Tristan und Isolde

Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
9 October 2009
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
TristanBen Heppner
IsoldeNina Stemme
BrangäneSophie Koch
KurwenalMichael Volle
König MarkeMatti Salminen
MelotRichard Berkeley-Steele
Ein junger SeemannJi-Min Park
Ein HirtRyland Davies
SteuermannDawid Kimberg
The Guardian

Shelley famously warned us not to lift “the painted veil” that separates illusion from reality for fear it might destroy us. Christof Loy’s new production of Tristan und Isolde brings his words to mind on more than one occasion. Rooted in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, Wagner’s opera contrasts the illusory nature of the phenomenal world with the reality of the metaphysics that nevertheless binds it. Loy suggests the resulting dichotomy not with a painted veil, but a vast purple curtain that divides the stage in two.

Beyond it lurks the elegant, candlelit social world that forms the protagonists’ day-to-day reality. In front is a harsh, neutral space, where Tristan and Isolde (Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme) struggle to attain their communion of souls as the world behind them invades their consciousnesses. Occasionally, the metaphor clunks: when the lovers begin flirting with self-destruction, they pull the curtains back, exposing their passions to a group of voyeuristic onlookers, which feels a bit obvious. Otherwise, we’re painfully aware of the consuming yet furtive nature of this couple’s relationship and its horrendous potential to damage the lives of others.

It sounds good, too, though conductor Antonio Pappano pitches the opening scenes at too low an emotional level, and only really gets into his stride with the erotics of the second act. Stemme, better here than at Glyndebourne or Bayreuth, is rapturous and engulfing, while Heppner sounds beautiful and fastidious, if under pressure by the end. There’s an exquisite Brangäne from Sophie Koch, and Michael Volle’s handsome, bewildered Kurwenal is among the finest you will ever see.

Tim Ashley | 1 October 2009

Financial Times

When Hans von Bülow, conductor of the first Tristan, described Wagner’s hymn to love as a “bel canto opera”, he wasn’t making a joke at the expense of the composer who had stolen his wife Cosima. He was making a valid point about the long lines, for orchestra as much as singers, that Wagner wanted to be sung beautifully. That aspect of Tristan is easily forgotten by those who assume it is all about vocal heft.

As Ben Heppner and Nina Stemme (right of picture) demonstrate in the Royal Opera’s new production, a large, penetrating voice is a help, as is the ability to pace oneself. But it is still possible to make Wagner sound Italianate. You just need a conductor on the same wavelength, which Antonio Pappano clearly is. There is ample intensity in his reading, not least at the opera’s two climaxes (in the Prelude and Liebestod), but what he brings out is Wagner’s singing instrumental lines in Acts Two and Three, and the way the orchestra is designed to support, not overwhelm, the title characters in their most exposed moments. You might hear a Tristan as well played as this but I doubt if you’ll hear it as beautifully sung. Heppner is the opposite of forceful. Stemme rides the orchestra with regal lustre. Michael Volle’s hunky, noble-sounding Kurwenal and Sophie Koch’s spunky, sexy Brangäne (left of picture) make a romantic couple in their own right: you wish they had more to sing. Stage and pit are seamlessly linked, and the cast blossom in a supportive, collaborative environment.

About the production, feelings can be more equivocal. Director Christof Loy and his designers, Johannes Leiacker and Olaf Winter, were booed at their curtain call – I thought unfairly – because this is another of Loy’s cerebral, colour-free stagings populated by business suits. It’s true, he offers nothing in terms of seascape or spectacle, with long stretches played out in front of a featureless curtain, almost one step from a concert performance. But in this most philosophical of operas, the whole thrust of which is to replace outward show with interior “spiritual” action, that should be a bonus, especially when Loy draws acting of such rare poise from his cast – quite an achievement with Heppner, who is prone to look ungainly.

The point Loy makes is that the transcendent love shared by Tristan and Isolde removes them from the world – this world, any world, and specifically the world of custom and society behind the curtain, a banqueting hall glimpsed whenever reality obtrudes on their existential tryst. Yes, the lovers touch and kiss. In Act Two, they sit at a tea table. Reunited horizontally towards the end, they adopt the “spoons” position. But in this pared-down, “chamber” Tristan, words and music must speak for themselves. It’s a purist’s paradise, evidently too austere for literal-minded Wagnerites.


Andrew Clark | October 2, 2009

The Independent

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.

Edward Seckerson | 30 September 2009


‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Sadly, I think, Wagner’s words to Mathilde Wesendonck came nowhere near to fulfilment; or, to put it, another way, they did, but there was no chance of the work being banned. A performance of Tristan und Isolde that fails to grab one by the throat and drive one at least to the borders of insanity has failed, plain and simple. Tristan without its Rausch (intoxication) is no Tristan at all.

