On Götz Friedrich’s new Tristan and Isolde

Posted on 25th June 2019 Under Writing

On Götz Friedrich’s new Tristan and Isolde – Deutsches Oper Berlin

Johan Engels in Scenaria magazine, 1980

Act One: Just before arriving at Cornwall

This new production of Götz Friedrich of Tristan and Isolde is being awaited with tremendous excitement, not only because Friedrich is today considered one of the interpreters of Wagner, but also because he is to become the new Intendant of the Deutsches Oper from 1981. Götz Friedrich explains Tristan and Isolde as an “extreme climax in human relationships, on the terribly fine edge between life and death; where one can just as easily plunge into life as into death; accompanied by music that is so sad, so painful that it no longer hurts …” It is often questioned how performable this opera actually is and whether it should not only be performed musically. Friedrich, however, immediately points out Wagner’s inscription: “Tristan und Isolde, eine Handling in Drei Arten,” (AUFZÜGEN) despite the fact that it probably has the most static plot. The action (Handling) referred to here is more inwardly directed: the “action”, for instance, of sorrow and love’s ecstasy. Friedrich’s new Tristan relies heavily on the concept of light and dark, day and night, stark reality opposed to the “Utopian Dream.” Night and darkness blots out the harshness of reality, plays host to the “gloriously sublime.” In Act Three Tristan refers to:

          Daylight falsely bright and golden

          Its eye wakes my brain

          To fraud and delusion…

opposed to:

          The holy night

          Where forever

          Solely true

          Love and rapture awaits.

The sets for the new production have been designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemsen and the costumes by Inge Justin. Friedrich works very closely with his designers. The ideal result of the collaboration he says, would be a complete blend of their ideas, so that neither could remember whose idea was which. The designer is the visual Dramaturg; and the starting point for their search for the production concept is the simple question, where and when is the piece taking place?

The problem arose whether to realise on stage, the “Utopian dream-world” which was created in the minds of Tristan and Isolde, or whether to approach it more concretely, and from which level the lovers would then be transported into another plane. The latter approach was taken and as a result in production, Friedrich succeeds in making the contrast between dream and reality so much more acute.

Act One is a simple multi-leveled ship deck, surrounded by ropes that tie up to a non-existent mast, against a dark and turbulent sky, beautifully created by means of projectors.

The entire prelude is played with the curtains open, with Isolde, Brangäne and Tristan, dimly lit, already onstage. There is no traditional sail or curtain that separates Isolde’s domain from the rest of the ship. Friedrich’s genius uses this to tremendous effect, by making Isolde’s accusations against Tristan clearly audible to Kurnewal and the rest of the sailors. It is here, amidst this gloom, that Isolde and Tristan, through Brangäne’s “love potion”, discover their ecstasy in love.

Friedrich’s “love potion”, however (comparable in Götterdämmerung to Siegfried’s drink offered to him by Waltraute), could be merely a bowl of water. The effect it has on the potential lovers is one which is created according to what effect they want it to have – in this case a love potion.

At the end of the act their ecstasy is harshly interrupted by the light of daybreak and their arrival at Cornwall.

Catarina Ligendza and Ruth Hesse

Act Two is set on a grassy plateau, with the castle battlements on one side and an enclosing thorn bush on the other – even further imprisonment for Isolde in this foreign country.

During the love duet clouds, mist and stars slowly descend upon the lovers, until they are totally enveloped in their dream-world of love, totally isolated and removed from harsh reality. This is magically created by layers of black gauzes and delicate back and front projections, leaving an impression of the lovers being suspended in mid-air!

When King Mark and his hunters arrive unexpectedly, Friedrich jolts us back to reality by making use of his polizeischeinwerfen (police spotlight) technique in which the battlements turn into harsh, glaring spotlights. In this cold light Tristan crumples, totally exposed to reality and King Mark’s anger.

In Act Three we find Tristan mortally wounded, lying on a huge solid rock against a lit sky; a brilliant sun tormenting and burning down on him.

As Isolde’s ship approaches, darkness once again descends and eventually, surrounded by the bodies of the slain men, Isolde sings her Liebestod alone, with Tristan high on the rock – eventual fulfilment of love’s ecstasy. And as Friedrich explains, “only love has the power to overcome this delicate line between Life and Death…”

Daniel Barenboim, Barry McDaniel, Spas Wenkoff, Götz Friedrich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Catarina Ligendza