OPERA / Reasons to be jeerful, part three: Della Couling on the premiere of the Heiner Muller-directed Tristan und Isolde

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The Independent Culture
Mikhail Gorbachev launched his Gorbachev Foundation, a German-Russian enterprise to save Russian culture, in Bayreuth on Saturday. On Sunday he attended the premiere of Heiner Muller's production of Tristan und Isolde, and one wonders if this example of German culture did not have him, like a certain famous German, reaching for his revolver.

Muller, also on the Gorbachev Foundation board and described by Gorbachev as 'one of the world's greatest writers', is a self-confessed dilettante as director - although his 1990 Hamlet at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin must rank as one of the great productions of post-War Europe. He can be relied upon to produce something totally idiosyncratic.

Since Wieland Wagner's 1950s Ring, part of the Bayreuth ritual has been to protest hysterically at every innovative production. Muller's Tristan pushes this ritual to its limits, aided by Erich Wonder's abstract sets.

The performance begins sublimely. Under Daniel Barenboim, the orchestra gives a languorous, passionate, deeply personal account of the Prelude which one could appreciate to the full in the perfect acoustics of the Festspielhaus.

The curtain rises: a white screen, through which Isolde (Waltraud Meier) and Brangane (Uta Priew) can gradually be discerned. Then, Tristan and Kurwenal appear - all in black - high up in the background in a red box, with two underlit strips at floor-level on either side to simulate water.

There follows a static series of pictures, with areas picked out at various points by squares of light. Isolde, a termagant furious at her fate, seems an angel of death in a high winged collar. Meier, performing her first Isolde and, indeed, her first soprano role, is visually convincing and sings with a rare bel canto attention to every nuance. This is also - astoundingly - Siegfried Jerusalem's first Tristan and here in one bound he is set to become the best of his generation in the role. An excellent actor, Jerusalem's voice is slightly reminiscent of Jon Vickers. Like Meier and John Tomlinson (as King Mark), he entered totally into Muller's concept.

Act 2 takes place in an armoury instead of a garden: hundreds of breastplates are arranged on the floor, a pattern of gangways between them. The great love duet takes place in the central gangway, the lovers slowly moving up and down in opposite directions. Here Muller's Brechtian antecedents and intentions become particularly obvious, the alienation between music and stage action making the eventual - minimal - contact between the lovers all the more effective.

Act 3 uses another box, this time grey with Rothko swathes of white, as a stony beach. Tristan slumps in an old armchair, he and Kurwenal in torn and muddy modern uniform, like refugees from Beckett's Endgame. Jerusalem is magnificent, staggering, falling, rising, tearing at his wounds and collapsing just before Isolde's arrival. For the Liebestod Isolde stands in a gold shift at the front of the stage to die upright, by an act of will.

Before the final chord had faded the boos began, abating only briefly for the singers but reaching record levels, even for Bayreuth, when Muller appeared. What is booed in Bayreuth becomes part of the canon within three years, the director said the next day, something I suspect will happen to this controversial but - as always with Muller - totally sincere reading by a formidable talent.