The first new production of the current season, this Tristan und Isolde sees Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano collaborate again with German director Christof Loy just months after their Lulu, premiered in May. There was some hope that this new staging would erase the memories of Herbert Wernicke's deeply unpopular 2000 production – revived just once – but Loy's rather dreary, resolutely unerotic vision of this great work proves just as frustrating. Indeed, Loy and his colleagues were greeted at the curtain call with some vociferous booing.
Loy has opted, in designs by Johannes Leiacker, for the same straightforward set for all three acts. A new, bare proscenium is set back askance from the front of the stage. The space in front is spartan, with just a humble chair in Act One, joined by a table and a second chair for Act Two. The space behind is airy and bright with tall windows sketched out on the white wall, marked off by a large velvet curtain which is opened by the characters or of its own accord. Loy's conceit, put simply, is that behind the curtain is the public world of King Mark and his entourage (the world of day); in front of it is where the emotions of the characters are laid bare and explored (the world of night). So far, so good, I suppose, and if any opera can survive being placed in the abstract, it is Tristan und Isolde: after all, ships, hunting parties and castles are often more easily conjured up in the mind's eye. To populate the world of day, however, with chorus in dinner jackets was probably one of the least successful visual aspects of the set: the sight of them scuttling around like disoriented waiters whilst singing about the ship's rigging in Act One was unintentionally comic, while their slow-motion tableau in the final scene, illustrating Marke's 'Alles tot!', struck me as tiresomely pretentious.
The set, however, is less of an issue than the direction of the singers. It is clear from an interview in the programme, between Pappano, Loy and the production's Dramaturg, Marion Tiedtke, that the creative team has set out to shake up our expectations regarding the opera. Rather than the ultimate love story, it is a more subtle exploration of what love and death mean, Loy tells us. This is a valid reading, no doubt, of much of the libretto, but one that too often has to overlook Wagner's music; to me, it seems perverse to read the great Act Two duet, for example, as some sort of philosophical dialogue and ignore the fact that the music revels so gloriously – and with unprecedented explicitness – in eroticism.
Whatever the need for audiences to be forced to rethink great operas, Tristan without the passion makes for a long night in the theatre. While Wernicke's production – and the dismal cast employed in its first run – was saved by the heroics of Bernard Haitink in the pit, producing a reading of the score of delicacy and power, Pappano's conducting on this occasion provided no such refuge, seemingly influenced as it was by the asceticism of Loy's vision. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House were worryingly inconsistent throughout the evening: they sounded shaky and unsure in the first minutes of the prelude and in accompanying the more recit-like passages, while at other times they produced a sound that was rich and thrilling, such as during Isolde's Narration and the climax of the Liebestod. Much of the time, however, I was struck at how unmoved I was left by the music. Again it was the opera's emotional heart, the enormous duet of Act Two, which was worst hit. It seems impossible to believe, but this extended scene hardly registered emotionally; and there is clearly something wrong when neither the utterances of the two protagonists nor Brangäne's 'Einsam wachend' send a shiver down the spine.
It was here too, that Loy's production was at its most peverse and he seemed to have taken to heart Nietzsche's barbed comment that Wagner's heroines are essentially ruled by petty, bourgeois concerns: the philosopher compares them all, when stripped of their mythological armour, to Madame Bovary. Absenting themselves from dinner with Marke and his entourage, Tristan and Isolde here settled down at a dingy table for their own meal. Isolde collects, at one stage, plates and cutlery to lay the table before the two of them – opera's most notorious lovers, let us not forget – settle down for what seems like little more than a discussion of a troubling domestic situation. Before the duet's climax, Isolde herself draws back the curtain to expose what's going on to Marke and his men, while Melot sits watching for a while before interrupting. It seems typical of this production that possibly the most famous interrupted cadence in music is pre-empted in this way, the staging perversely at odds with the music and muddying one of the opera's few moments of drama.
Thankfully, on one significant point, this production is leagues ahead of its predecessor: its Isolde. Nina Stemme has already sung Isolde to great acclaim at Glyndebourne and was so assured here that the role's legendary difficulties seemed to disappear. It is a rare singer indeed who during Act One can spit out top notes in her curse with such venom after recounting the fateful moment of her glance meeting Tristan's with glorious, melting lyricism. As an actress she embodied the proud princess with skill, adept as much at the spoilt flouncing in Act One as conveying the emotional turmoil; finally she produced a Liebestod of genuine beauty, balm to sooth the irritation of so much that had come before it.
Singing his first Covent Garden Tristan, Ben Heppner displayed his trademark effortless projection well but was obviously struggling at times. When singing quietly, in particular, his pitch was often wayward. 'O sink' hernieder' therefore got off to a shaky start and it was a shame that technically he was unable to complement Stemme in the hushed moments. The leading couple were not helped by the production, that's for sure, but one couldn't help notice a distinct lack of chemistry between them and, despite throwing himself whole-heartedly into his delirium in the final act, Heppner's deficiencies as an actor were noticeable.
In the supporting cast, Michael Volle's Kurwenal could be blustery but stood out for his security of delivery and committed acting. As Brangäne, here rather irrelevantly having some sort of liaison with Kurwenal, Sophie Koch's timbre seemed a little close to Stemme's than would have been ideal, but she too sang with generous tone. John Tomlinson replaced Matti Salminen as Marke (Salminen returns for the final three performances of the run) and threw himself into the drama as only he can. In the dramatic void created in Act Two, however, the effect was incongruous, and the growing problems in the top half of the voice seemed ever more pronounced. Smaller roles were well cast, including Richard Berkeley-Steele as Melot, Ryland Davies as a suave, besuited Shepherd and Ji-Min Park as a rather Italianate Sailor.
So, Covent Garden has replaced one unpopular production with one which, I suspect, will be just as unpopular. Loy's Tristan, however, seems more actively to work against Wagner and, with uneven musical values, this was a disappointingly uninvolving experience. Stemme's Isolde is probably the main reason to catch the run and I can imagine Pappano and the orchestra will settle down as it progresses. Having pensioned off Wernicke's Tristan before its tenth birthday, and after just one revival, Covent Garden is unlikely to be able to do the same with this. Loy's production, therefore, is one London is just going to have to learn to love.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper
Further performances of Tristan und Isolde take place on 2, 5, 9, 15 October at 5 pm and 18 October at 3 pm; the production will be broadcast on BBC Radio Three on Saturday 24 October.
Interview Nina Stemme on singing Tristan and Isolde at the Royal Opera
Interview Antonio Pappano on conducting Christof Loy's Lulu
Opera Review Christof Loy's Lulu at Covent Garden (May '09)
Opera Review Bryn Terfel Wagner's Flying Dutchman at Royal Opera House