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Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29.9.2009 (MB)

Tristan – Ben Heppner
King Marke – Sir John Tomlinson
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Kurwenal – Michael Volle
Brangäne – Sophie Koch
Melot – Richard Berkeley Steele
Sailor – Ji-Min Park
Steersman – Dawid Kimberg
Shepherd – Ryland Davies
Christof Loy (director)
Johannes Leiacker (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Marion Tiedtke (dramaturge)

Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Sadly, I think, Wagner’s words to Mathilde Wesendonck came nowhere near to fulfilment; or, to put it, another way, they did, but there was no chance of the work being banned. A performance of Tristan und Isolde that fails to grab one by the throat and drive one at least to the borders of insanity has failed, plain and simple. Tristan without its Rausch (intoxication) is no Tristan at all.

Most of the fault for this lies with Christof Loy’s production. There is no especial need – indeed, I suspect that it is not even desirable – for Tristan to be set ‘somewhere’, whether in Cornwall or in a multi-storey car-park. Abstraction works well, as Herbert Wernicke’s infinitely preferable Covent Garden production showed. Loy, however, contrives to have the worst of both worlds. At the front of the stage, we see in Johannes Leiacker’s designs minimalism that is drab to the point of excess; this is the world of existentialism, according to a programme interview with the director. At the back, sometimes revealed by the drawing back of a curtain, is what appears to be the real world, the specific setting of Marke and Isolde’s wedding breakfast, again according to that interview. I assume that it was significant that there are no female guests. I likewise assume that the edging forward of a wall at the end of the second act was an accident. It appeared that something was about to be revealed, but alas not; perhaps it was a metaphor for the production as a whole. At any rate, the prolonged dimming of the lights afterwards suggested a lack of intention.

Isolde emerges from the latter world during the opening Prelude. Wandering around, looking lost and slightly – but not too much – bereft, her progress, such as it is, completely undermined the progress of the music, its orgasmic climax coming to nothing. Perhaps that is the point, or perhaps not. According to Loy, ‘the two spaces’ are, during the action, ‘almost completely redefined’. Apart from the odd case of a new table, they look and act pretty much as they always had done, at least so far as I could tell. And surely a time to have bridged the gap would have been Tristan’s appearance at the helm, or whatever it transpired to be in this production; what should be an earth-moving moment once again went for nothing. Perhaps most unforgivable was the appearance of Marke, Melot, and the other men long before the moment of coitus interruptus; extraordinary though this might seem, the cadence sounded only so slightly interrupted, a fault of the musical direction too.

Ben Heppner (Tristan) and Nina Stemme (Isolde)

So we had an ‘existential world’, fair enough, which interacted awkwardly with a highly specific setting that contradicted a great deal of what we heard in the words. Without wishing to seem like a stage direction fetishist, the first act references to a ship, the second act references to the hunt, and so forth, stand in glaring and unproductive contradiction to the monotonous revelations of the backstage banquet. If all is abstract, one can simply imagine, or not; one can concentrate upon the essence of the work, which has nothing to do with the setting and everything to do with the music. Musical drama should, as Wagner writes in his Schopenhauer-infused Beethoven essay, be a case of deeds of music rendered visible. This is simply not possible here.

For it seems that Loy does not like Schopenhauer very much, not just in terms of æsthetics, but also because he cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others managed to do so, but we shall let that pass for the moment, for there is nothing wrong with approaching a work from a different angle. But what Loy reduces Tristan to is a strange and, to my mind, incompatible mix of something between Ibsen and Strindberg on the one hand and unamusing farce on the other. Perhaps the latter was unintentional, but the glimpses behind the curtain of Kurwenal and Brangäne imitating their master and mistress were hardly daring, just a little tacky. At least with Calixto Bieito, there might have been something a little more to see. ‘Character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ is what interests Loy most as a director, which is why, he says, he had generally steered clear of Wagner. Tristan, however, seemed to him something of an exception. I cannot imagine why, for it is only superficially concerned with the characters at all; if anything, it is the most supreme example of what he professes to dislike.How small it all seemed.

And if Loy does not like Schopenhauer or even Wagner, Antonio Pappano does not seem to like myth. The abstract nature of Tristan, he says in the same programme interview cited above, ‘is overrated. These are people on stage!’ Well, sort of, but are we seriously supposed to think that what matters about Tristan is the plot in itself. Though there is relatively little stage action to speak of, Wagner omitted even some of that when called upon to explain what the work was about. But what did he know? This perhaps helps explain the musical performance’s greatest failing. Though this was certainly Pappano’s best Wagner performance at Covent Garden, and every so often revelatory in terms of instrumental, especially wind, colour, at other times the musical structure, the longer line, was once again sadly lacking. Nowhere was this more the case than during the second act love duet: shapeless, just going on for a long time. Why do I say that Pappano’s words might help to explain? Because it seemed to me that his reading – unlike Loy’s! – was very much dictated by the words. The words have their place in a musical interpretation, of course, but in this of all works, the music must take precedence. It has its own demands; it undercuts the words, sometimes with a radicalism of which a director could only dream. Tristan for the most part therefore sounded as if it were a work with some wonderful moments, not the all-enveloping whole, the representation of the Schopenhauerian Will, it simply has to be. The third act was considerably better.

The best reason to see this Tristan would be the singing: a most unusual state of affairs. Ben Heppner struggled during stretches of the second and third acts; he really does seem to have lost his former steely security. But he sang better than one has come to expect in this impossible role and his diction was impressive. Loy’s desire for ‘character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ did him no favours, though; the moments in which he became amorous were too embarrassing even to register as farce. Nina Stemme’s performance as Isolde was excellent. One does not hear the majesty of a Flagstad, nor the steely sarcasm and irony of a Nilsson; one hears an intensely musical, variegated portrayal, which again – and more appropriately – seems very much to arise from the words. Lieder-singing would seem to inform her approach, which is not to say that it lacks a greater musical line, far from it. As Kurwenal and Brangäne, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch were hamstrung by Loy’s apparent determination to present them just as best friends to Tristan and Isolde; there was little sense of hierarchy, subservience, or even devotion. But they succeeded triumphantly in musical terms, barely putting a foot wrong, and helping to distract one’s attention from the visual realisation, despite approaching their well-nigh hopeless tasks with commendable enthusiasm. Brangäne’s description of the potions was a case in point. Sir John Tomlinson’s Marke was grave and meaningful as seemingly only he knows how. In this context, however such a Lear-like portrayal served to highlight the shortcomings of the production. I was also impressed by Ryland Davies’s keenly observed Shepherd, drawing upon a wealth of operatic and musical experience, and the winning Steersman of the splendid Jette Parker Young Artist, Dawid Kimberg: certainly one to watch. If you can bear to forget the work and concentrate on some fine singing, then there are rewards to reap. There is, I suppose a bright side: you might sympathise with the vigorous first-night booing for the production team, but at least you will not, as Wagner feared, descend into madness.

Mark Berry

Pictures © Bill Cooper