Love will tear us apart

<i>Tristan Und Isolde</i> | Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

Whatever the characters tell us, the emotions to which Wagner's Tristan and Isolde give voice can't be described as love. Rather they succumb to a drug-induced obsession, demanding nothing less than oblivion for its consummation. Wagner's musical language being what it is, we and they have to put up with an eternity of deferred gratification before death finally claims them.

Whatever the characters tell us, the emotions to which Wagner's Tristan and Isolde give voice can't be described as love. Rather they succumb to a drug-induced obsession, demanding nothing less than oblivion for its consummation. Wagner's musical language being what it is, we and they have to put up with an eternity of deferred gratification before death finally claims them.

With its cod medievalism and its morbid sexuality, Tristan und Isolde retains the power to convulse audiences. Nevertheless, at last Saturday's first night of Covent Garden's new production, by far the loudest applause went to Bernard Haitink, conducting his first Tristan und Isolde. Despite their exertions, the singers were in second place, while the director Herbert Wernicke, who also designed sets and lighting, had the consolation of a generous sprinkling of boos.

From that you might infer that this was some brave or reckless post-mod staging, but in fact it is, by and large, disappointingly conventional. His set consists of little more than two open-fronted cubes, one red for Isolde, the other blue for Tristan. Within the cubes, lighting conspires with raked floors and angled poles to create a prison; neither Jon Fredric West's Tristan nor Gabriele Schnaut's Isolde is ever allowed to bridge the chasm that separates them. If this is sex, it's of a decidedly safe kind.

Indeed, at the end of Act One, when Isolde reaches for Tristan, and again at the opera's climax, when she at last achieves death, the cubes swivel to take them further apart, as if to underline the unfeasibility of what they call love.

No problem there: most productions fail to find a way to bring Wagner's lovers, in whichever opera, into meaningful physical contact; why not make a polemical point by denying them that contact? Yet the spaces that Wernicke has created remain inert, allowing the singers little beyond the usual face-front, emotion-through-hyperventilation routines.

Nevertheless, Schnaut and West found the vocal intensity that Wagner requires. She has a tendency to attack the note from below, which leads to some unpleasant shrillness; while West, despite pushing himself to the limit, remains a Tristan on the light side. Yet even when Wernicke's staging offers the singers little help, the pair manage to generate a sense of helpless abandon.

In the pit, Haitink achieves an urgency, even an impetuosity not always associated with his Wagnerian outings, and only occasionally at the expense of perfect orchestral articulation. If at times his singers sink beneath the waves of orchestral sound, Haitink sustains the tension between forward surge and lingering caress that is the opera's erotic essence. Perhaps it suits Haitink that the production throws the attention back to the pit, but a little more erotic surge onstage wouldn't go amiss.

Further performances on 21, 24 & 30 Oct and 3 & 9 Nov (020-7304 4000). BBC Radio 3 will broadcast the final performance

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