A Tale of Two Versions of Tristan und Isolde: Summer 2021 Aix en Provence and Munich productions

Review by Pierre Couture

As soon as the French and German borders reopened for us Canadians at the
end of June – having already rushed to get fully vaccinated – I made plans
right away to secure tickets for the Aix en Provence and Munich new
landmark productions of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Already
charmed by his La Traviata production at the Opéra de Paris and particularly
by Die Tote Stadt in Munich in 2019, I had succumbed to the “Art Naïf” style
of super realistic stagings of Simon Stone.

Aix en Provence has long been known for its experimental productions – you
may remember the 2019 unusual production of Tosca where Christophe
Honoré explored the myth of the prima donna in juxtaposing Catherine
Malfitano, Angel Blue and even Maria Callas with some psychological
nuances and some definitely inspired moments!

This time, a daring contemporary debut staging of this Wagnerian opera,
considered by some as the perfect work par excellence and the peak of
German musical romanticism, attempted to conceive a sublime fresco of
impossible love.

The new production, a coproduction with Les Théâtres de la ville de
Luxembourg, had the extra advantage of including some of the most
experienced and prominent Wagnerian voices of our era, powerfully
supported by the excellent London Symphony which was performing the
complete work for the very first time, and its highly musical leader Simon

There were moments when the endless smouldering melodies were so
passionately immersive, with Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton as perfect
exponents of that uncontrollable love-as-passion display. They made you
forget temporarily some of the unusual staging additions.

Three weeks later, celebrating the Nikolaus Bachler and Kirill Petrenko era at
the Bavarian State Opera culminating in a grand apotheosis, this other
“enfant terrible” of the Regietheater inspired tradition, Krzysztof
Warlikowski, produced a deeply sensitive, intelligent and penetrating staging
at precisely the same National Theatre where this incomparable work was
premiered in June 1965.

The attraction to the new production was initially focused on the breathtaking
joint roles of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, accomplice Wagnerian
partners in a very successful Lohengrin at the Bavarian State Opera and
several Italian operas, but not known as “helden voices” suited to the
demands of Tristan und Isolde.

The combination of a more introvert and subtle setting where Warlikowski
was more focused on discovering the psychology of characters and the
almost legendary supporting skills of Kirill Petrenko, a gifted Maestro for
musical theatre, allowed the Kaufmann-Harteros duo to evolve into a more
lyrical reading of the score.

Warlikowski has reproduced almost identically the interior of a famous
Parisian art gallery, owned by Paul Rosenberg, an intimate of Picasso,
Matisse, and Léger. It was requisitioned by the Vichy regime in 1941. The
woodwork setting of this decor – which constitutes the unique setting for the
action in the new production – bears the memory of revolutionary art forms
and is haunted by odious memories of mythical wars between the kingdom of
Ireland and Cornwall.

By choosing this setting marked by war and fate – and, in his own words,
reminiscent of the lobby of the Titanic, Warlikowski wanted to emphasize the
pre-history of Tristan and Isolde. A couple that belonged to a traumatized
generation, readily encountered in wars of the last century or our own time. A
man is seriously wounded in combat, he is in a coma and dying. A woman
finds him and heals him. She brings him back to life, and thanks to her, he is
virtually resurrected.

Warlikowski lays bare the psyche of Tristan and Isolde, and searches for
motives. What drives two people to suicide ? Is it the love that cannot be
completely lived out ? Or indeed a trauma from the past? Lots of things
influencing the story happened in the past. It is hard to imagine that a potion
might make lovers out of haters, and the emotions are therefore intensified.
Death hovers over Tristan and Isolde from the very beginning, often equated
with love. Death can be a purifying factor and is not the end but the
continuation of something. Tristan comes out of death, contaminated and
carrying the shadow of death. The videos depict a fantasized room with the
bed on which the recumbent bodies of Tristan and Isolde will live,
immortalized, but not touchable.

