Review – Tristan und Isolde (Royal Opera House, Friday 5 December 2014)
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Ian Paterson
King Marke – John Tomlinson
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Melot – Neal Cooper
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk
Director – Christof Loy
Associate Director – Julia Burbach
Designs – JohannesLeiacker
Lighting Design – Olaf Winter
Royal Opera House Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (Conductor)
Pronunciation: /ˌtransfɪɡəˈreɪʃ(ə)n, ˌtrɑːns-, -ɡjʊr-, -nz-/
Meaning: “A complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state.”
The current revival of Tristan und Isolde is missing one thing. The programme should carry a health warning.
It’s been a while since I have left a production of such searing intensity that my senses were overloaded. And despite having seen the original production in 2009 – and loved it back then – nothing prepared me for the emotional and musical impact created that evening.
And I don’t believe I was the only one. While I seriously did think that Nina Stemme as Isolde was singing just for me – something I experienced when I saw her sing Brunnhilde at the Proms – I am sure that her performance of the Irish Princess was as overwhelming for the majority of the people sitting in Covent Garden that night.
It’s hard not to speak just of Nina Stemme’s performance but – as with the Berlin Ring cycle in 2012 – she was part of a cast that was from top to bottom, superlative.
Tristan is a challenging role but Stephen Gould’s performance was one of the most impressive I have heard in a long time. Vocally robust, as well as having the necessary heft and stamina, he also infused his singing with a musically intelligent use of colour and dynamic range. His Third Act monologue was beautifully paced and full of the dramatic impetus that is sometimes lacking in singers and in the Second Act he was wonderfully in sync with Stemme throughout.
As his companion Iain Paterson was equally impressive. His ‘brag’ in the opening act had the necessary balance of swagger and charm and his investment in making Kurwenal a believable character rather than a simple cypher was compelling at the opening of the Third Act as he moved from resignation and remorse to ultimately love and fealty even in death.
While some did not admire John Tomlinson’s King Marke, I was completely mesmerized. I have to admit if there’s a moment when my mind is apt to wander it is usually at the end of the Second Act when the King discovers the betrayal.
Not on this occasion. While his voice doesn’t necessarily have the range or lustre that it once had, there was an innate musicianship to Tomlinson’s performance and portrayal that made the King – for me – a human being.
And before we get to Isolde and her maid, a special mention of Ed Lyon. Why isn’t he seen on Covent Garden’s main stage more often. His lustrous tenor sailed out across the auditorium, beautifully clear and shaped. And in the smaller support roles, Neal Cooper as Melot as well as Graham Clark and Yuriy Yurchuk made very strong impressions.
Sarah Connolly is one of those singers who – no matter the role – pours her heart, soul and incredible talent into it. Alongside her Medea and her Octavian, her Brangane was no exception. I am currently listening to her new recording of Elgar’s Sea Pictures (high recommended) and her voice has developed a noticeably richer, deeper hue that was very much in evidence on stage as well. She matched her Isolde note for note, mood for mood in the First Act, and her warnings during the lovers’ tryst soared over the orchestra from the back of the stage.
But of course it was Nina Stemme’s Isolde that dominated. She has grown in the role since 2009, there is a new depth to her hatred as well as her passion around which is wrapped the most mesmerizing – almost hypnotic – singing, not only in terms of quality and richness but also in terms of characterization. Her curse reminded me of the white heat she generated in the trio of Gotterdammerung, but it was her Liebestod – a culmination of the emotional intensity of the entire evening – that left everything in its wake. And how wonderfully she floated the closing phrase.
I read recently that Loy didn’t have Isolde die at the end, but rather she returns to her ordinary life with King Marke. And as Isolde slowly slid into that chair, I definitely felt that sense of resignation and nostalgia for a love lost and irreplaceable.
And I admit I love Loy’s production – the way he creates two very different worlds, bound together by an incredible sense of tension. He captures perfectly the simple fact that when you are in love, nothing else – not the world around you – matters. The life that surrounds a couple in love seems slower, more muted. But at the same time he creates a real sense of emotional tension in the small gestures. The almost tangible “buttoned-up” feeling he created – so cleverly in such an open space – could do nothing but explode with the ferocity of their first embrace. The way Stemme portrayed Isolde with almost child-like naiveté filled with overwhelming excitement as she spoke to Brangane as the Second Act opened. Setting the table. The way that, as they moved into the duet proper, Tristan and Isolde moved slowly together, hands touching first before holding one another.
Loy’s production brings Tristan und Isolde into the real world, amplifying emotions and turmoil that most people would fear to feel or express. I sincerely hope that – as the BBC don’t seem to be broadcasting it on BBC Four despite an apparent new commitment to the arts – Covent Garden are taking the opportunity to film this production for posterity.
And Pappano directed the orchestra with incredible fervor. The tempo at which he too the opening Prelude set the tenor for the entire opera. There was a noticeable ferocity to the playing in the First Act that was beautifully counterbalanced by the luxuriant sound world he created for the Second. And in the final Act, he slowly built on the bleak, drained sound created in the orchestra for Tristan’s monologue to created crashing waves of glorious – almost technicolour – sound for those closing moments.
And as the music slowly faded, I have no doubt that it was a performance that quite literally transfigured many of the people who had witnessed it.