The Royal Opera’s new production of Tristan und Isolde is going to divide people. While few will dispute that the musical standards are of the very highest, the staging is controversial and there was widespread booing (as well as some cheering) at the first night curtain call.
One can only think that it is a lack of literalism that caused such offence because director Christof Loy’s personenregie is startlingly good, constantly surprising and freeing the opera from all its usual associations. He makes us believe that these are people crying out from the depths of their souls, with not a gesture wasted or a line uninterpreted.
The beauty of Johannes Leiacker’s sets and Olaf Winter’s lighting is an austere one, but beautiful they are. The imagery is stunning, with most of the action taking place on a forestage before a false pros framing a constantly moving curtain. On the deep inner stage, hints of strange tableaux jerk and freeze.
What we don’t get is any hint of ship or castle. If there’s a disparity between the landbound setting of Act One and the constant references to wind, sails and sea, one has to question what sort of voyage these people are on. Loy mines the minds of these characters and if there’s ambiguity in some of the things they do, it fully reflects Wagner’s dense and difficult text.
The stark contrast between the male and female worlds is striking, with the men part of a macho club skating on the thin ice of societal and courtly manouverings, oblivious to the void yawning beneath them. One who is aware is Ben Heppner’s loner of a Tristan, an isolated and dejected figure, who sits unmoving throughout the Act Three prelude like a character from a late Beckett play.
Nina Stemme’s Isolde is a driving force and there are fascinating interpretations from Sophie Koch, as a meddling yet vulnerable Brangäne, and Michael Volle, a swaggering brute of a Kurwenal. The vocal performances are superb throughout. Stemme is quite simply a peerless Isolde, as fresh in the Liebestod as at the beginning of the evening; intense, tragic and utterly beautiful.
Heppner, while not flawless, is secure and hefty, soaring and untiring, while Koch and Volle’s glorious sounds fill the auditorium. John Tomlinson, a late replacement for the great Matti Salminen (who will sing half of the run’s performances), is perfectly adequate and there’s fine support from Richard Berkeley-Steele as Melot, Ryland Davies (Shepherd), Ji-Min Park (Sailor) and Dawid Kimberg (Steersman).
Crowning all is quite wonderful playing by the Royal Opera Orchestra, among the best Antonio Pappano has achieved during his Covent Garden tenure. It is lush and ecstatic with glorious solo work, a score that the conductor is totally on top of.
The staging is clearly not going to please everyone. If you want a story-book Tristan, you’ll have to close your eyes and dream up images of long-dead productions. If instead you go with Loy’s vision, my goodness, you’re in for an exciting time.