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.
The concluding instalment of Kasper Holten’s Copenhagen Ring really does wrap it up as Brünnhilde’s story. It’s very effective in so doing too. Holten states that the central problem in interpreting the Ring is the ending and he points out that Wagner struggled with it for years before resorting to what Holten sees as a cop out; the tired, patriarchal device of wrapping things up by having the heroine sacrifice herself for her man. Holten rejects this and instead offers us a living Brünnhilde as a symbol of hope and renewal at the end of a century of terrible strife. I wish I were as optimistic.
So, onto Siegfried. Now we are in 1968 but it’s a rather laid back Danish 1968. It doesn’t reference any of the canonical events of that momentous year though there is a bit of a youth vs experience vibe. Holten doesn’t let us forget that Siegfried is 18 and Stig Anderson, at 60, manages to pull off the look very well. James Johnson’s Wotan, on the other hand, is shown in decline; the elder statesman who can’t retire gracefully, like a Berlusconi or Murdoch. Mime is an ageing nobody hunched over his typewriter and still yearning for some “success”.
The Copenhagen Ring has been dubbed the feminist Ring with good reason and we’ll come back to that in looking at the relationship between Wotan and Brünnhilde. It might also be called the drinkers’ Ring. There’s an astonishing amount of boozing going on. It was there in Rheingold with Loge’s hangover and Alberich staggering drunkenly after the Rhinemaidens. It’s back in Die Walküre. Hunding and Siegmund knock off the best part of a bottle of Bushmill’s Malt (Add a few cigars and this scene would be perfect for Stuart Skelton and Iain Paterson), Wotan has a flask in his pocket and the Walkyries; Ride is like a sorority party. Actually it reminds me a lot of Denmark so maybe it just seemed natural.
When I first encountered Richard Strauss’ Elektra as a teenager I found the music almost unbearably harsh. The more I listen to it the more erroneous that judgement seems. It has its “tough” moments to be sure. How could an opera about Elektra not? But it is also full of lush romanticism and there are some really quite lovely passages. In the 2010 Salzburg Festival recording Daniele Gatti explores both sides of the music in a rather thrilling reading of the score aided and abetted by the Wiener Philharmoniker and a pretty much ideal cast.