Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, October 2009


This was the second night of Christof Loy’s new production for the Royal Opera, and I found it worked very well. The orchestra performed with distinction under Antonio Pappano, and the Opera House had put together a superb cast, led by Nina Stemme as Isolde. She was terrific throughout, and in the Liebestod she rose effortlessly above the orchestra — it was a wonderful performance. Tristan was Ben Heppner, whom I once saw give a marvellous rendering of the same role at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, but here unfortunately he had trouble with his voice at some moments in Acts II and III. But he sang strongly, and his interaction with Michael Volle as Kurwenal in Act III was very powerful. Volle was superb, and as good a Kurwenal as I’ve ever seen. This was hardly surprising, given his excellent portrayal of Dr. Schön in Lulu this past summer, and his wonderful performance of John the Baptist in Salome in February 2008. Sophie Koch as Brangäne sang beautifully, and John Tomlinson’s King Marke was a peerless example of how well this part can be performed — his stage presence was riveting, as always, and we are lucky he was able to take over from Matti Salminen who will now appear only in the last three performances.

The fairly minimal designs by Johannes Leiacker, and lighting by Olaf Winter, featured dining tables and chairs at the rear of the stage, occasionally occupied by King Marke’s men in their black dinner jackets — Marke himself wore a white one. A dark heavy curtain in front of the tables was sometimes open, sometimes closed, and sometimes moved to reveal the diners in a freeze, and then to reveal empty tables. None of this got in the way of the singing though, and I found Loy’s direction very good, particularly in the interactions between Isolde and Brangäne, and between Tristan and Kurwenal. There was no comparison to the frightful Bayreuth production I saw this summer, and the singers here were far better too, particularly Nina Stemme who completely outclassed Iréne Theorin at Bayreuth.

On this second night of the production, the Opera House management had clearly realised that almost all the action was invisible from the left hand edge of the auditorium. The Balcony boxes and side seats were entirely empty at the start, though they later filled with people from similar positions higher up in the Amphi. The inattention to sight-lines is a failing of Christof Loy, who did a similar thing with some extreme stage-right action in Lulu, and the House management should have been on the case far earlier. First-night critics who couldn’t understand the booing should take note. From their fine seats it behoves them not to be rude, as one or two were, about the intelligence of audience members in less exalted seats who simply couldn’t see most of the action.

One Response to “Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, October 2009”

  1. Peter & Irene Le Marchand says:

    Almost the best that one can hope for in going to live opera these days is that the production will not detract from the music too much. The Royal Opera House and Wagner belong to us all. We go not because we are opera critics or musicologists or because we wish to ‘be seen’ or because it is snobbish or whatever: it is simply because we love the occasion, can meet our friends and enjoy the height of musical achievement.

    The farce with this production typifies all that is wrong with modern productions. When Wagner sets Act 1 of the opera on a ship, it is folly to decide to set it elsewhere. It does nothing to enhance the enjoyment if you are trying to work out the significance of an upturned table, or curtains revealing a slow motion banquet, or Isolde taking off her shoes or any of the other distractions. Was the action all on the left because of the left brain/right brain psychobabble? Were the discarded shoes the discarded fripperies of materialism? When six singers were lined up against the wall as if they were about to be shot, was this a reference to the holocaust and Wagner’s supposed anti-semitism? Can we be bothered?

    What this production showed is that some really silly and incompetent people are involved. Large sums of money were lost because no one bothered to see what ordinary ticket-buyers might see–or not see.

    We read a dissection of the singing of Ben Heppner by a Japanese lady on the Guardian web site. She clearly knows a thing or two about singing, and despite paying £160 for her seat, left after Act II. What a pity the ROH cannot produce top class opera consistently.

    Almost the most enjoyable part of the evening (apart from the Liebestod) was booing ourselves hoarse at the end when the production team came on.

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