There was a lot of at stake with this year Munich Opera Festival, the annual opera festival held by Germany’s largest opera company, Bayerische Staatsoper. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, they spent pretty much the first half of 2021 in the dark, only reopened roughly two months ago with the concert version of Act I of Die Walküre with Jonas Kaufmann, Lise Davidsen and Georg Zeppenfeld.

Even up till last month, they were still tinkering with the scheduling of the Festival, canceling both of Turandot and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and shifted around Macbeth and Rusalka to later dates. Luckily, as the number of cases dropping in Germany, Bayerische Staatsoper managed to keep the Festival moving; they were even able to add additional tickets for sale as their capacity increased on June 25.

The crown jewel of this year Festival was undoubtedly Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which opened the Festival on June 29 and will close the Festival with the “Opera for All” screening on July 31. Tristan und Isolde bore a number of significances; it was one of the last premieres (with Idomeneo) under Nikolaus Bachler’s directorship (he is moving to run Salzburg Easter Festival) and the last new production for Kirill Petrenko as General Music Director (soon to be Berlin Philharmonic’s chief).

On top of that, Tristan also marked the role debuts for Bayerische Staatsoper’s “dream pair” Kaufmann and Anja Harteros correspondingly. Therefore, it was no wonder that tickets were completely sold out when it was announced (even during pandemic), and there were reports that thousands of people lined up online when additional tickets available above. Miraculously, I happened to find a single seat for the fourth performance (July 13) and hence made my first cross-Atlantic trip since the pandemic.

The Bachler era of Bayerische Staatsoper can be described as “golden.” Joshua Barone in his New York Times article examined the impact of Bachler made since his took over direction in 2008, essentially transforming it into “the world’s opera capital for artists and audiences alike”. His hiring of Petrenko as General Music Director at the start of 2013/14 season contributed tremendously to this success.

The choice of mounting Tristan und Isolde was also no brainer, for both Bachler and Petrenko. The choice of reuniting Kaufmann and Harteros for this production had historical background too. “Thirteen years ago, Bachler scheduled Wagner’s Lohengrin with Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann as the first festival premiere for his artistic director. For him it is therefore logical that the two will now also sing the title roles in his last festival premiere in Munich National Theatre.”

The two of them had also been responsible for the most successful productions in Bayerische Staatsoper in the last couple of years as well. In addition, merely three years ago Kaufmann himself had toured the full Act 2 (as reported by my colleague Christopher Corwin, and had Covid not interfered, he would have done the same with Act 3 last year.

Kaufmann had been acting as the unofficial spokesperson for this production, as he gave numerous interviews and so many articles had been written about it. I had been studying most of them as they gave a lot of insights about how he approached Tristan. In this very enlightening interview, he characterized Tristan thus:

You can always hide behind the score, but if that happens right at the beginning of the third act, it’ll be tight. These outbursts are never-ending. It is possible that you lose your energy and, even more so, that you lose your concentration. Because you spit out so much in a row that you suddenly digress and get thrown out of the curve. … This is problematic for the voice because you don’t place the notes quite as you thought about beforehand. But you don’t have time to develop something then. It has to be spat out like a computer.

And in this article from Associated Press, Kaufmann mentioned that he was most impressed with Ludwig Suthaus in 1952 Wilhelm Furtwängler recording, and that they would “do the full score, no cuts” for these performances. Interestingly, he also compared singing Tristan with Verdi’s Otello: “Since opera singing is a high-performance sport, one may say that Tristan is a marathon whereas Otello is a row of sprints.”

In terms of Covid prevention, Bayerische Staatsoper definitely didn’t skimp on safety precautions. Even after the June 25 loosen restriction, they were still implementing chessboard seating pattern, where there was no seat together allowed, essentially halving the 2,101 capacity of the National Theater. Furthermore, they dutifully checked for vaccination cards and/or negative test results prior to entry, and even set up theatre test center at Marstallplatz for those who came empty-handed. FFP2 masks were mandated throughout the performance and upon entry, and I was happy to report that everyone in the audience complied with that requirement.

For Bayerische Staatsoper, the birthplace of Tristan und Isolde on June 10, 1865, this production marked the tenth new production of the opera since that fateful day, merely 23 years after Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem graced Peter Konwitschny’s staging under the direction of Zubin Mehta.

