Loy’s staging of Tristan & Isolde appears to have especially divided the critics (and I do not just mean the division between those who were in seats with a view of the action, and those who were not), so that is where I shall start. I personally had a cheap ticket with RESTRICTED VIEW clearly stated on it, which, although it did not stop me becoming irritated by not being able to see anything happening Stage Right, probably meant I was less irritated than those in expensive seats on the opposite side, who were not warned that they would not be able to see anything happening Stage Left. Not that there was an awful lot to look at anyway, in the half I could see (supposedly the better half). I am not the kind of opera-goer that needs lots of visual stimulus in the way of fancy costumes and sets, or that especially prefers operas to be set in the originally-intended time period; I like modernity and I like minimalism, but I don’t like lazy, boring or ugly. I liked the set for the generally unpopular Spacefaring Dutchman, with its shifting video screens, and I loved the ENO’s phase of using single-colour glowing backdrops, and something beautiful can be created with just colour – imaginative lighting and a couple of well-designed shapes. However, this Tristan set consisted mostly of a large dark curtain near the back and a giant piece of grey cardboard propped up against one side of the stage, which was simply dull. Sometimes there was a fold-up chair and table. When the curtain drew open for a bit, as it did now and then, there were – woo – some more chairs and tables, some blokes in eveningwear hanging around, and a wall with the outline of some windows stencilled on it.
I have, in fact, seen Tristan & Isolde performed before, but it was quite a long time ago (2000 maybe), and as I didn’t do write-ups then, it’s mostly gone. However, I do remember that, like this one, the main item of set, lasting through all three acts, was a big wall, except that in that case it was a brick wall rather than cardboard. I also remember Brangäne rolling around on the floor like a sausage when Isolde was singing, and Isolde running around the stage with Tristan’s sword while he was singing his love to the brick wall. These things amused me and were memorable. The personenregie of this production had no sausage-rolling (unless it happened on the bit of stage I couldn’t see), and as a general rule, characters were physically near the person they were conversing with. Although uninspired, it was not annoying or amusing, except in Act 3 where Kurwenal gives an extended running commentary on Tristan’s waxing and waning health status without actually looking at him. Kurwenal (Michael Volle) also injected a note of realism into this scene by displaying a certain exasperation at the continued ranting of his friend.
This opera does not have an awful lot happen in it, as most of the important stuff is going on inside the characters’ heads, so this kind of half-hearted semi-staged concert performance can still stand up well on the basis of music alone, providing musical performance is of a high enough calibre. Fortunately, the vocal side of the performance was superb. Nina Stemme, with her steel-and-velvet tone, was simply stunning as Isolde, whether delivering powerhouse rage, angular sarcasm or delicate pianissimi. The original Tristan having dropped out, Lars Cleveman stepped in at short notice. I had been hoping Richard Berkeley-Steele (playing Melot) would be on cover duty, as I liked him so much as Siegfried (ENO, 2004?) but Cleveman did a fine job of it. Matti Salminen’s rich tones made King Marke’s scenes a great highlight of the evening, riveting where in other hands it can be dull, and the other stand-out was Volle’s almost scene-stealing Kurwenal. On the orchestral side, there was great intensity, continuity and flow. I felt occasionally that there was a little precision lacking in the fine detail of ensemble work, but this can sometimes happen when overall structure and shape are prioritised, and Pappano’s calm concentration made for a very strong interpretation.