Back to Aix en Provence, where the Australian-born and Swiss educated
director Simon Stone, one of the new darlings of lyrical scenes, is certainly
preoccupied in bringing an extra level of contemporaneity to the relevance of
myth in this Wagner opera and digs deeper into the main protagonists’
psyche. In this production, Tristan has been married to Isolde and was caught
cheating on her. The separation is now inevitable and Tristan gains custody of
their son Melot. No longer his best friend and soon to be his whistleblower,
the grown up son will symbolically kill his father and take his mother’s side,
leaving with her at the end of the opera. King Marke is a sort of manager in a
design start-up where Isolde acts as a supervisor with the punkish Brangäne
as her assistant, the enormously gifted Jamie Barton whom I truly admired as
a potential Wagner singer.

There is a social gathering taking place most likely in Isolde’s penthouse
apartment during the opening, a sort of Christmas-type gift exchange that
takes place in something that looks like the luxury suite of an ocean liner. All
the characters are present and the scenario is just unfolding as the actors are
assembled to celebrate the forthcoming drama. As the “performers” retreat
and the action starts unfolding, the waves of the stormy sea are slowly rising.
It all unfolds as a play within the opera.

Simon Stone has chosen a reinterpretation where he attempts to enter the
myth of Tristan and Isolde through a story of ordinary banality and where a
woman revisits her relationship with a fickle husband. The focus of the
staging is clearly on Isolde’s plight, seen at times through distorting glasses.

In Act II, a series of young “Tristan and Isolde” look-alike potential couples –
dressed almost identically – slowly enter the large factory set, possibly an
architect’s office, each in their own isolated world and totally oblivious to
their surroundings where the physical space and time are intertwined in their
eternity. It is a sort of attempt from the director to demystify the myth of a
distant and impossible love – as so often some people can fall in love with a
dream. He attempts to connect Tristan and Isolde’s love with the experience
of happier relationships enjoyed by these couples. There is even a lady
pushing the wheelchair of her older lover who requires oxygen. Considering
that this production is presented in France, a country where young lovers are
never afraid to exhibit their sensual feelings in public, it is telling to witness
so much love displayed during one of the most sensuous duets ever

As King Marke is fully exposed to the fait accompli betrayal of his
“surrogate son” Tristan, this last one’s own son stabs his father in a sort of
unresolved Oedipus Complex. A detail that ties us up to the Munich Tristan
lying on a couch, in a very Freudian manner, and confessing to Kurwenal.

At this precise moment, we witness the very poignant scene of the mother Isolde grabbing the knife used by Melot and attempting to kill herself in a gesture revealing her complex and impossible hope of living after Tristan’s death. Despite her committed love, she remains a wounded lover, still bruised with the underlying feeling of contempt, and subconsciously blinded by self-destruction. The poison is acting upon the body and unleashing pain in pursuing this traumatized love. She often comes across as the frustrated woman burdened by an uncontrollable fate.

Now in Act III, we are transported to a Paris métro car where the young
family, fully dressed up and confronting an argument, is once again suffering
the rage of the young son Melot who stabs his father Tristan once again, and
storms out of the métro car with his mother.

It is a very sterile and impersonal environment, of the never-ending journey
of Tristan’s monologue…and the métro line #11.

Rejoining the train later, she sings her glorious Liebestod as a cry of
liberation and a longing for a better life after death. Once finished, she
proceeds to hand back her wedding ring to a devastated and speechless
Tristan. After all, as the opera suggests, she has just sung the death of love ! It
can be interpreted as a sign that her earthly life has just ended and their better
lives together in eternity might just soon start.

At the Châtelet station, everyone except Tristan exits, and the train continues
on an unending journey. Which sets me very much at the same point in
Munich where Warlikowski placed the lovers, physically not touching each
other, on a comfortable bed hinting at a possibly easier life after death

The enormous personal satisfaction of being able to sit tightly once again in a
fully attended theatre, albeit with medical masks, was totally uplifting. It
made me aware of how an amazing theatrical experience is only possible
when shared with a community of art lovers. Living a truly convincing
musical experience led by Sir Simon and the talented young players of the
London Symphony playing this full score for the first time, we witnessed a
music-drama providing transparency and modernity from the very first bars.

