By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - The opening-night audience on Saturday for the Bayreuth Festival was ready for anything in a new production of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" directed by his great grand-daughter Katharina Wagner, known to make radical changes in his works.
What they got, courtesy of a splendid cast of singers including American tenor Stephen Gould as Tristan and German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius as Isolde, with the echt-Wagnerian German conductor Christian Thielemann in the pit, was a musical triumph if not a total artistic success.
The opening of the annual festival founded by Wagner when he built his own opera house in this Bavarian city in the 1870s is a national occasion. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Wagner-loving husband Joachim Sauer attended, as did captains of German industry, politicians and stars of German film and television.
But no one knew quite what to expect from Katharina, who is the festival's co-director. Almost a decade ago she shocked the Wagner world with a production of "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" that turned the villain into the hero.
This time she again sprang a surprise with a plot twist that does not come until the end. It would be unfair to reveal what it is, but her tinkering did not dismay the Wagner lovers who cheered her, a turnaround from the booing for "Meistersinger".
An M.C. Escher-like set of stairways made up the set for Act One in which Tristan is the captain of a ship carrying the Irish princess Isolde, who cured him of a wound and loves him, as a trophy bride for Tristan's King Marke in Cornwall.
Act Two takes place in what appears to be a madhouse where the two lovers have abandoned all caution to the wind after drinking what Isolde thought was poison to kill herself and Tristan, but was switched for a love potion by her lady-in-waiting Brangane, sung beautifully by German mezzo-soprano Christa Mayer.
The third, and most successful act, shows the mortally wounded Tristan clinging to life until he can see his beloved Isolde one last time.
She appears to him in hologram-like projections, but each time he thinks he has found her, she vanishes or turns into a horrific vision, including one in which her head falls off.
Only when Isolde arrives to be with the wounded Tristan in his homeland of Kareol, and he sees her in the flesh one last time, can he die, which is the cue for Isolde to sing the opera's famous closing "Liebestod" (love-death) aria.
The opening night audience at Bayreuth is always packed with Wagner lovers and music cognoscenti from all over the world.
"We thought it was brilliant, the voices and the production, the word that comes to mind is transcendental," said Barry Schwartz, a public relations executive from New York City, who attended with his wife Doris.
(Michael Roddy is the Entertainment Editor for Reuters in Europe, The views expressed are his own)
(Editing by Bernard Orr)