The first new production of The Royal Opera's season brings together an exciting cast for Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It's one of the most admired and revered operas in the repertoire, yet the complexities of both its Schopenhauer-infused libretto and its loaded harmonies – this is the score that's often credited as giving birth to musical modernism – makes it notoriously difficult to perform. The search for what it means, and how it should be played and sung, is never-ending.
For Covent Garden's new staging by Christof Loy, Music Director Antonio Pappano will conduct several of the world's finest Wagnerians. Canadian tenor Ben Heppner needs no introduction: the star of many Royal Opera productions most recently including Turandot and Otello, his renowned interpretation of the role of Tristan is sure to be a highlight of the year, while Sir John Tomlinson sings King Marke for the first time at the House and Michael Volle promises to be an excellent Kurwenal.
To cap this outstanding line-up, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme will finally bring her Isolde to Covent Garden. This is her first ROH outing in a Wagner role – she's previously appeared here as Amelia in Un ballo in maschera – but many British Wagnerians will be familiar with her Isolde from her two appearances in the role at Glyndebourne, where she headed the first-ever Wagner production at the famous summer festival. The 2007 revival was filmed for Opus Arte and released on DVD to universal acclaim.
In addition, Stemme was Isolde to Plácido Domingo's Tristan in EMI's starry studio recording, which featured singers such as Rolando Villazon in tiny roles. That account was accompanied by the Royal Opera House orchestra, so although this is Stemme's first Covent Garden Isolde, it's not the first time she's collaborated with Pappano and his team on the work. I interviewed her a couple of weeks into rehearsals, to ask her about the new production and her very experienced view on a role she's practically made her own.
We begin by looking simply at the physical challenge of the part. What makes her want to do something so difficult?
'Because it's such wonderful music,' she says simply. 'And the drama's hugely interesting. It's an ongoing process for me; I feel I'm never really done with it. It's a world that one enters. I took a long time to study it – I allowed myself time to get into it. And now I do at least one production a year, which has been the case since 2003.'
Psychologically, Tristan is notoriously complex, and Stemme elaborates on Isolde's character. 'The drama has really taken place before the drama begins; everything has happened already. I wonder sometimes whether Isolde actually does change during the course of the opera. I still have questions in my mind about that. Of course, she changes through the love potion, which she thinks is a death potion. In fact, all she wants is death in the first act, seen from the outside. There's nothing more in life for her; unconsciously in love with Tristan, she's about to marry a man she doesn't know – an old king. I want to portray her as quite young: I want to portray the human side, a woman in that situation, rather than showing her as a queen or princess. The boundaries break down once she's taken the love potion, so we see more of her perhaps in the second act. Then of course, she's betrayed once again by Tristan when he tries to die at the end of act two.'
I ask her about the particular vocal challenges of the piece. 'One of the problems is always that the Liebestod – the best known bit – is at the very end,' she openly admits. 'I've just read an interview with Birgit Nilsson in which she said that if you don't manage to sing a good Liebestod, you haven't done a good Isolde that night.' She grimaces humorously and laughs. 'Of course, there's a lot of truth in what she said, but I try not to look at it like that because I would probably stop doing it! The challenges about the role are that it's low and it's high, and there's a lot of text. The harmonies are very interesting but difficult, which you get into the system over time. My goal is to not really see these difficulties – but they are all there!'
We speak briefly about the special experience of putting the work on disc. 'I guess every production gives me more understanding of the piece, and when you're in the recording studio you can use totally different means to express the part. Also, just to be in the middle of the orchestra is overwhelming. You wonder, “Am I being heard now?”, because you can't hear yourself in the same way as you do when you're onstage. And with Pappano's talent and skills when it comes to recordings, it was a great experience.' And Domingo's attitude to the project? 'He was fantastic. He's so musical, and so devoted. You really felt how much he had longed to do this, and he sings it so beautifully.'
It's four years since the EMI set came out. Has Pappano's view of the work changed since then? 'We all start with a fresh view – you can't say that you start from scratch with this score, but we've all taken steps forward with the piece and it's very different to do it as a live production. And the interpretation of the production inevitably spills over into the musical interpretation. There's give and take.
