Tristan, the adopted son of King Marke of England, is at the helm of a ship. Tristan is bringing Isolde, the daughter of the king of the subjugated Irish, to England. There he will marry her with the widowed King Marke, strengthening the alliance of both peoples - and his own position of power. On board he keeps far away from Isolde. Instead of treating her with due respect, he ridicules her in a mocking song, and the entire crew joins in. Isolde reveals the prior history to her confidante Brangäne: during the war, Tristan killed Isolde's fiancé Morold, but during the duel he was inflicted yet with a poisoned wound. The ailing Tristan let himself be marooned in a boat near Ireland's coast acting as the minstrel "Tantris" in order to receive Isolde’s care, because only by her healing powers could he hope to recover. Isolde recognized him as the murderer of her fiancé and yet was not able to take vengeance because the sick man looked her in the eyes. "Tantris", who had been cured and released, returns using his true name as the courtship knight for King Marke. The defeated Irish had no choice but to accept this proposal. As Brangäne reminds her of the magic potions she has smuggled on board, with the help of which she hopes to be able to turn everything around for the better, the deeply humiliated Isolde decides to poison Tristan and herself. But instead of the poison, Brangäne mistakenly gives both mortal enemies a love potion, that will damn them with delights and torments of insatiable longing.
With this opera, Richard Wagner created the key work of musical romanticism, as sworn by E. T. A. Hoffmann exclaiming: »Glowing rays shoot through this realm of deep night, and we become aware of giant shadows that billowed up and down, lock us in closer and closer and destroy us, but not the pain of infinite longing.” At the same time Wagner opened the door to musical modernity, because through the independence of chromaticism and the emancipation of dissonance, the harmonic tension - emblematic of erotic tension – prolongs and refuses its resolution. This will only be reached in the love-death, in which the dying hallucinating Isolde imagines the resurrection of the dead Tristan.
Calixto Bieito, one of the most impressive music theater directors of the past decades, tackles this work for the first time. His works always thematize the fragility and decaying mortal corporeality of his actors. It should be exciting to experience this view in conflict with Wagnerian Tristan theories.
Difficult question. I think it's primarily the longing that drives Tristan. In contrast to Lohengrin or Samson, for example, Tristan never once says the famous words "I love you." Whereby it is difficult to separate love and longing. Anyone who is far from their beloved partner knows the feeling of longing. The distance between Tristan and Isolde is a social one. They are unreachable to each other even when they are physically close. The attempt to overturn the social order is ultimately fatal for both of them.
The addressing of the unconscious, which is of great importance in Tristan: to what extent does your unconscious, or subconscious play a role in the interpretation?
In general, I always try to put my own personality behind me, and come to the beginning of the rehearsals like an empty vessel. Gradually this vessel fills up, and the character of the role becomes more visible. It is always astonishing to me, how varied, but also richer the role becomes with every staging and musical interpretation. And in the often exuberant, emotional world of Tristan und Isolde, there are many poignant moments. For example, the deep disappointment of the father figure King Mark when he realizes that he has been betrayed by the two people he loves most. I think that every time something stirs the actor or the viewer, the subconscious responds.
Wagner stated in a letter, that he himself found it increasingly difficult to understand Tristan und Isolde. Is that marketing? Or can something like Tristan ever be fully understood?
This statement by Wagner makes sense to me, because one and the same material can often feel completely different over the years due to one's own life experiences. Heraclitus already noticed, "You cannot step into the same river twice." That is, even if you do the exact same thing again at a later date, it will be different and you come to different conclusions. “Panta rhei” (everything flows).