Tristan und Isolde

Bernard Haitink
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
9 November 2000
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanJon Frederic West
IsoldeGabriele Schnaut
BrangänePetra Lang
KurwenalAlan Titus
König MarkePeter Rose
MelotChristopher Booth-Jones
Ein junger SeemannTimothy Robinson
Ein HirtPeter Auty
SteuermannGraeme Broadbent
The Guardian

There’s something about Herbert Wernicke’s staging of Tristan und Isolde, the first of the Royal Opera’s new productions this season, that reminds me irresistibly of hamsters. Breeding the rodents is a tricky business; they don’t get on very well, and getting a pair to mate has to be approached carefully, bringing them together just for a few minutes to do the business and then separating them before they can kill each other. Wernicke treats these most famous of operatic lovers like that too: his set (he’s done everything, including the lighting) consists of two colour-coded boxes – blue for the boy, blood red for the girl – and Tristan and Isolde are never allowed to leave these domains, as if close contact would cause them to tear each other limb from limb. Even in the second act the hamsters – sorry, the lovers – never approach within 10 yards of each other, never exchange glances; their boxes move suggestively together and the lighting becomes more elaborate as they get worked up, but that’s about it.

The director may be making the valid point that Tristan and Isolde’s love is not only artificial (triggered by the love potion that Brangaene administers at the end of the first act), but also a self-centered emotion; that they are in love with the idea of being in love rather than with each other. But that is a very cerebral reading, and when it is combined with wooden acting from the two principals – their risible gestures should have gone out with Victorian melodrama – the result is desperately vapid.

There are pitifully few other dramatic ideas: sailors in blazers and puttees greet King Marke’s first appearance through megaphones and Tristan pulls himself on to Melot’s sword at the end of Act 1; Brangaene’s warnings in the second act are signalled by a wandering torch beam, for all the world like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan, and she takes poison just before Isolde launches into her Liebestod. It’s not enough.

The protagonists sound as if they are singing through megaphones. The Isolde, Gabriele Schnaut, seems incapable of anything less than fortissimo, and if the Tristan, Jon Frederic West, cannot quite match her volume he certainly equals the unpleasant acidity of her tone; they make an uningratiating couple. Even the Kurwenal, Alan Titus, barks rather than sings his lines; there was no chance of respite, so that at the end of the first act my ears were ringing as if I’d just sat through a Metallica concert. The only distinguished contributions come from Petra Lang’s Brangaene, a real presence on stage, vocally and dramatically, and from Peter Rose’s eloquent, touching Marke; but no one goes to a performance of Tristan und Isolde to hear those roles.

Bernard Haitink has craved to conduct this work at Covent Garden for the past 10 years; he obtains superb playing from the ROH Orchestra and brings his usual transparency in Wagner to the score. But the performance never catches fire as it should; when no passion is being generated on stage it must be hard to supply it all from the pit. Haitink made no secret of his dislike of the Richard Jones Ring at Covent Garden, which he conducted so loyally and so well; now, with a production of Tristan that summons up less dramatic energy in four hours than that Ring managed in any four minutes, he will have his work cut out to make it convincing.

Andrew Clements | 16 October 2000


Love will tear us apart

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.

