Nothing in playwright Heiner Müller's Bayreuth staging of Tristan und Isolde is more riveting than the drama that unfolds on Waltraud Meier's face. The camera adores her sleek features, her crimson lips, her radiant pallor. Whether her Isolde is brooding, hurling curses or simply listening, every fiber is vibrant with concentration. Beauty so alive yet never distorted by emotion is a wonder to behold. Between Tristan's dying breath and what Wagner called Isolde's Transfiguration (popularly known as the Liebestod), the lights transform that face into a death's head, yet that is beautiful, too. Wonder of wonders, Meier's singing is every bit as complete, no less captivating for sheer vocal authority than for transparency of expression. She concludes in a blaze of glory, literally as well as figuratively, bathed in a golden glow.
Those who saw Müller's production in the theater will remember it as stripped down in the extreme. All-important to Erich Wonder's stage design was the scrim, defining abstract spaces more remarkable for passing shadows or squares of light than for the handful of palpable objects. (Act III took place on a blasted heath straight out of Beckett.) Yohji Yamamoto's costumes featured collars apparently fashioned from lengths of Plexiglas tubing, perhaps symbolic of the yoke of societal obligation. Such paraphernalia fell away as the tragedy took its course. Awaiting Tristan, the rapt Isolde flung away her slippers — just one of many pregnant gestures predicated on the discarding of clothing, layer by layer. As for physical contact, the lovers did kiss in Act I. Thereafter they reached for each other but barely touched — an apt indication of cravings never to be fulfilled.
The production dates to 1993 but was filmed at the Festspielhaus two years later, with no audience present. Though the video offers a faithful record of Müller's spatial conceptions, their theatrical force seldom registers on the flat screen. Happily, the camera work concentrates on close-ups, revealing interpretations of extraordinary finesse. Siegfried Jerusalem's looks may be no match for Meier's, but his lyricism even in the most strenuous passages lends Tristan's agonies a rare eloquence. Matthias Hölle's Marke matches personal beauty with beauty of utterance. The roster of confidants and supporting players (led by Ute Priew's Brangäne and Falk Struckmann's Kurwenal) measures up to the high standard.
Daniel Barenboim's performance in the pit is that of a master, marked by ravishing orchestral colors and tempos that neither rush nor drag. Even across the huge spans of Acts II and III, which are susceptible to longueurs, paragraph follows paragraph with inexorable momentum. Music drama gets no better than this.
Meier, Priew; Jerusalem, Struckmann, Hölle; Bayreuth Festival Orchestra and Chorus, Barenboim. Production: Müller. Deutsche Grammophon 001142709, 235 mins., subtitled