'I decided not to listen to the recording before I came here, not to compare this with what we did before, and instead just to see what happens.'
I ask Stemme whether about Loy's production. 'I think it's fairly typical of his work; I believe this is the fourth time I've done a production with him. It's interesting to see his development since 2001, when we first worked together. The production is very simple in some ways, but he uses the chorus and actors more prominently than is normally the case. He also works with the different worlds – he changes between dream and reality and sometimes you're not sure which one you're in. The costuming is dressy but minimalistic. But because the production is minimalistic, his work is very thorough, because he does what you really need to do to tell the drama in the way we want to tell it. He really interprets the text, too, unlike some directors who tend to get a bit “universal” about the way they deal with Tristan. Sometimes you feel that most of all they'd like Isolde to fly! Here, it's more down-to-earth, but I think that gives us another “take-off” effort to the piece.'
Of the rapport between the cast, Stemme says that 'It's a wonderful group of people – they're great to work with and these are the best possible circumstances.' And she adds that she's delighted to be teaming up again with Sir John Tomlinson, who has stepped into the role of King Marke for the first three performances of the run after Matti Salminen's recovery from recent surgery took longer than expected.
Stemme's repertoire tends to revolve around Wagner now, though not exclusively, and I ask whether this is just because of the way he writes for the voice. 'It's not purely vocal – it's the whole combination of things. It's the depth of the libretto, which also inspired the music because it's written by the same man. Also, there are so many interesting questions to ask about these characters and roles. The music is just fantastic - it lies well for my voice, apparently. And with Isolde, what comes after? It's such a huge role, with so many dimensions, that it's almost difficult to take on something new afterwards. I'm going to take on Rusalka in a year's time, and I try to have a certain mix. But I realise that I do love Wagner and that I want to keep it in my repertoire.'
The soprano's long-awaited debut as Brünnhilde – originally planned for San Francisco – was brought forward when she took over the role from Deborah Voigt at the Vienna State Opera. 'I was asked to step in for Siegfried in Vienna by the director, which worked for me because I always wanted to start with the Siegfried Brünnhilde. But I'm doing the whole thing in San Francisco now: I do the Walküre one next spring, and the following season I do all three. I'm hugely excited about it. It's scary at the same time, because it's much more dramatic than Isolde, for instance. And though doing it in America means it's away from the “Wagnerian continent” of Europe' – she giggles at her use of so ominous a term – 'the amount of rehearsal time over there is crazy; it's nothing.'
Stemme has also sung the role at the Wagnerian Holy Grail – Bayreuth. Was there a special feeling to that experience? 'It's very special to do it there, though at the same time you meet the same colleagues that you meet all over the world. It was a great experience to be amongst so many singers in various Wagner productions, and for once you meet singers in your own Fach – other sopranos who I hardly ever meet otherwise, because there's usually just one lyric-dramatic soprano at the house at the time. It's also fantastic to sing on that stage, and the audience is very special. They can be very mean sometimes if you're not successful, but they can also be very enthusiastic.'
In spite of all this, the soprano assures me she's not giving up the Italian repertoire. 'I still have Verdi. There's a new Ballo production coming up in Stockholm. I try to keep it in the repertoire, but it also has to match up with the other things I have to learn. I'm doing Forza. I've done Aida, which was brought out on DVD – I was sorry that it was the first time I'd done it, and that's the risk today, you risk having everything you do recorded for eternity, even if it's not ripe yet! With the Italian repertoire, I also have Fanciulla del West coming up. I do like to do the Italian operas, but I always find it difficult because of the language. It is a different temperament, and I really want to find the colour of it, which is quite a stretch for me. But it's very good for Wagnerian singing to do Italian repertoire.'
Any other roles coming up? 'Isn't that enough?' she jokes. 'The rest is in the distant future!'
I also ask her about whether she plans to make any new recordings, following on from her disc of Strauss for EMI. 'Not at the moment,' she replies. 'I haven't had any time, and the record companies are having a tough time at the moment. You never know about DVDs! Sometimes you turn around and say “Hello, is that out on DVD?” I know they recorded the Salome I did in Barcelona, but I don't know if it's actually going to be released.'
