Christoph Marthaler’s 2009 Bayreuth production of Tristan und Isolde is set in a sort of Stalinist brutalist aesthetic populated with stock figures from the 1950s. Passion is at a minimum and the characters all seem to be trying as hard as possible to be conventional representatives of their roles. The only one who shows any real human engagement is Kurwenal who comes across almost as a commentator on the action, or even a director. There’s also some fairly stylized gesturing in a sort of pseudo-Sellars manner. It’s epitomised by the costumes in Act 2 where Isolde and Brangäne look like dolls dressed as Hausfraus and Tristan wears a hideous blue blazer. This is all rather reinforced by Michael Beyer’s video direction which uses a lot of close ups but also has a curious stillness about it that seems to amplify the emotional void; if indeed one can amplify a void. Oddly though, in places this approach really works in that the distance, coupled with very precise blocking, gives space for the music’s essential intensity to come through. Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the emotional crux of the piece, is very moving and the So stürben wir, um ungetrennt is quite impressive.
I guess Lohengrin is one of those operas that’s so loaded up with symbols it just begs directors to deconstruct it. Well that’s what Hans Neuenfels’ Bayreuth production, recorded in 2011, does and then some. There is so much going on in this production that I think it would take many viewings to really get inside it. The bit most critics have fastened on is the costuming of the chorus as rats or, on occasion, half rat, half human. It’s visually interesting and since there are also ‘handlers’ in Hazmat suits it’s clear that some sort of experiment is being alluded to. Add in bonus rat videos at key points and there’s a lot to think about. One thing this does do is solve the Teutonic war song problem. A chorus of rather timid looking rats singing with martial ardour is a good deal less Nurembergesque than a similar chorus in armour or military uniforms. Rats aside the story is really told in a quite straightforward and linear way while providing all sorts of moments that one might want to interrogate further,