The Royal Opera’s new production of Tristan und Isolde is a remarkable achievement on every conceivable level. It would be impossible to hear a better sung, played or conducted performance of this enigmatic opera elsewhere today. And Christof Loy delivers a staging of such dramatic truth and penetrating insight that it is without doubt the finest Wagner production to be seen in London for decades.
Christof Loy’s non-literal staging of Tristan und Isolde was always bound to challenge the traditionalists and force an audience to think, so perhaps it’s no surprise that his vision of the work elicited such widespread booing when he and the production team took their curtain call at the end of one of the most exhilarating and overwhelming performances of this enigmatic opera to be seen in this country for decades. Those members of the audience who did boo should seriously re-consider whether they should in fact be going to the opera at all, as if they are unable to engage with a staging that whilst abstract, remains faithful to the essence of the opera, they should probably stay at home with a CD.
There’s no ship, no castle and precious little scenery but what Johannes Leiacker creates instead is an appropriate visual metaphor for the themes of love and death, day and night and separation which pervade the opera. The stage is split in two with a giant curtain the forestage is bare apart from a table and chairs, but when the curtain parts we become voyeurs into a world where nothing is really certain. What is dream and what is reality? We’re never really sure. It all works brilliantly and Loy’s direction of the singers is faultless. He produces exquisitely drawn, insightful portrayals from every single member of the cast and they respond with performances that not only have a sense of spontaneity about them, but are deeply-thought through. Pure genius.
Rarely in opera do the musical credentials match the theatrical on equal parity, but here the two were indivisible. Architect of the evening’s musical success was Antonio Pappano who has done nothing finer in his seven years as Music Director than this. His conducting was sensational the balance between stage and pit was impeccable and he drew ravishing sounds from the orchestra who played as if their lives depended on it. Whether stoking the fires of passion in the second or mirroring Tristan’s suffering in the prelude to the last act, their playing was at turns ecstatic and unbearably moving.
Even with such a superb staging and brilliant orchestral playing, you still need a fantastic cast, so full marks to the Royal Opera for assembling as good a cast as you could hope for today. Ben Heppner is the finest Tristan currently before the public and despite a few alarms at the first night when his voice cracked a couple of times he gave as committed performance as you could hope for. He was ardent in the love duet and brought a hair-raising intensity to Tristan’s delirium in the third act. Michael Volle was an unusually strong Kurwenal, his rich bass-baritone filling the house effortlessly, whilst Sophie Koch in her role debut was a strong and forthright Brangaene, producing a stream of wonderfully-focussed tone all evening. John Tomlinson had difficulty with the higher notes as King Marke but he was as vivid a presence on stage as ever. All the smaller roles were well taken, with Richard Berkeley-Steele an unusually potent Melot.
As Isolde, Nina Stemme was quite simply outstanding. Imperious in the first act, vulnerable in the second and as fresh in the Liebestod as she had been at the beginning of the evening, she embodied all the facets of the character in a scrupulously detailed account of the role which left me grasping for superlatives. Utterly musical throughout, her Act One curse pinned you to the back of your seat, yet she went on to produce the sort of achingly beautiful soft singing that simply isn’t in most Wagnerian sopranos’ armoury. She was rightly awarded a standing ovation and I for one haven’t heard or seen an Isolde to touch her. A thrilling evening on many levels and without doubt the most intelligent Wagner production to be seen in London for years. Unmissable.