Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bernard Haitink's Tristan and Isolde at the Zürich Opera House

Zürich Opera House Last Sunday Evening
I arrived back in Zürich last Sunday after a week in Birmingham just in time to see Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde at the Zürich Opera House, conducted by the great Barnard Haitink.

I was amazed by Claus Guth’s  staging.  Act One, for instance, is supposed to take place aboard a ship on which Tristan (Stig Anderson) is bringing Isolde (Barbera Schneider-Hofstetter) from Ireland to Cornwall, where she will marry King Marke (at least that’s the plan – love gets in the way, naturally).  But instead of a ship, the opera opens in what is clearly a large bedroom in a great neo-classical villa. At one point the action moves to a terrace filled with plants, definitely not a ship.  It was only during the second act, when the neo-classical interior architecture continued, that the penny dropped.  Actually, I can’t take the credit – it was Esther who leaned over and whispered into my ear, “It’s supposed to be the Villa Wesendonck”.  Of course – why didn’t I think of that?  So the staging represented, not so much the love story between Tristan and Isolde, but that of Wagner himself and his muse, Mathilde Wesendonck. The location had been moved from a ship to the place where Wagner had written the opera,  the mansion of his lover and muse, right here in Zürich, the Villa Wesendonck (today’s Rietberg Museum).  This was a stroke of genius.

The birthplace of Tristan and Isolde: Villa Wesendonck

Another intriguing aspect of this staging was the role of  Brangaene (played by Michelle Breedt), Isolde’s maidservant. The two were visual doubles of each other, wearing the same costumes and the same hairstyles and, uncannily, even sounding a little like each other. It seems that Brangaene was meant to represent Isolde’s conscience, or more precisely, her rational self.  Thank goodness for the drama of opera; Isolde ignored her reasonable advice, and threw herself into illegitimate love instead.

Looking old and frail, conductor Bernard Haitink invested the entire evening with terror and sadness, euphoria and contemplation through his convincing performance.  The orchestra was outstanding, though perhaps too loud here and there as the singers were drowned out.

Isolde discovers near dead Tristan in the Villa Wesendonck

This was an original interpretation of one of the world’s greatest ever operas and again I was struck by the Buddhist metaphysics that form the core of the entire enterprise.  If you want to know more about the Buddhist aspect of this work, or wish to read about the personal background to the work’s creation, read my earlier posting Wagner and Buddha: Tristan and Isolde and if you want to take a tour of Wagner's see check out my A Stroll Through Wagner's Zurich.

The Very Clever Esther


  1. Thanks for explaining what the producer was trying to say! I had no idea that it was meant to be the Wesendonck Villa, but I think it was a stroke of stupidity rather than genius! The opera doesn't make sense if it isn't set on board ship. You were lucky to have Anderson singing Tristan; when I went, it was Seiffert, who lost his voice and croaked his way through the last act! Haitink manages to get a wonderfully golden sound from the orchestra - he was the real genius!
    Can the very clever Esther explain what on earth the producer of Die Zauberflote was trying to say? And why he/she couldn't just let the opera speak for itself?
    Anyway, thanks for the blog. I've been in Zurich for a month visiting ETH and have really enjoyed it!

  2. Great review. You might want to read this review of the same production:

  3. Too bad about Seiffert. I heard he was very ill and failed to live up to expectations, so yes, we were lucky he was replaced. IPerhaps I enjoyed the production because as a resident of Zurich who takes an interest in Wagner and as a frequent visitor to the Villa Wesendonck I enjoyed how the opera became about the creation of the opera rather than the opera itself, making it seem like it was Wagner singing to Mathilde rather than Tristan singing to Isolde. But I can see why it might not work for some people. There was a part when Tristan sings from his bed, but there is no bed in sight - so it didn't always quite fit. I'm afraid the very clever Esther didn't see this production of Die Zauberflote, so I can't comment on that. But I'm really glad to hear that you enjoyed your time at the ETH and in Zurich. Thanks a million for your comment.

  4. Thanks for the compliment and the link. In fact the link provides a much more substantial review than mine.

  5. There is a magic about opera houses that seems to be present, regardless of the location or size of the building - the lush gold, the crimson velvet, the stunning lighting, the excitement of private boxes, the imposing orchestra pit etc. I liked your Zurich opera house photos very much, so created a link to a guest post written by The Unlikely Entrepreneur.

  6. Thanks for putting up the link Hels.

  7. So, I will now stop procrastinating and view the DVD we bought of Tristan and Isolde several years ago! I had no idea of a connection between Wagner's ideas and Buddhism - now I am intrigued.