“Monsieur Wagner has good moments, but awful quarters of an hour!”, penned Rossini in a letter to a friend. I agree, to a certain extent. Wagner’s radical compositional concept Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), a fusion of the poetic, visual, musical and dramatic arts, results in operas of epic proportions. The relatively slow musico-dramatic pace and poetic libretto of Wagner’s operas can get in the way of audience immersion. Tristan und Isolde is no less than four hours long, and is a test of stamina for both the performer and spectator. Some scenes however are musical and dramatic masterstrokes: the captivating love potion segment in Act I and, to be truthful, the whole of Act III – if you can last that long.
Christof Loy’s production is stark and cold, and focuses on the psychological torment of the two lovers. A forestage, within the stage itself, presents a world of steel girders and concrete slabs – it is certainly a depressing outlook. These bare walls allow for some particularly striking lighting effects by Olaf Winter, including arresting shadows and columns of luminosity. It is a tentative start for the orchestra, under Antonio Pappano’s baton, but the hesitant prelude soon flourishes into Wagner’s signature sumptuous orchestration.
Nina Stemme as Isolde has a voice that is rich and full of volume; it has an astounding depth and height to the ringing sound. Opposite her, tenor Stephen Gould initially presents a soothingly voiced Tristan, only to later show his great versatility in the dramatic full-bodied moments demanded of him. The great John Tomlinson, however, struggles through the role of King Marke in his tense portrayal. Is it perhaps time to retire his name from the opera house, along with Domingo, and his second career as a baritone? There are great performances too from Sarah Connelly and Iain Paterson, as well as from Ed Lyon’s sweetly articulated Sailor.
At times Wagner can be dull, but we can only blame the composer (also librettist) for this fault, and not the impressive cast and creative team at the ROH. The music is epically beautiful, wonderfully intricate and complex: Tristan und Isolde is an astonishing triumph of composition, and as a musical academic absolutely fascinating. Bravo to both Tristan (Gould) und Isolde (Stemme) for some truly amazing vocal feats. This production may not keep you on the edge of your seat the whole way through, but you certainly enjoy one of Wagner’s epic journeys through to climax.
Tristan Und Isolde is playing at the Royal Opera House until 21 December. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.
Photo by Clive Barda.