Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Tristan und Isolde (II), Royal Opera, 18 October 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Tristan – Lars Cleveman
King Marke – Matti Salminen
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)

This review was written for and first published on Per-Erik Skramstad's excellent site,, which I urge anyone and everyone to consult. It may be found, with images from the production, by clicking here.

I saw the first night of this Tristan und Isolde (click here for review) and have now seen the last. I hoped against hope that I might see the error of my ways and be converted to Christof Loy’s production. Sadly not. Mine, I must admit, seems to remain a minority view, at least amongst other reviewers, though perhaps not amongst the audience at large. (For a cross-section of wildly enthusiastic reviews, click here and here and here and here, etc. I draw solace from the relative coolness of that eminent Wagnerite, the opera critic of the Spectator, and a few others.) What I should take issue with is the claim that, if one does not appreciate this production, one is ‘literal-minded’. I could not care less whether one sees a ship, Tristan’s castle, and so on; indeed, I am all for abstraction, which is why I admired Covent Garden’s previous production, by Herbert Wernicke. (Many of those cheering Loy hated Wernicke’s wonderful, colour-coded, Schopenhauerian interpretation.) This is anything but abstract, though; it is domesticated and strangely specific, but specific in a sense that makes no sense. Once one starts seeing a wedding breakfast, a strange tea for two setting, an irritating curtain forever being drawn, one misses the ship, Kareol, and so forth, in a way that simply draws attention to their absence, rather than puts them to one side as inessential. Loy’s production. At the front of the stage, we see, in Johannes Leiacker’s designs that operatically ubiquitous, dreary minimalist chic which is anything but cost-cutting; the ‘world of existentialism,’ according to a programme interview with Loy. At the back is the real world of the wedding breakfast. Loy claims that ‘the two spaces’ are, during the action, ‘almost completely redefined’; once again, I was at a loss to discern anything but the most trivial difference.

If anything, I was more annoyed the second time around than the first. What I had charitably assumed to be an accident, the edging forward of a wall at the end of the second act, was not. Yet again, it appeared that something was about to be revealed; as I wrote previously, ‘perhaps it was a metaphor for the production as a whole’. Isolde’s aimless emerging from behind the curtain during the opening Prelude once again – how could it not? – completely undermined the progress of the music, what should have been its great climax coming to nothing. Is it not more than time that directors were assumed to read a score and exceptions to this were just that? (I should hardly have the nerve to direct Chekhov in Russian without understanding the language.) Perhaps Loy can read Wagner’s score, in which case he simply disregarded it. The end of the second act would have been incomprehensible to anyone who did not know the work well already. Tristan, according to what he did on stage, appeared to be addressing Melot, when he should have been addressing (a bewilderingly departed) Isolde. Words and stage direction were at odds, not with ‘interesting’ antagonism, but with straightforward confusion.

There is, of course, something more at work here. Loy freely admits that he doesn’t like heroism; nor does he care for Schopenhauer, certainly not in any sense that might inform Tristan. Loy cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Some observers might think that more his problem than Wagner’s and suggest that Loy direct something with which he feels more at home. Of course, it is perfectly possible to reinterpret a work; I have no problem with that at all. My problem is that I find this production both inappropriate and incoherent, most of all far less interesting than Wagner’s opus metaphysicum. The realism of what we see is becoming almost de rigueur in modern Wagner production, but this realism seems especially at odds with what is such an overwhelmingly metaphysical work – the ‘passion of passion’ in Michael Tanner’s memorable phase. The carrying on behind the curtain between Kurwenal and Brangäne is simply demeaning: utterly unerotic and belittling characters whose love for their master and mistress is in many respects the truest love of all in the work as conceived by that minor nineteenth-century dramatist, Richard Wagner. I actually overheard someone during the second interval praising the production for the ‘masterstroke’ of having Tristan bring about his own death; the speaker, revelling in what she trumpeted as her ‘receptiveness’ to new ideas, was unaware that this was one of the few cases in which Wagner was respected. Of course Tristan should throw himself upon Melot; the only surprise was that he actually did.

Matters were not helped by Antonio Pappano’s musical direction. Pappano is an extraordinarily frustrating Wagner conductor; his performances vary enormously, sometimes getting things right, with the good work undone the next time, and vice versa. The love duet on this occasion was much better handled; its metaphysical import was ironed out, as if this were something from Italian opera, but there was structural sense of a kind. And the third act worked better than before, again hardly idiomatically – it was as if ‘plot’ were the focus of this of all works – but it built to a glorious climax in Nina Stemme’s extraordinary Liebestod. However, the first act was simply all over the place, arbitrarily pulled about, stopping and starting, with no sense of an overall line. The first act Prelude started almost unbelievably slowly. That can work, but there needs to be harmonic momentum; here, phrase followed phrase, with no connection between them. To imitate Furtwängler would be to fail, but it might be to fail better than this. The orchestra itself often sounded splendid, if rarely scaling the heights that it did under Bernard Haitink. Yet there were a few problems, which seemingly attested to a lack of security in direction. For instance, there were repeated difficulties in that unconvincing first act Prelude from woodwind upbeat entries; had this happened once, it might well have been a player’s individual mistake, but to happen repeatedly suggested otherwise. There was also an unfortunate missed entry from the trombones during the second act love duet, though they redeemed themselves with a truly sepulchral sound during Marke’s soliloquy.

However, and this is a big however, there was good news. I said on the first occasion that the ‘best reason to see this Tristan would be the singing’. On the showing of this final performance, it would be almost mandatory to endure the production on account of the singing. Everything was at least as good as before and some things were much better. Stemme rose to even greater heights, her detailed characterisation allied to astonishing radiance of tone. Schubert Lieder met Strauss opera – and I suppose Wagner is indeed somewhere in between. She also seemed to have developed a slight Nilsson-like irony, which I did not detect the first time around. Sophie Koch was a wonderful Brangäne, whilst Michael Volle was simply the best Kurwenal I have heard, charismatic and attentive to every nuance of the musico-poetic text. The supporting cast was without a weak link.

And then there were the two casting changes. Lars Cleveman was a far superior Tristan to Ben Heppner. To begin with, his tone seemed a little all-purpose heroic, refreshing though some heroism was in this production. But he sailed through – forgive the pun for an absent friend – the love duet, where Heppner had broken down and where so many others come utterly unstuck. Following the intervention of Matti Salminen’s superlative Marke, this Tristan seemed utterly changed. Whether this were increasing ease on stage or a dramatic decision, I do not know, but it certainly had a dramatic effect. Cleveman’s progress through the treacherous monologue was clearly plotted: wan and despairing at first, building up to a profoundly moving climax in tearing off his bandages. Moreover, Salminen showed that, whereas Sir John Tomlinson had moved by virtue of his great presence and understanding, a voice that was in fine fettle could take one still further.