This time, the staging was entrusted to Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski, who previously presented Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die Gezeichneten and Salome at Bayerische Staatsoper. On a more personal note, before the opera began, I was prepared to distrust and dislike his take of one of my most favorite operas, particularly since he”>pointed out that people like me were “not a real audience” for him. However, once the music started, I was bowled over as I found out that his reading was a highly intellectualized, sensitive one that was, surprisingly, quite faithful to the score.

In the video below, Warlikowski detailed his approach on tackling Tristan und Isolde. No doubt that his directions were limited by the restrictions imposed by Covid, particularly evident in the use of very static wood-panel set (designed by his wife and longtime collaborator Malgorzata Szczesniak) for all three acts, the sparing use of props throughout, and the relegation of the chorus to off stage.

However, even within those limitations, Warlikowski managed to assemble a coherent reading by digging deep into the past, to the events prior to the actions of the opera. Tristan met Isolde during the war between Ireland and Cornwall, where he killed Isolde’s fiancé and got mortally injured, but being brought back to health by Isolde.

Tristan in his interpretation was never fully recovered from that, and stayed a broken man who longed for Death, resulting the whole opera was seen through the glasses of “Tod” rather than “Liebe”, almost the complete opposite of Konwitschny’s idea. It was very telling that the two most prominent props were the glass cabinet holding the elements of war artifacts (including the deadly potion) on stage right, and Sigmund Freud’s divan lookalike on the other side. Even the set, which as he mentioned in the video above was inspired by 1920s space exhibition in Paris, exemplified the concept further, as Warlikowski likened it to “the lobby of the Titanic”!

It was a sensible interpretation, in my honest opinion, and largely supported by the libretto. However, I could easily see that many would have problems with it, especially since it rendered Tristan much more like an anti-hero than usual. In one scene in Act 1, he was even being seen dressing up Isolde and putting on her necklace! It was no wonder that Kaufmann, in this interview seemed to admit that he had different idea of the personification of Tristan and struggled a bit with the concept, quoted below.

It’s a puzzle made up of different parts, which he keeps as secret as possible until the end and which, shortly before the end, he puts together into something that the audience will hopefully recognize as the new one, but which, I am afraid, they hope the singer does not understand.

However, with the grim, almost morbid, approach, Warlikowski didn’t necessarily forget the “Liebe” aspect of the story … it manifested differently, with the inclusion of puppet-like couple right from the start of the famous Prelude. In what seemed to be a reversal of current trend to include puppets on stage, two dancers with masks acted like a pair of puppets, personifying a pure real love between “man” and “woman” – between Tristan and Isolde – tenderly caring and supporting each other during the course of the Prelude.

Color was significant here; the “man” wore blue jacket (that would have carryover in the Act 3) and the “woman” in yellow jacket (the same color as Isolde’s dress in Act 1). Unfortunately, this innocence lost with the harshness of war in Act 1 (where pretty much all of Tristan’s entourage developing some sort of PTSD) , and in the last act, the “man” became a pigment of Tristan’s childhood-recalling delirium and the “woman” could only watch the whole proceeding from afar.

With all those guiding principles, in my opinion Warlikowski successfully gelled all the elements, including the aforementioned claustrophobic set and aided by Kamil Polak’s excellent “what-ifs” videos, to represent a coherent and cohesive interpretation. The only part that unfortunately didn’t really work for me was the inclusion of dining table full of (real, this time) puppets to represent Tristan’s childhood during Tristan’s long agonizing monologue in the beginning of Act 3.

That static scene, plus the fact that Kaufmann and the “man” with blue jacket traded place twice on that Freud’s divan, gave no additional insights into the proceeding, and to be honest, it felt rather distracting and downward cruel to Kaufmann, who had to add a lot more physicality to the already torturous score. There were times I thought that it could all be simplified with the use of the video; luckily Kaufmann was fully committed to perform all those! Felice Ross’s excellent lighting completed the vision, varying from tropical colors to bright illuminations of the characters.

As engaging as Warlikowski’s staging, it was the musical aspect that truly lifted the performance into a whole different level. Personally to me, the night belonged to Petrenko completely, who masterfully coaxed the orchestra into a reading that was full of strength and beauty. Having conducted the work for Opera de Lyon ten years ago, this wasn’t Petrenko’s first rodeo.

However, working closely with the orchestra that he had shaped for the last eight years and with the singers that he had mutual respect with yielded a feeling that this was the pinnacle of his career, making him larger than life (without himself acting that way). He shaped the orchestra to do exactly what he wanted, and his now-famous penchant for precision and meticulousness, not to mention his knack for maintaining tension (especially important for this work), had unlocked a new appreciation from my part to Wagner’s extraordinary score, as he revealed passages that I never heard before.