Very reminiscent of some strong Wagnerian singers from the past, Nina
Stemme and Stuart Skelton are certainly not “belcantists” focused on special
attention to the vocal lyrical line. They both have performed the roles
together, notably at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017, and they will sing in the
revival of the Warlikowski production next summer in Munich.

The complex psychic forces affecting the fundamental human instincts are so
charismatically displayed by the vocal authority of German bass Franz-Josef
Selig – the only German born member of the cast (the excellent Josef Wagner
is an Austrian bass-baritone).

Simon Stone, without always concentrating on the theme of love-death,
certainly explores different possibilities of the love story between Tristan and
Isolde. He is a very imaginative advocate of today’s reality on the stage, and
certainly very extrovert in his staging. As we have observed, Simon Stone
applies a drastic detoxification cure to the works he stages and aims at
making the psychological and philosophical content accessible to a modern

In Munich, Warlikowski demonstrated a better osmosis between the musical
and scenic aspects in staging a far more introverted production with a
remarkable sobriety put at the service of the Wagnerian libretto. He manages
to capture precisely the paradox of loneliness and love, and the suicidal ideal
inherent in this opera is always hinged on death. Circumstances that prevent
the full consummation of earthly love are certainly affecting Tristan’s psyche
more so than Isolde’s. Death becomes stronger than love and particularly in
Act III where, in between life and death, Tristan definitely becomes more

Warlikowski, in his usual quest to uncover some deeply hidden enigmas from
the past, believes that Tristan’s condition originates from his early youth.
Becoming an orphan at a very young age, his formative years were certainly
marked by life at the orphanage with the sad looking little boarders with
shaved heads. They would have welcomed the young Tristan after the
disappearance of his parents.

Following his traumatized childhood, the complex “filial” relationship
developed with King Marke and the deep remorse felt because of his love for
Isolde, Tristan ends up stretched out on the therapist’s couch – an exact copy
of the green Victorian divan given to Freud by one of his patients, and now in
the Freud Museum in London. Under the watchful eyes of Kurwenal, the
commendable Wolfgang Koch (a long time favorite bass-baritone of Kirill
Petrenko), Tristan and his double, along with several young humanoid
orphans in school uniforms, switch places several times. While, at an
opposing corner of the stage, Isolde’s double is seen looking on with dismay
at the unfolding of this act.

Okka von der Damerau’s Brangäne was very impressive dramatically and
vocally, displaying a natural complicity in the conception of the relationship
with Anja Harteros. It is not surprising to learn that she is scheduled to sing
the Walküre’s Brünnhilde next April in Stuttgart. And I would not want to
omit the introduction of the wonderful Finnish Bass Mika Kares as a splendid
King Marke – he also sang a very strong Padre Guardiano in Forza del
Destino in Munich in September.

I totally admired Jonas Kaufmann’s splendid mastering of the beauty of tone
while displaying a great finesse in expressing feelings, and some impressive
power capable of following the orchestra with the intelligence of an
experienced singer. Very much like Anja Harteros who projected an
admirable voice, with a full range of emotions and appropriate intonation.
They both added a new personality to their characters, producing an
exceptional inner richness focused on the consummate art of singing. As
much as I cherished their performances in their role debut, I believe that they
are not natural « helden voices » capable of sustaining the power required to
cope with these extreme Wagnerian roles, and I sincerely wish that they do
not add these roles to their standard repertory.

From his first conducting of Tristan und Isolde at the Opéra de Lyon some
ten years ago to this last appearance in Munich as musical director,
Kirill Petrenko has shaped harmonious relationships with leading singers and
musicians with immense mutual respect, and an in-depth knowledge of
Wagner’s works. With his precision and legendary transparency, sometimes
by suspending the music for an instant with a charismatic silence, his
outbursts and crescendos, he generated a supreme symphonic poem so well
suited to the “bel canto “ Wagner artistry of his singers.

On a personal note, I attended the very last performance of the festival on the
31st July 2021 – one of the hardest-ever tickets to get and the most expensive
ticket secured anywhere – and was pleased to see Nina Stemme attending and
applauding the performance. She will be the new Isolde in the production
revival next summer in Munich, along with her Aix en Provence
Tristan Stuart Skelton.