Wagner Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera House, London

Edward Seckerson
Wednesday 30 September 2009 12:51 BST

After his starkly minimalist Lulu one might have anticipated that director Christof Loy would deliver a Tristan und Isolde of unforgiving austerity.

What one might not have predicted, though, was that through its painful clarity it would achieve such emotional truth as to leave most productions of this piece skimming the surface of this heartbreaking masterpiece. Those who roundly booed Loy and his creative team at the curtain call clearly couldn’t make a connection between what they saw and what they heard and felt. I would question their theatrical sensibilities and ask how on earth they think Nina Stemme gave what could perhaps be the performance of her life as Isolde without the input, insight, and nurturing of a gifted director.

You could say as much about the entire cast, all of whom, whatever their vocal shortcomings, committed with Loy to uncovering and understanding the psychological drama within. It was played out here like a chamber piece with cosmic implications, Wagner’s text afforded the point and fine nuancing of a spoken play. Characters connected or not through their feelings and actions not through some pre-conceived notion of how opera behaves. Johannes Leiacker’s design – which I suspect is what really upset the naysayers – presents us with a grand but as yet unfinished room glimpsed sporadically through the moving curtains of a false proscenium. Isolde’s candlelit wedding breakfast is already laid out. This is the world of privilege, of kings and knights and black tie banquets where women like Isolde are gifted into marriage for political gain. But the real psychological drama is played out in the empty space downstage (empty but for a couple of rehearsal chairs and a table) where Loy and his designer have created a rapid transit to that shadowy place where human nature resides.

When the curtains are drawn back towards the climax of Tristan and Isolde’s fateful “night of love” to reveal King Marke (John Tomlinson) and his retinue gawping at the lovers as if at some cheap sex show (Melot even pulls up a chair), the point is chillingly made that there some things just too perfect for this life and this world.

I have already indicated but cannot find words to describe the impact of Nina Stemme’s wonderful Isolde, as formidable in her scorn as she was rapturous in her devotion. This was as special a performance as I have seen in the role. It really doesn’t get any better. Ben Heppner (Tristan) started to lose his vocal support in act two and thereafter fought valiantly to stay on top. But what heart and intelligence and vulnerability and how he strove for beauty even where he failed to achieve it. John Tomlinson’s King Marke was similarly challenged, the character’s deep hurt struggling to come through the vocal duress. But Michael Volle’s craggily sexy Kurwenal and Sophie Koch’s thrilling Brangane proved equally commanding.

And as the dramatic truths mounted so too did the musical values: Antonio Pappano was passionate, spontaneous, wonderfully alive to the stage drama, the Royal Opera Orchestra seethingly magnificent. So we didn’t go out humming the sets; some of us, though, felt we’d had a real evening in the theatre.

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