the main traits of the plot and its symbols, left almost untouched by the director’s concept. Clever and humorous fill – ups of seemingly irrelevant significance, as for example baby rats’ clumsiness or rebellious rats’ pursuit, derive almost always their raison d’être from theatrical necessity, often enriching with action the short orchestral interludes that once served for the change of scenery while relieving momentarily the tensions of high drama. The production itself is an unalloyed pleasure to watch, largely thanks to scenery and costumes by Reinhard von der Thannen, colourful, imaginative and subservient to the spectacle’s climaxes as imposed by his master director’s wish.
Being on stage from the first bars of the celestial prelude, Klaus Florian Vogt ascertained once more (16/08/2015) his undisputed reigning as a visually and musically dream – Lohengrin over the Green Hill of Bayreuth. It is a voice with ideal projection in this particular theatre, alternating passages of extremely sensitive albeit miraculously supported soft singing with others of healthy declamatory power, his imposing, blond and knightly figure complementing a rare personification of the Heaven – sent protector and lover. Although missing in colours, his voice makes use of the horn player’s -he used to be- fiato and a seemingly inexhaustible range of dynamics to adorn expressively an already ideally lucid Textverständlichkeit.
This last seems somewhat to elude Petra Lang’s otherwise impressive impersonation of Ortrud, a widely respected artist in her own right, who presented this black-swan pagan with full reserves of declamatory power in “Entweihte Götter! Helft jetzt meiner Rache!” of act 2 or towards the end of act 3, yet without lyrical deficit in much else of this dominant character’s singing. The voice is healthy, warm and full, without any hints of forcing or breaching among its registers, enabling her to articulate every single note clearly and voluptuously, whatsoever exposed. If she is destined to inherit Isolde from Evelyn Herlitzius next year, as it is already widely rumoured, then this is likely to be as much of an attraction as Vogt’s already announced Bayreuth debut in Parsifal.
In such a company of excellence one runs the risk to be unjust towards the solid, well characterized and easily rising above the stave Elsa of Annette Dasch, less so though to the dramatically acted albeit provincially sung Telramund of Jukka Rasilainen, the somewhat lacking in vocal weight bass Wilhelm Schwinghammer as King Heinrich der Vogler or the merely satisfactory Herald of Samuel Youn. Full marks though to the constantly superb chorus and orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival urgently conducted by Green Hill debutant Alain Altinoglu who opted for vivid tempi without draining the music of its heart warming, affluent lyricism. Despite the fact that this 40 years old French conductor of Armenian
descent has no further Bayreuth offers yet, his evident share of standing ovations from the public is likely to ensure him further assignments in the not too distant future.
 Music and Lyric Theatre critic Kyriakos Loukakos is considered to be a leading vocal connoisseur in Greece. He is an attorney at law and a Dr. Juris of the Cologne University. In 1991 he joined the Greek Ministry of Home Affairs as a member of its Strategic Policy Unit and, as of 1998, he is a senior investigator at the Quality of Life Department of the Greek Ombudsman’s Office. But music has been his lifelong passion, leading to the formation of his own extensive archive of records and privately recorded performances on several kinds of sound carriers. Therefore, from 1994 to 2010 he has commented and presented almost every opera feature for Greek Radio 3, including innumerable EBU direct relays and deferred transmissions, as well as contributing an extensive series of vocal artists’ and conductors’ portrayals. In 1997, commemorating the 20th anniversary of her passing, he presented a 28- hour step-by-step biographical radio homage to Maria Callas and the total output of her recorded roles, for the first time as a whole in radio chronicles. He also reported for the ERT WORLD TV cultural program “9+1 Muses”. Since 1997 he is the music critic of the Sunday edition of the Athens daily journal “I AVGI”. He has provided texts for practically every major musical institution of his country (Athens Megaron Concert Hall, Athens Festival, Thessalonica Megaron Concert Hall, Greek Parliament Foundation, Athenaeum International Cultural Center, European Cultural Centre of Delphi, etc.) as well as serious cultural magazines (Peritechno, Odos Panos, To dendro, Classical Music, as well as and for the bimonthly periodical ILIAIA). He further supervised a CD-set edition of 7 complete operas in rare archival recordings featuring distinguished soprano Vasso Papantoniou. In 2011 he managed extensive bilingual texts and overall supervision to a lavish 4-cd set, issued by “The Friends of Music Society” of the Athens Megaron Concert Hall and devoted to hitherto unpublished recordings from the archive of the late (mezzo) soprano Arda Mandikian, a close collaborator of Benjamin Britten and Sir Peter Pears and the Dido in both the first ever complete performance of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, in Oxford (1950), and the subsequent first complete recording of its second part, Les Troyens a Carthage, under the baton of Hermann Scherchen. The set was favorably reviewed by such prestigious international periodicals as International Record Review, Opera magazine, The Record Collector and Classical Recordings Quarterly and was accorded the 2012 “Gina Bachauer International Foundation” Record Prize. Since 2011 Dr. Loukakos has further reported regularly, in Greek and in English, for the e-magazine for drama, dance and music critique www.critics-point.gr, an activity he now refreshes through his new e-magazine address www.criticscorner.gr .
As of January 2018 he is Honorary President of the Greek Drama and Music Critics Association, a Union established in 1928 and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics, operating under the auspices of UNESCO, whose Executive Committee he duly presided for 4 consecutive terms (2005 – 2018). Since 2013 he is Secretary General of the “Maria Callas Scholarships Society” and, in 2015, he enrolled as a Member of the “Citizens Movement for an Open Society” and of the “Athens Conservatory” Society.
 All photos by courtesy of the Bayreuth Festival press office.