Stemme's childhood was musical, but not in a formal sense. 'There was music on the radio every weekend, and my father played a little. He started to play the flute when I took my first piano lessons at the age of six. We followed each other – when I was good enough I accompanied him a little bit, and then I switched over to the violin and later to the viola. My sisters played string instruments as well. So music was a big part of my life, but more as an amateur. Jazz and classical was what I listened to the most. It was always there, and for me it was quite natural. What wasn't natural was to go into music – to take that step from an academic family – so that took a longer time.'
She then enrolled on a course to study Economics. Why? 'To become a normal person. But I didn't quite succeed in that!' she laughs. 'I tried to do something that would give me a licence for a normal working life, but at the same time I started studying at the opera studio in Stockholm. It became obvious where I wanted to go, but I wasn't sure until I was admitted to the opera school.'
I ask her about the leap into professional life. 'It was thanks to Plàcido more or less – I won the Operalia contest, and Cardiff Singer of the World happened the same spring. That opened the door on the opera world, but I wasn't ready yet. My technique was not steady enough, and I didn't feel ready to go to an opera house. I did go to audition in Vienna and was offered a contract right away, and I felt very reluctant. It was surreal to get the first offer from the Vienna State Opera, because that was the star to reach, but at the same time I had the feeling that it wasn't right for me. You never know if you come as an inexperienced singer – maybe you have to do too much, which would affect your technique, or maybe you don't get to do anything, so you miss out on experience.
'So I turned it down and went to Cologne, which allowed me to develop more calmly, and also to build a family. I did some bigger roles, like Mimi, Butterfly, Tosca, Suor Angelica and the Countess from Figaro, and I feel that was the best thing for me to do. In other words, I didn't use the competitions to launch myself. I just tried to be true to myself, and I got good advice from more experienced colleagues. I'm always very sorry when I hear of young singers burning out early in their careers. Everyone's always keen to discover new talent, but it very seldom happens overnight. You have to prepare for a long time.'
Any ambitions? 'I still have Munich and Paris to do. Munich is happening this autumn with Senta in Dutchman/Holläner and next year with Rusalka, and Paris is coming later. It's not that I haven't been asked, but it's always been too complicated to schedule.' And personal ambitions? 'Just to be happy and healthy, and to take care of my family. I'm very lucky to enjoy my profession as much as I do. You do have to sacrifice certain things, but I don't see it that way.'
I ask her about the possibility of teaching when she eventually comes to the end of her singing career. 'I see myself doing something in the opera world, but I'm not sure about teaching. Some kind of coaching, maybe. I like to encourage people around me, but I don't trust myself yet to have the ears for others. I've seen other singers teach singing, and sometimes I think their ears are perhaps not as open as those of a coach or pianist who's not into his own technique. It's a very personal thing, how you solve problems. And you have to be very flexible when you work with others, and know what's best for this or that person. It's interesting, but it takes a lot of energy, and I don't want to get into it before I have time to devote myself fully. I'm open to see what happens in the future though!'
Finally, we turn to the subject of Beethoven's Fidelio, which Stemme will sing at Covent Garden in the future. 'I haven't done it on stage yet. I think that will be the first staged version I do, so it will be a big event for me. It's a very important opera. It's difficult to sing. I think the message it carries is very unusual for opera – about human rights – and to play a married woman who doesn't die at the end is almost frustrating!' she jokes. 'But I think it's a very encouraging theme: to fight for your beloved, and for the rights of everyone. He's a political prisoner, and we have quite a few of those these days.
'There are moments in Beethoven's music which are just magical. Leonore is a very strong and courageous woman. The aria is super-difficult – almost more difficult to sing than Isolde, because Beethoven rights in much more static lines, and the tessitura can be very high for a very long time, so it's really tiring. It's a short opera, but it's not a very short role!'
Nina Stemme appears in Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 29 September. For more information, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.
Interview with Antonio Pappano, who conducts this production of Tristan
Interview with Ben Heppner, who plays Tristan in this production
Interview with Sir John Tomlinson, who plays King Marke
DVD Review: Nina Stemme as Isolde at Glyndebourne
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