Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, 29 September 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

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.

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 too 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.


Anonymous said...

Disappointment to say the least. What has happen to the 'original' productions? Why does every thing have to be brought up to date and as in this case a total failure. If it hadn't been for singing I would have walked out as some parons did, but coming from the USA I thought I should at least enjoy the singing of Nina Stemme and the rest of the cast. I think the Royal Opera House should think again before this type of 'fiasco' is put before their clients especially at the inflated price charged and what was it for there was no scenery that required building, moving etc. Sorry I forget myself, an inclined floor, two walls, a table two chairs, a poorly painted backdrop, numerous tables and chairs, - fantastic. As for the costumes words fail me. If this had been a persons first visit to the ROH and even Wagner I'm sure it will be the last on both accounts.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that there is a massive cultural difference being highlighted here.

The minimalist staging lends itself, rather generously, to the music and the story as opposed to pandering to expectations.

Traditionally, the ROH has done all of the thinking for it's patrons, allowing them to sit back and soak up rich, plush sets ... This is a production that challenges our traditional pamperings.

Personally, I'm more than happy to have to work for my understanding. The direction provoked a stripping of wealth and grandeur from what is expected by a typical audience at the ROH and exposed real psychological vulnerability.

It's amazing that the same people who boo-ed the production team were standing in appreciation for the artists whom without Loy's vision and direction would have merely been revisiting old grounds.

Still, it's often the way (and this is where the cultural differences and traditions come in to play) that people will criticise what they simply don't understand.

Codogan said...

Thank god someone else agrees. Reading the critics views I wonder what am I missing yet still struggle to understand what Loy and co have added to the work.

Anonymous said...

I attended the third performance I suppose what you mean by 'edging forward' of the wall was it going backwards ... that certainly happened at the end of Act II as I presume the two 'worlds' collide. I have seen the opera set on something looking like a ski slope, under water, on a tanker and a cruise ship, amongst other 'settings' and was not adverse to Loy's deconstruction. However it would require better singing actors as Tristan and Isolde. Stemme - although a Loy muse - sleepwalked through the whole thing - though that may have been the idea - who knows? And Heppner was shambolic in many ways.

Sadly Pappano continues to conduct important Wagner at ROH when there must be many other conductors who could be invited for this repertoire. He smooths everything out in a way Wagner does not need and he does indeed 'undercut the words'at many significant moments.

Vocally by this third performance the first cracked note was by Stemme in Act I and it was the female singers who gave concern at the start because Heppner was faultess at that time. Stemme sings Isolde all wrong for most of the evening as though it was Isolde 'for the lower voice' - Sophie Koch seemed like a soprano to her mezzo - can nobody else hear this? The top notes in the Liebestod also never went anywhere however poignantly it was sung.

Sadly Heppner's voice totally collapsed at the start of Act II and he was unable to support even the most easy of phrases. He obviously has a breathing problem and was breaking up lines for an extra breath. Strangely towards the end of the Act his voice recovered and just about got through Act III but he croaked his final 'Isolde'. It is perhaps a symbol of Pappano's weakness as musical director that he allows this very sad performance to take place and did not find another Tristan - though this is easier said than done of course these days -but they must have had Heppner covered surely?

Mark Berry said...

I think we are talking about two different edgings, whether forward or backward; I am reasonably convinced - I couldn't put it more strongly than that - that the one I mentioned was accidental. But who knows?

Point taken about the soprano/mezzo qualities, though I really didn't mind this. As for Pappano, when I said this was the best Wagner he had done at the ROH, it was most certainly faint praise. When one thinks who might have been invited... Semyon Bychkov did a splendid job in Paris recently, as he did with the Covent Garden Lohengrin. Haitink would doubtless have been too much to hope for, but an ambitious house might at least have tried, likewise for Thielemann. I could go on but it would be depressing. Still more depressing is the news that Pappano has signed a new contract with the ROH and will not now be leaving after the Olympiad goings on.

Anonymous said...

Bychkov returns for 'Tannhäuser' I understand but I assume that Pappano will conduct 'Meistersinger'. On other sites this production has generated more discussion that it deserves - for instance - 'Opera Today' where the reviewer is enthrall to the staging but clearly has no idea how it should be sung and almost seems to praise Heppner's acting ... and singing. Beyond the argument in this country on how Wagner should be staged is the wider argument of how it should be sung and I am struggling to remember an all-round strong cast for a Wagner opera in this country this century. This - of course - is not just a problem over here but there is still a lot of Wagner performed in Europe and there must be talent to be discovered.

Sadly I have never seen so many empty seats at Covent Garden for a Wagner performances as I did on Monday.