“If there is anything that defines Romanticism and represents the mid-19th century, it is this piece– of all the arts. The opera is a kind of nuclear bomb,” said Sir Simon Rattle talking about Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, the music drama that forms the heart of this year's Baden-Baden Easter Festival. For Rattle, who discovered his enthusiasm for Wagner's music when just a teenager, it is the third time that he has taken on Tristan. In 2001, he conducted a new production with the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, followed in 2009 by a series of performances at the Vienna State Opera, where he also had the opportunity to study Mahler's score of Tristan with its performance instructions and dynamic entries and the musical material which belonged to Carlos Kleiber. He is now preparing for the new production in Baden-Baden, where Eva-Maria Westbroek and Stuart Skelton will sing the lovers, and the opera will be directed by Mariusz Treliński. After the festival, there will be two concert performances at the Philharmonie.

Flawless sound culture

With this new production, the Berliner Philharmoniker are continuing a tradition. Ever since the era of Wilhelm Furtwängler, the orchestra has performed Wagner's masterpiece with each of its chief conductors. The first occasion was during a guest performance at the Théâtre National de l'Opéra Paris in June 1932. Then in 1943, during the Second World War, there was a performance at the Berlin Staatsoper with Robert Heger as the conductor. After the founding of the Easter Festival 1967, the Berliner Philharmoniker played Tristan and Isolde for the first time in Salzburg in March 1972, under the baton of Herbert von Karajan. The event was eagerly anticipated as Karajan was in charge of both the musical and stage direction, with stage sets by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The press response to the performances was quite ambivalent: Karajan's production concept, understood by many critics as an alternative to the symbolic interpretations of the Bayreuth Festival, was not well received. Above all, his direction of the singers was regarded as old fashioned. Even the vocal qualities of the two main characters, Helga Dernesch as Isolde and Jon Vickers as Tristan, weren't – according to critics – quite up to the difficulties of the roles. However, the musical performance given by the Berliner Philharmoniker was met with unreserved admiration: “The experience of the differentiated, most finely nuanced orchestral sound is the most beautiful impression of the evening” (Der Tagesspiegel). The recording of Tristan on disc which the orchestra and Karajan made just a few months before the festival is still regarded as a benchmark recording of the work. The following year, the opera was programmed again at the Easter Festival, and also in this revival, it was mainly the playing of the orchestra that delighted audiences and the press.

New perspective

Unlike Herbert von Karajan, who made his debuts at the Vienna and Berlin state opera houses with Tristan und Isolde in 1937 and 1938 and had conducted the work on many occasions after then, including at the Bayreuth Festival, Claudio Abbado only ventured a public performance very late, when he was 65 years of age. In November 1998, he first presented a concert performance in Berlin, almost a preparation for the stage performances at the Easter Festival in 1999 in the production by Klaus Michael Grüber. Deborah Polaski and Ben Heppner were the interpreters of Isolde and Tristan, and the roles of Brangäne and King Marke were sung by Marjana Lipovšek and Matti Salminen. As part of his preparations, Abbado had undertaken intensive study of the recently published critical edition of the opera. In order to realise his musical ideas, he created a very special, unfamiliar orchestral layout, and succeeded in producing an analytically thought-through, clear and at the same time new reading of the work. “No phrase was hackneyed, no sound merely drawn from tradition” (Die Welt). The tenor of the press at the time was that under the direction of Abbado, the Berliner Philharmoniker had developed a Tristan that had both emotional density and transparency. In 2000, the orchestra and its chief took the opera for a guest appearance in Tokyo. On this occasion, it was not Ben Heppner, but Jon Frederic West in the role of Tristan alongside Deborah Polaski. The three performances in the Bunka Kaikan hall were sold out within three hours.