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 performances are OK but not stellar. Robert Dean Smith is a pretty decent Tristan but the production doesn’t encourage passion and he doesn’t give much. Iréne Theorin is also decent though a bit challenged and thin in her upper register, though she manages a rather good Liebestod. Michelle Breedt is a stiff and not especially rich toned Brangäne and Robert Holl’s Marke is pretty anonymous. Jukka Rasilainen gives a very sympathetic Kurwenal, somewhat at odds with the production aesthetic and not especially beautiful but always engaging. The orchestra sounds good and Peter Schneider seems to have a good grip on the piece without being as illuminating as a Barenboim.
Technically, this is a fine modern DVD recording. It’s generously spread across three disks (there’s also a 2 disk Blu-ray version) and the picture is as good as DVD gets. The sound is clear and doesn’t muddy up. There’s a synopsis and about half an hout of “making of” footage on the first disk too. There are English, French, German and Spanis sub-titles. The booklet contains a detailed chapter listing and a short essay.
Overall, this is worth a look but I don’t think it would be first choice for anyone in the crowded field of recordings of this work.