Nick Kimberley | Wednesday 18 October 2000

La nouvelle production de Tristan et Isolde à Covent Garden, mise en scène par Herbert Wernicke, montre, une fois de plus, la difficulté de monter les opéras de Wagner à l’action très réduite et au verbe envahissant. Wernicke a choisi d’impartir aux deux personnages principaux deux espaces clos de la scène : à gauche, un plan incliné écarlate, sur lequel se tient Isolde, en robe blanche, auquel sa seule servante Gärdener, habillée toute de noir, accède parfois ; à droite, un plan incliné bleu, sur lequel évolue Tristan, et, parfois, son serviteur Kurwenal (Melot s’y fait également tuer dans le troisième acte). Pivotant et coulissant, les deux plans se rapprochent et s’éloignent, mais les mouvements de Tristan et Isolde restent minimaux : généralement éloignés de plus de dix mètres l’un de l’autre (sauf lorsqu’ils se passent la coupe au breuvage d’amour), ils fixent le public pendant (presque) tout le spectacle. Le sol, sur lequel évoluent le Roi Marke (habillé de cuir, genre KGB), Melot, et les deux servants, est revêtu de marbre funéraire, dans lequel les ombre de Tristan et Isole se reflètent parfois, au gré des éclairages très variés de Wernicke. Tristan et Isolde semblent ainsi tous deux sur un nuage, mais chacun sur son nuage, isolés du reste du monde. Parce qu’ils aimeraient l’amour plutôt qu’ils ne s’aimeraient l’un l’autre ? Parce que la vraie vie (le vrai amour) est ailleurs ? Parce que l’amour finit toujours par mourir au contact de la vie normale ? Faites vos jeux. Quoi qu’il en soit, la mise en scène ne fonctionne pas d’un point de vue scénique, et donnait plutôt l’impression d’une ennuyeuse « mise en espace ». Très froids, les décors ne sont pas spécialement beaux, la direction des chanteurs, presque inexistante, et si les éclairages constituent le point fort du drame, on ne comprend pas bien leur logique. Sifflée par une bonne moitié du public, cette production très minimaliste de Wernicke n’atteint cependant pas la laideur insensée de la production de l’Opéra Bastille, difficilement égalable il est vrai.

La direction peu dramatique des chanteurs incite à ne juger le plateau qu’en fonction de ses capacités vocales. Même si la première intervention (celle d’un invisible pêcheur) laissait présager le pire par son étonnant manque de justesse, les seconds rôles ont tous tenus leurs rôles de manière très convaincante. La Brangäne de Petra Lang représente en particulier une surprise pleine de promesses : la chanteuse possède en effet un beau timbre, homogène, une grande puissance de projection et une excellente diction. Alan Titus – la révélation du dernier Bayreuth cet été dans Wotan, a-t-on pu lire – possède lui aussi une voix magnifique et une étonnante facilité dans le rôle de Kurwenal. A vrai dire, les seconds rôles semblaient ici supérieurs aux deux rôles titres, autrement difficiles et éprouvants il est vrai. Dans Tristan, Jon Frederic West témoigne hélas de grosses difficultés vocales et donne la désagréable impression qu’il passe constamment en force : en l’écoutant, on ne peut s’empêcher de penser à quel point le rôle est difficile. Sa voix, d’un timbre assez hétérogène (parfois nasillard), témoigne de grosses faiblesses dans l’aigu, rarement juste, et donne le sentiment d’une certaine sécheresse (surtout dans l’acte II) – le tout couronné par une diction très insuffisante. Dans Isolde, Gabriele Schnaut s’en tire mieux, mais non sans peine. Elle possède un timbre assez riche, et, endurante, sa voix tient le choc des trois actes. Si l’on peut aisément lui passer certains problèmes passagers, que l’on imputera à l’exigence du rôle, il est regrettable que la soprano hurle d’un bout à l’autre de l’opéra, débitant son rôle certes avec puissance, mais avec bien peu d’expression, pour ne rien dire de la finesse. Elle possède cependant une très bonne diction.

Bernard Hatitink, qui dirige là son premier Tristan, et le très bel orchestre de la Royal Opera House ont finalement été les véritables héros de cette grande « symphonie avec voix ». Chaleureusement ovationné, Haitink vola sans conteste (et légitimement) la vedette au plateau, après avoir dirigé la partition avec intelligence, beauté, intériorité et passion. La souplesse des cordes, le fondu de l’orchestre, servant des accélérations bienvenues, des crescendo parfaitement contrôlés et le recueillement de certains passages forçaient en effet l’admiration. Magistrale, la direction possédait ce supplément d’âme, ce je-ne-sais-quoi qui rend la musique non seulement belle mais émouvante.

Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin

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256 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 423 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC Radio 3)
A production by Herbert Wernicke (2000)