The famous Prelude was launched mysteriously, and I loved the way he stretched and suspended the so-called “Tristan chords” without being slacking, as if he played the melody like a rubber band. While he shaped each phase carefully, he never missed the forest for the trees, resulting the Prelude moved with such an urgency, a taste of what the next five hours would look like.

One of the greatest assets of this performance was the camaraderie among all the singers; they weren’t merely just being put together for this, but they had been long time colleagues and they respected each other (very evident during the bows at the end). Wolfgang Koch (Kuwernal), for example, was also a cast member of the Kaufmann/Harteros Lohengrin in 2009. In the trailer above you can see how Okka von der Damerau (Brangäne) discusses the “sisterly” approach she found with Harteros in the video above.

This level of trust really translated into the stage and it was evident to the audience. Kaufmann (in the AP interview above) described it best when he asked about working with Harteros as Isolde, “Yes, there is a special chemistry between us. Singing with her, I’ve always got the feeling that this is how it can be if you inspire one another and keep raising your level.”

As I mentioned above, Act 1 gave a harsh reflection of the consequences of war. I was taken aback initially with the level of silliness and rowdiness demonstrated here, particularly with Manuel Günther singing “Westwärts schweift der Blick” while having his eyes bandaged and wearing paper crown and a sword. However, soon it was obvious that these were the broken souls – the casualties of war, you may say – especially with the arrival of Tristan and later on from Brangäne acting briefly as a nurse. Suddenly it all made sense to me, and it was remarkable how such a heavy concept could be conceived using such minimal means!

Kaufmann’s Tristan was the very personification of a man destroyed by war – suicidal, submissive, weary – both in the way he walked and particularly in the way he sang. If he had any reservation of the direction, he clearly didn’t show it, as his acting was very believable here. His dark, almost baritone-ish voice sounds weary yet sonorous, but I couldn’t help thinking that he (smartly) saved up his voice for the later acts.

Harteros’ Isolde, on the other hand, surprised me. Honestly, I had my doubts when I heard that she was making role debut with these performances, but they vanished once Act 1 was underway. Yes, there were times she was drowned by the orchestra or she sounded pretty effortful, but for the most part, she projected her voice well and could easily be heard over the orchestra. It was her characterization of Isolde that truly astounded me.

I had always thought that acting wasn’t her forte, but here she fully realized Isolde with chameleon intensity. In Act 1, her anger of being ignored by Tristan was palpable, and during the confrontation with Tristan, she exuded domineering presence that was hard to resist. Dressed in royal yellow dress by Szczesniak and with her hair done beautifully, she looked every part of a Princess, and she sounded like one too!

Unfortunately, the role of Kurwenal wasn’t fully fleshed out, particularly in Act 1. It was as if Warlikowski didn’t know what to do with him. Dressed in black suit, he wasn’t really acting “broken” as the rest of the crew, so he stuck out like a sore thumb. Given the limitations, Koch made the best out of it, his voice sounded strong and full, almost to the point of over-pompous for “Herr Morold zog zu Meere her”!

Von der Damerau pretty much stole the scene(s) with her impressive stage presence and vocal prowess as Brangäne, both in Act 1 and during the warning scene at the beginning of Act 2. She easily and effortlessly rode the blasting sound of full orchestra while comfortably staying in the character. As mentioned before, her Brangäne was decidedly to be more like a sister to Isolde than a maid, and it helped that they both were dressed in party attire – her in a blue gown – to differentiate from the rest of the earthy-colored costumed guys on stage.

I had never seen such a strongly characterized Brangäne on stage before, so it was such a delight to encounter this. Interestingly, she is scheduled to”>debut Brunhilde in the multi-director Die Walküre at Staatsoper Stuttgart next April!

After the break, we came into Act 2 that could only be described with one word: magical! This was where the pairing of Kaufmann and Harteros really shone through, as this act truly showcased both of their strengths, aided handsomely by Petrenko. It also helped a lot that they both were very easy on the eyes as well. While Kaufmann dressed conservatively in all-black ensemble, Szczesniak put Harteros in bright red dress for Act 2 (and Act 3), as if to specify how Isolde bravely or wholeheartedly threw herself in Tristan’s destructive path. In fact, to me she looked a lot like Julia Roberts in the famous “opera” dress from Pretty Woman!

