Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, December 2014Posted on 6 December 2014
Does Tristan know Isolde intends to kill him with the drink in Act I? No doubt at all in Christof Loy’s production where both of them lie down to die. But though Isolde sings of hatred, the orchestra carries the truth — love — and Mr. Loy, concerned that the emotional content of the stage action shall not simply double what is in the orchestra, gives us a cleverly austere production that allows the music to speak for itself.
Occasional glimpses behind a mid-stage curtain hint at a world whose shallowness contrasts with the huge depths of emotion in the music, which Nina Stemme as Isolde brought to brilliant vocal realisation. Her rage and fury in Act I when she tells Brangäne about tending for the wounded Tristan years ago came over with utter conviction, followed by a tremendous feeling of unrequited love in her Ungenimmt. Her appeal to Frau Minne (Love’s goddess) in the early Act II duet with Brangäne was magnificent, and in the Liebestod at the end she rose above the orchestra with effortless power. This was a great Isolde, thankfully matched in this revival by glorious singing from Stephen Gould as Tristan. His diction excellent, his voice resonant and imbued with full heroic power, their singing together had superb vocal chemistry.
Yet this was not just a great pair of lovers, but a cast replete with wonderful interpretations. John Tomlinson sang King Marke with superb diction and understandable confusion in Act II, and in Act III the tremendous feeling of Mein Held, mein Tristan protrayed a king trapped like Tomlinson’s Minotaur at the centre of a drama not of his own making. As Kurwenal, Iain Paterson’s stage presence matched his emotionally committed singing, and one could not wish for a better Brangäne than Sarah Connolly, who made a marvellous counterbalance to Nina Stemme’s Isolde. Neal Cooper sang a very strong Melot with commandingly arrogant stage presence, and Graham Clark with his clear voice and presence was luxury casting as the Shepherd.
In this production the shepherd peers closely at Tristan in Act III before Kurwenal appears, giving a slightly unusual effect to that scene, and I didn’t much like the forceful feints that Kurwenal makes towards Brangäne in Act I, as if he were a pushy servant in Downton Abbey. But overall the production allows the music to tell the story, and that notorious wall on stage right seems to have been pivoted to improve sight-lines, though the House apparently kept the slips seats and balcony boxes on the left of the auditorium almost entirely empty — pity.
Antonio Pappano, who conducted this production when it was new in 2009, produced wonderful playing from the orchestra and superb attention to detail, if a slight lack of continuity in parts of Acts I and II. Here was music and singing that produced a palpable sense of commitment from the audience, and when the excellent Ed Lyon sang that unaccompanied song as the young sailor at the start of the opera you could have heard a pin drop.
Performances continue on various dates until December 21, with a BBC Radio 3 broadcast on December 29 — for details click here.