A musical opinion on the latest production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (October 5) would have to register: Tolerable singing, passion in the pit but Sterility in the staging. The villain is the producer/director Christof Loy, whose lack-lustre and lack-lust Lulu, his previous Garden production, should have caused the management of the Royal Opera House, and it’s music director in particular, to cancel Loy’s participation in the present new Tristan. His policy eliminates gesture (which might be thought to be essential in presenting any drama or opera on the stage) and imposes Loy on Wagner’s great work. The concept includes no ship, a posse of actors in evening dress not minding a ship, modern clothes, no daylight, no bed, one chair in act one, two chairs and a table in act two, Isolde removing Brangane’s dress, and a damned great wall that doesn’t fit the stage on one side of it.
The back of the stage is curtained on and off, the foreground is bare. This concept staging was greeted on opening night with booing. Now booing is something surely not to be approved of, but it does indicate that all is not well. This is particularly regrettable because otherwise there is much to be enjoyed. The orchestral playing is very fine indeed under Antonio Pappano. The singing is not perfect, except for an outstanding Kurwenal from Michael Volle. Alas, his is the only voice free from wobble or a beat that prevents the sound from being true. Of course this is a fault common to many singers today, in Wagner in particular. If you were to hear this cast on the radio or a CD it would be more tiresome than in the flesh. The awful thing is that listeners have got used to this. Listening to recordings of singers like Flagstad, Maggie Teyte, Birgit Nilsson or Fischer-Dieskau would point out the difference. So would listening to Michael Volle, fine actor and a bang in the middle of the note singer.
Nina Stemme acts a fine Isolde, and her top and piano notes were beautiful.
Was it chance or by design that the voice of Sophie Koch (Brangane) is so similar to that of Stemme that from a distance it was difficult to tell which was which? Ben Heppner’s voice has not much sap left but he put up a good show. But he is no hero, no lover, no captain of a ship (more likely a tugmaster). I heard somebody say he looked like a hundredweight of condemned meat. Stretched out on the floor Tristan looked like a beached whale (Loy seemed to have no concern for his ageing tenor). Sir John Tomlinson had stepped in for an ailing Matti Salminen. As always he gave a credible performance and we all love him, although his voice is now showing signs of wear and tear, fraying at the extremes (as King Marke).
So, this was a Tristan not only wounded in act two, but throughout by the stage director. Fortunately, Wagner’s music lived to tell the tale and grip a large and appreciative audience.