Most of the fault for this lies with Christof Loy’s production. There is no especial need – indeed, I suspect that it is not even desirable – for Tristan to be set ‘somewhere’, whether in Cornwall or in a multi-storey car-park. Abstraction works well, as Herbert Wernicke’s infinitely preferable Covent Garden production showed. Loy, however, contrives to have the worst of both worlds. At the front of the stage, we see in Johannes Leiacker’s designs minimalism that is drab to the point of excess; this is the world of existentialism, according to a programme interview with the director. At the back, sometimes revealed by the drawing back of a curtain, is what appears to be the real world, the specific setting of Marke and Isolde’s wedding breakfast, again according to that interview. I assume that it was significant that there are no female guests. I likewise assume that the edging forward of a wall at the end of the second act was an accident. It appeared that something was about to be revealed, but alas not; perhaps it was a metaphor for the production as a whole. At any rate, the prolonged dimming of the lights afterwards suggested a lack of intention

.Isolde emerges from the latter world during the opening Prelude. Wandering around, looking lost and slightly – but not too much – bereft, her progress, such as it is, completely undermined the progress of the music, its orgasmic climax coming to nothing. Perhaps that is the point, or perhaps not. According to Loy, ‘the two spaces’ are, during the action, ‘almost completely redefined’. Apart from the odd case of a new table, they look and act pretty much as they always had done, at least so far as I could tell. And surely a time to have bridged the gap would have been Tristan’s appearance at the helm, or whatever it transpired to be in this production; what should be an earth-moving moment once again went for nothing. Perhaps most unforgivable was the appearance of Marke, Melot, and the other men long before the moment of coitus interruptus; extraordinary though this might seem, the cadence sounded only so slightly interrupted, a fault of the musical direction too.

So we had an ‘existential world’, fair enough, which interacted awkwardly with a highly specific setting that contradicted a great deal of what we heard in the words. Without wishing to seem like a stage direction fetishist, the first act references to a ship, the second act references to the hunt, and so forth, stand in glaring and unproductive contradiction to the monotonous revelations of the backstage banquet. If all is abstract, one can simply imagine, or not; one can concentrate upon the essence of the work, which has nothing to do with the setting and everything to do with the music. Musical drama should, as Wagner writes in his Schopenhauer-infused Beethoven essay, be a case of deeds of music rendered visible. This is simply not possible here.

For it seems that Loy does not like Schopenhauer very much, not just in terms of æsthetics, but also because he cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others managed to do so, but we shall let that pass for the moment, for there is nothing wrong with approaching a work from a different angle. But what Loy reduces Tristan too is a strange and, to my mind, incompatible mix of something between Ibsen and Strindberg on the one hand and unamusing farce on the other. Perhaps the latter was unintentional, but the glimpses behind the curtain of Kurwenal and Brangäne imitating their master and mistress were hardly daring, just a little tacky. At least with Calixto Bieito, there might have been something a little more to see. ‘Character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ is what interests Loy most as a director, which is why, he says, he had generally steered clear of Wagner. Tristan, however, seemed to him something of an exception. I cannot imagine why, for it is only superficially concerned with the characters at all; if anything, it is the most supreme example of what he professes to dislike. How small it all seemed.

And if Loy does not like Schopenhauer or even Wagner, Antonio Pappano does not seem to like myth. The abstract nature of Tristan, he says in the same programme interview cited above, ‘is overrated. These are people on stage!’ Well, sort of, but are we seriously supposed to think that what matters about Tristan is the plot in itself. Though there is relatively little stage action to speak of, Wagner omitted even some of that when called upon to explain what the work was about. But what did he know? This perhaps helps explain the musical performance’s greatest failing. Though this was certainly Pappano’s best Wagner performance at Covent Garden, and every so often revelatory in terms of instrumental, especially wind, colour, at other times the musical structure, the longer line, was once again sadly lacking. Nowhere was this more the case than during the second act love duet: shapeless, just going on for a long time. Why do I say that Pappano’s words might help to explain? Because it seemed to me that his reading – unlike Loy’s! – was very much dictated by the words. The words have their place in a musical interpretation, of course, but in this of all works, the music must take precedence. It has its own demands; it undercuts the words, sometimes with a radicalism of which a director could only dream. Tristan for the most part therefore sounded as if it were a work with some wonderful moments, not the all-enveloping whole, the representation of the Schopenhauerian Will, it simply has to be. The third act was considerably better.

The best reason to see this Tristan would be the singing: a most unusual state of affairs. Ben Heppner struggled during stretches of the second and third acts; he really does seem to have lost his former steely security. But he sang better than one has come to expect in this impossible role and his diction was impressive. Loy’s desire for ‘character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ did him no favours, though; the moments in which he became amorous were too embarrassing even to register as farce. Nina Stemme’s performance as Isolde was excellent. One does not hear the majesty of a Flagstad, nor the steely sarcasm and irony of a Nilsson; one hears an intensely musical, variegated portrayal, which again – and more appropriately – seems very much to arise from the words. Lieder-singing would seem to inform her approach, which is not to say that it lacks a greater musical line, far from it. As Kurwenal and Brangäne, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch were hamstrung by Loy’s apparent determination to present them just as best friends to Tristan and Isolde; there was little sense of hierarchy, subservience, or even devotion. But they succeeded triumphantly in musical terms, barely putting a foot wrong, and helping to distract one’s attention from the visual realisation, despite approaching their well-nigh hopeless tasks with commendable enthusiasm. Brangäne’s description of the potions was a case in point. Sir John Tomlinson’s Marke was grave and meaningful as seemingly only he knows how. In this context, however such a Lear-like portrayal served to highlight the shortcomings of the production. I was also impressed by Ryland Davies’s keenly observed Shepherd, drawing upon a wealth of operatic and musical experience, and the winning Steersman of the splendid Jette Parker Young Artist, Dawid Kimberg: certainly one to watch. If you can bear to forget the work and concentrate on some fine singing, then there are rewards to reap. There is, I suppose a bright side: you might sympathise with the vigorous first-night booing for the production team, but at least you will not, as Wagner feared, descend into madness.

Mark Berry | Royal Opera, 29 September 2009

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A production by Christof Loy (2009)