Saturday 6 December 2014

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, 5 December 2014

Royal Opera House
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Melot – Neal Cooper
King Marke – Sir John Tomlinson
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk 
Christof Loy (director)
Julia Burbach (associate director)
Johannes Lieacker (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)
Images: ROH/Clive Barda

Christof Loy has established rather a nice line in taking on works he admits he dislikes, or worse, and ignoring them whilst claiming to direct them. The ne plus ultra was surely his Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten, in which he set aside Strauss and Hofmannsthal completely in favour of his own banal story in which ‘an emerging young singer, sheltered and pampered by her well-to-do family is asked to take on the role of the Empress for a complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten.’ That was more or less it. His Royal Opera Tristan does not go so far as that, though his Lulu came close; nevertheless, his words speak for themselves. Loy, we read in the programme, cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others since have managed to do so, but obviously what matters is a director’s inability or unwillingness to understand the work; that, after all, is what he is paid for. ‘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, notorious, the reader will doubtless agree, for his inability to characterise. Tristan, however, seemed to Loy, who, it is once again worth reminding ourselves, the most important figure in all of this, something of an exception. It does not seem that he necessarily wished to traduce the work, then, but he has certainly misunderstood it. Of all Wagner’s works, it is perhaps least of all concerned with what he claims to interest him, and most concerned with metaphysics.
So much, then, for the misconception, but how does it play out in practice? Music and the arts in general are, after all, littered with examples of great works founded upon questionable æsthetics. Not too badly, to start with; indeed, I began to think that either my unfavourable memories from 2010 had played tricks upon me or that there had been radical revision. Julia Burbach was listed as an associate director and I think she probably has mitigated a few of Loy’s most irritating excesses; the supremely irrelevant canoodling between Brangäne and Kurwenal, for instance, seems toned down, although it is not, alas, eradicated. A good part of the first act is relatively abstract – pretty much always a good thing in Tristan – or at least may be seen as such with a degree of good will (towards Wagner, if not Loy). Then, when they have a little break, Tristan and Isolde are all over each other. What is the problem with that, one might ask? There seem to be two principal problems. One relates to the specificity of the setting, even if we are not quite sure of what that specificity is. In some building – a palace, perhaps? – awaiting her wedding and thereafter facing the consequences, Isolde manages somehow to escape for long enough to take off her wedding dress and be mauled by Tristan for a while. Still more oddly, she manages to do so for longer still during what may or may not be the wedding reception in the second act. Were there less specificity, this would not matter; playing fast and loose with time and location would not be an issue, and we could accept the overarching mythological claims. Here, however, we are just aware that it is at best rather trivial – Tristan for those who would prefer EastEnders, although a real soap opera viewer would doubtless expect more external action sooner – and often puzzling or downright nonsensical.  
The other brings us to the heart of Loy’s error, or, perhaps better, to the heart of Wagner’s – remember him? – work. Wagner’s action is resolutely metaphysical: not exclusively so, but the physical matters only insofar as it draws us towards, or in Schopenhauer’s terms, represents, the metaphysical drama. Since there are no metaphysics in Loy’s view, all we have is an extremely prolonged soap opera, tinged with the occasional aspiration towards Ibsen. Ironically – unknowingly, I suspect – Loy’s acknowledged inability to deal with Schopenhauerian denial of the world seems to have led Loy him to stage the second act as conventional ‘opera’, rather as Wagner acknowledged he could have written it, set against a backdrop of a brilliant court ball, ‘during which the illicit lovers could lose themselves … where their discovery would generate a suitably scandalous impression and the whole apparatus that goes with that.’  Wagner, of course, rejected that possibility he aired for a second act in which almost nothing but music happens. And even when external action intrudes, Wagner came to regard it as of lesser importance at best. His prose sketch had, for instance, drawn to a close, Götterdämmerung-like, with the words, ‘The bystanders are profoundly moved,’ concluding, ‘Marke blesses them’. However, when, in 1859, he summarised the work’s concerns for Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner went so far as not only to omit the King’s  forgiveness, but also Tristan’s agonies at Kareol; they no longer mattered to him. True action, the Handlung of his own description, now lay in the noumenal world: ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ Such, needless to say, was not what we were permitted to experience here. I should be the last person to claim that, as a general rule, production must exhibit some illusory, disingenuous Werktreue. However, in this particular case, it does seem that a staging of Tristan will not work unless it follows Wagner’s lead. Not for nothing did Nietzsche call it the opus metaphysicum. I know that I was not the only one in the audience looking back fondly to Herbert Wernicke’s comprehending, yet largely uncomprehended, production for this very house.
Wernicke’s production had of course been fortunate indeed to have Bernard Haitink, one of the greatest Wagner conductors of our age, in the pit. Haitink, as we know from his Bruckner and Mahler, is a master of large musical structures, and so he proved here. Antonio Pappano seems to have been thinking in similar terms to Loy, with not dissimilar results. Indeed, the scrappiness of the orchestral playing made it markedly inferior to Pappano’s previous accounts, let alone to Haitink’s. Missed entries, thinness of string tone (had I not seen the section with my own eyes, I should have sworn that it was considerably smaller), wavering intonation: none of those helped. More grievous still, however, was Pappano’s seeming inability to let a musical line, let alone a paragraph or some greater structure, unfold. The seemingly arbitrary nature of his beat was mirrored in the aimless meandering of the score. It seemed for the most part very slow; whether it was by the clock, I am not sure. The lack of direction was the problem, though, especially during the second act, which at times seemed almost to grind to a halt. Pappano gave the impression of following rather than leading the singers; that is not, to put it mildly, a recipe for success in Wagner.
Isolde (Nina Stemme)
Where, however, this Tristan did score over Wernicke and Haitink was with respect to those singers, who, as a cast, are deserving of considerable praise. Nina Stemme offered everything we have come to expect of her as Isolde. With her, words and music formed an indivisible whole; Wagner’s æsthetics emerged triumphant in a variegated reading that yet always belonged to a conception greater than the moment. She even presented us with Nilsson-like angry sarcasm in the first act. Stephen Gould proved a dependable Tristan. Despite a few passages of dubious intonation in the third act, he stayed the course and provided us with as many of the words and notes as it is reasonable to ask. (Haitink was cursed by his Tristans in particular.) Sarah Connolly, at least in the first act, did not offer as rich-toned a Brangäne as I had expected; indeed, Stemme sometimes sounded more the mezzo. Connolly’s reading seemed more focused upon words than line, but without unnecessary disruption of the latter. Iain Paterson offered an intriguingly boisterous, yet at the same time most sensitively sung, Kurwenal. The role seemed to fit him like a glove. Only John Tomlinson’s Marke disappointed. All Wagnerians owe Tomlinson gratitude for his extraordinary years of service, but, undimmed stage presence notwithstanding, the vocal flaws now render such an outing ill-advised. I was most impressed by Neal Cooper’s Melot; before consulting the programme, I had assumed this to be a German tenor. He is, we learn, covering the role of Tristan here and will sing it next year at Longborough. Impressive! Ed Lyon's Sailor was finely sung in very sense. Graham Clark made his typically characterful mark as the Shepherd; as, perhaps more surprisingly, given the brevity of his part, did Jette Parker Young Artist, Yuriy Yurchuk as the Steersman.