Even more than the dress, Harteros’ portrayal of Isolde during the warning scene at the beginning scene of Act 2 was remarkable for its details. Here was a woman madly in love (once again drawing comparison with Roberts), who would do anything to meet her man, even as her sister (in green dress) exasperatedly warned her of the imminent dangers; the scene was beautifully played out.

The crux of Act 2 was, without doubt, the extended “Love Duet”, or in this interpretation, more resembling “Death Duet”. Warlikowski bared the stage for the scene, placing only a pair of leather sofas in the middle with a giant screen in the background showing a video of an alternate universe for the couple. Its simplicity brought all the focus on Kaufmann and Harteros, and boy, did they deliver … right from the impassioned calling “Isolde! Geliebte!” against the thunderous storm concocted by Petrenko and the orchestra.

At this point, Warlikowski restrained the pair from acting like they were going to have a quickie, but instead there were understanding that they were entering a pact, with no way out. It was also made clear by the excellent video that showed in the parallel universe, Isolde went to a hotel room waiting for Tristan for their double suicide. It was intense, unbearably heavy feeling that grabbed the audience; you could almost hear the whole auditorium held their breaths in anticipation for things to come!

Petrenko, always a master of colors, conjured a simmering, warm summer night during “O sink hernieder”, upon which Kaufmann’s and Harteros’ voices glided like a magic carpet ride in One Thousand and One Nights. This was precisely the moment where all my troubles securing this trip seemed worthwhile, as I had never heard a more beautiful rendition than this!

Notwithstanding that picturesque section above, Petrenko never lost sight of the opera continuity, and with the duet “So stürben wir” (which anticipated the final Liebestod), he built such a massive climax supporting the duo who at that point gave everything in the name of passion. It was spatially claustrophobic and emotionally exhausting, especially as Warlikowski staged it as a preparation for double suicide (rather than the usual sexually charged climax) both on stage and on the parallel universe on film, so much so that the arrival of King Marke felt much more devastating.

Finnish bass Mika Kares, with his handsome good look, towering presence and especially his booming voice, truly made his King Marke felt. He imbued his monologue “Tatest du’s wirklich?” with much dignified regal presence, even if he maybe wasn’t the most compassionate. Still, his interaction with Tristan, coupled with Tristan’s plea “O König” constituted a truly heartbreaking scene! Baritone Sean Michael Plumb completed the scene with his haughty take on Melot.

My aforementioned reservation on the staging notwithstanding, Act 3 was truly dominated by Kaufmann’s tour de force. In this marathon of opera score, Kaufmann exhibited everything he was known for; a heavy dose of pianissimi, an intelligent reading of the texts, a heartfelt abundance of emotions and an impressive power when needed to overcome the orchestra. And that was also above the physicality demanded by the direction! It was truly a herculean effort on his part, and here also you could almost hear Suthaus’ influence on his interpretation.

I loved how Warlikowski staged the arrival of Melot, Marke and Brangäne by lining them (and Kuwernal) up in the background, and one by one fell as they died in the story. It was super effective in keeping the focus on the main duo and it was certainly much less distracting, eschewing the usual sword fights et al.

“Mild und leise” found Isolde standing alone on stage with a giant screen showing that in the alternate universe, they finally died by drowning together, holding hand and smiling, giving the premise that they would be together and happier in the next lifetime. The scene presented another facet of Isolde’s progression, where she lost in ecstasy, fully transfigured (just as Wagner intended).

Personally, this scene was truly edge-of-seat moment for me, especially as Petrenko fired on all cylinders during this passage, and I was worried that Harteros would succumb to those massive tidal orchestral waves. Fortunately, against all odds, she stood victorious, riding the waves like an indomitable ship, bringing the opera to its climactic conclusion. It was truly mesmerizing when the whole auditorium was completely silent after Petrenko dropped his baton, before the audience erupted in a loud cheer.

Speaking of cheers, that performance was really one of the longest bows I had ever seen in Bayerische Staatsoper. Even after the curtain was down, there were continuous clapping, stomping and cheering, resulting in additional the standing ovations for the main six personnel (Kaufmann, Harteros, von der Damerau, Koch, Kares and Petrenko). It was as if the audience refused to part with the team. The loudest cheer for Petrenko truly warmed my heart, as while we would have more opportunities to watch these artists in different productions in the future, there would be much less chances to see him.

As I mentioned previously, this was the penultimate show for this amazing production with this outstanding cast. The last show on July 31 will be presented as part of “Opera for All” free broadcast at Max-Joseph-Platz and, after much controversy, will also be streamed at Staatsoper.TV.

Photo: Wilfried Hösl