Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Tristan – Ben Heppner
King Marke – Matthew Best
Isolde – Ann Petersen
Kurwenal – Phillip Joll
Melot – Simon Thorpe
Brangäne – Susan Bickley
Shepherd – Simon Crosby Buttle
Yannis Kokkos (director, designs)
Peter Watson (revival director)
Chorus of Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)
Wagner famously declared to Mathilde Wesendonk that only mediocre performances of Tristan could save him, the power of the work being such that it would otherwise be banned. ‘Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Alas, he – and we – must endure the opposite problem; when, at least in the theatre, do we ever have the chance to find out. It is difficult enough to find an orchestra with the requisite body of sound, let alone a conductor with the skill to communicate the melos of Wagner’s miraculous, treacherous score. Daniel Barenboim comes close, but the only conductors I have heard live truly to fulfil that heroic task have been Bernard Haitink and Semyon Bychkov. As ever, one longs for Furtwängler. I am delighted to report that Lothar Koenigs did a more than reasonable job, a distinct improvement upon his Proms Meistersinger. Moreover, the orchestra sounded far better here than it had done in the vast expanses of the Royal Albert Hall. I should be dishonest if I said there were no occasions on which the lack of a greater body of strings did not register, even on occasion painfully so, but far more often, I was taken aback at the degree of success with which the strings punched above their weight. The WNO woodwind section often excelled itself, clearly delighting in some interesting highlighting of lines often overlooked. (Barenboim often does something similar, in a nod to his experience with the orchestral sonorities of French music.)
To return to Koenigs, there was little here that seemed arbitrary, and if Wagner’s vast architectonic forms did not always register as they do in the finest hands, sections thereof possessed conviction, shape, and direction. Particularly impressive were the more menacing sections, for instance the violence one hears upon the arrival of Marke and Melot at Kareol, and Kurwenal’s response. Sadly, much of the good work was undone by the near-criminal cuts imposed upon the score. If I remember correctly, that in Act Two was not the so-called ‘traditional’ excision, but it was no less disorienting, the very heart of Wagner’s drama, verbal as well as musical, treated with disdain. (And yes, I am well aware that, conductors I revere, Haitink included, have acted similarly, though not always so.) The cut in Tristan’s monologue was worse still; indeed, its shock was so disorienting that I could not tell you precisely what was done; tonally, as well as verbally, it made no sense whatsoever. Doubtless the cuts were made for vocal rather than interpretative reasons, but they are no more excusable for that, which brings me to my next point.
For, if conductors almost always fall short, their part almost seems the easiest to fulfil. What of the cast, and especially what of Tristan? I have never heard a singer up to its demands, at least not in the theatre. We all know what happened to Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld – or rather, we all tend to know the legend. At any rate, the days of a Windgassen, let alone a Suthaus, let alone a Melchior, seem to be gone forever. That said, some Tristans fare better than others. I had been heartened by reports from the first night, suggesting that Ben Heppner’s voice had rallied. (His 2009 appearance at Covent Garden was not a happy experience.) For the first act, the least challenging for the part, that just about seemed to be the case. One might even have made a claim for ruggedness as part of the character. And, to be fair, there were moments during the agonies of the third act monologue in which Heppner’s struggles – not just in terms of his vocal difficulties – proved moving, if perhaps more appropriate to Peter Grimes than to Tristan. Heppner really does not do erotic. I defy anyone, however, not to have found painful in the worst sense the swathes of the score in which there were not so much intonational problems as an inability to sing, apparently even to hear, the correct notes at all. There were certainly plenty of occasions when he was more than a tone out of kilter with the score. Moreover, the bareness in many registers of the voice, even when in tune, now sadly seems quite beyond repair.
That said, if one inevitably harks back to Nilsson, Flagstad, et al., Ann Petersen’s Isolde was more than creditable. There is neither the Lieder-singer’s detail that Nina Stemme brings to the role, nor the searing intensity of the unforgettable Waltraud Meier, but this young pretender is far from negligible. She sang intelligently, and for the most part with good command of line, though her tuning, especially during the second act duet, was not always so good as it might have been. Susan Bickley’s Brangäne was again an intelligent portrayal, alert to musical and verbal requirements, though oddly, the interjections from her second-act watch proved rather on the tremulous side. Phillip Joll’s Kurwenal was at best gruff, more often, I am afraid to say, merely crude. I almost always find myself saying that King Markes rarely disappoint; yet, if it would be exaggerated to say that Matthew Best’s assumption disappointed, his lament often lacked focus.
If, somehow, one had succeeded with respect to conductor, orchestra, and soloists, whatever, then, would one need to do successfully to stage the work? It needs staging; of that I have no doubt. And yet, it seems to need so little. Abstraction has in my experience always worked best, though one should not be prescriptive about it. Herbert Wernicke’s properly Schopenhauerian understanding impressed at Covent Garden under Haitink, only to be replaced by some typical reductionism from the dread Christof Loy. (At best, one can simply express relief that Loy’s effort was not quite so appalling as his Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten.) There are doubtless some who will applaud Yannis Kokkos’s apparent lack of any idea concerning the work, beyond presenting a diagonal onstage. It is only, however, if one compares this production to the likes of Loy’s that one could feel anything approaching relief. By all means do very little, but do not fetishise the stage directions, the realm of the day in those most nocturnal, metaphysical of dramas. I could not care less whether one sees a ship or not during the first act, though there is no harm in doing so. However, when, at the end, one is faced with sailors upon the masts, to no apparent purpose, one at best thinks the stance more appropriate to townsfolk rioting in Nuremberg, and in reality cannot help to be irritated by the naïveté of it all. Likewise the appearance of soldiers with Marke and Melot; they might have contributed something dramatically, I suppose, but on this occasion they certainly did not. There was no threat, merely distraction. The production has doubtless served its purpose after a fashion, but should surely now be replaced, though, given the potential horrors of a replacement, one can well understand the trepidation that might be felt in going ahead.