sun 22/09/2019

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera

Stemme soars and Heppner flops in the Royal Opera's controversial new production

There’s nothing like a bit of communal booing to sharpen your critical faculties. And Christof Loy’s new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House last night received wave after wave after wave of it. An ocean of boos almost as deep and profound as the Wagner that had just washed over us moments before. One boo surge from above, one boo surge from below, rivulets of bass-boos and piccolo-boos from the flanks, all lapping at the half-grinning, half-freaked out German production team on stage. Fence-sitting was not possible in this maelstrom. Loy’s approach, however imperfect, had to be defended. A panzer attack of applause erupted from my hands.

Loy isn’t a natural theatrical ally. He is one of those theory-junkie directors who I suspect wouldn’t go for a shit without consulting his dramaturg. And, certainly, not everything about his stark, contemporary setting – a grey box with a sliding mauve curtain and single chair (which blossomed into two chairs and a table in Act 2) - was convincing. Yet, I appreciate Loy’s boldness (by which I mean simplicity) and his focus on psychological realism, his detail, modesty and refinement, and am amazed at how sound his ideas (despite the ever-present dramaturg) were.

There were high-profile casualties as a result of his approach: a severe gutting of operatic traditions and fumigation of much-loved operatic mould. Out went the flowing robes and Celtic hair, the Italian-greengrocer semaphore (which usually counts for emotion) and the gurning, out too any sight or semblance of seas or ships, coasts or crags, any sort of windy ebb and flow. But so what? If the music and libretto are already offering you these visions, why not free up the staging to do something else?

What Loy seems to have understood (that many have not) is that there is no need to match and mirror music and libretto to staging and costume. Wagner’s concept of Gesamtkunstwerk requires each artistic strand to work independently, as well as together. Loy was right, therefore, not to slavishly double the rich tone of Pappano’s orchestral colours with a visual lushness. He was right to boldly strike out on a lonely but fascinating path that re-imagines the physical journey and landscape across the Irish Sea as a bleak voyage of the mind. The seas and ships, coasts and crags, the windy ebb and flow were still present, but only as metaphor, musically and verbally shadowing the internal toing and froing of these tortured souls.

Loy's idea is not only to internalise the tempestuous waters that surround the story, but also to provide a believable contemporary setting for these middle-aged, aristocratic navel-gazers. The perfect setting: a bourgeois dinner-party, which we glimpse in slow-motion incompleteness behind the curtain. Tristan and Isolde's indulgences, their guilt, their solipsism, their bouts of twaddle (I’ve read and enjoyed and trust the arguments of Bryan Magee on Wagner’s philosophy, but it doesn’t make the lines any easier to swallow) is just the sort of stuff that rears its head in the small hours after a few bottles of cuvée.

But what was wrong with Ben Heppner, supposedly one of the world's greatest living Tristans? He shifted himself around the stage awkwardly, amateurishly, his tired voice creaking and croaking. The force and fire of the efforts of both John Tomlinson, as King Marke, and Michael Volle, as Kurwenal, highlighted the qualitative disparity. With Heppner all but absent from the stage, Nina Stemme took on the second act essentially alone. As in the Liebestod, or with Sophie Koch’s lustrous Brangäne in the first act where Stemme and Koch circled each other across the stage like two ladybirds up a stalk, Stemme revealed an effortless facility for capturing both the character and voice of this troubled and troubling woman. The result was a standing ovation as impassioned as the boos that followed.

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