Tristan und Isolde: Richard Wagner (1865)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

★★★★

(Royal Opera House, London, 14 December 2014)

I ended up at Tristan by accident, if such a thing is possible. Shortly after I’d seen Poppea at the Barbican and Giulio Cesare on DVD, I was enthusing to my opera buddy about how marvellous Sarah Connolly was. She said that Connolly would be at the Royal Opera House this December. Would I like to go to see her? ‘Hell, yes!’ I said. Then my friend mentioned the catch. Connolly was singing in Wagner’s Tristan. Five hours of psychologically intense angst including a forty-minute love duet. In German.

I had my qualms, I admit. You may have noticed that I am not a committed Wagnerian. My operatic knowledge is embryonic at best and doesn’t go much beyond 1800; and, although I have seen Rheingold, that was some years ago and I don’t remember much about it except the fact it was very long. But not five hours long. Grimly I stocked up with Lucozade, Haribo and fig rolls and off we went, to tackle one of the greatest love stories of all time.

The plot of Tristan und Isolde is pretty simple (by the standards of the operas I’m used to). Isolde, the princess of Ireland, is being taken by ship to Cornwall to marry the elderly King Marke. She travels with her devoted servant Brangäne and her escort is Sir Tristan, Marke’s nephew and a celebrated knight. Isolde seethes with indignation: Tristan seems indifferent to her and yet she once used her healing skills to cure him of a mortal wound he’d sustained in battle – a battle against her betrothed, no less, whom he’d slain. Despite that, Isolde healed him; despite that, she found herself troubled by her growing attachment to this parfait knight; and because of that she now struggles to hide her emotions behind a veil of scorn.

As they near the shores of Cornwall, she decides that death is preferable to misery and calls Tristan to her, intending to kill them both with a poison she has in her bags. Tristan, silently disturbed by his own feelings for his uncle’s promised wife, realises what she intends; but both of them are deceived. Loyal Brangäne, shocked by her mistress’s plan, secretly exchanges the poison for a love potion. The two drink; their existing love for one another blossoms into all-consuming passion; and by the time they disembark in Cornwall they are desperate to only be together. But they will find that it’s no easy thing for a queen and a knight to carry on a love affair at the Cornish court. There are eyes everywhere and the chief danger is the ambitious courtier Melot who, under the pretence of being Tristan’s friend, is waiting for the moment when he can reveal their adulterous treachery to all. To say more would be to risk spoilers, but you may not be surprised to hear that it’s not exactly a laugh-a-minute.

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Brangäne (Sarah Connolly)’s harmless deception unleashes forbidden love for Isolde (Nina Stemme) and Tristan (Stephen Gould)

I’ll be frank with you. I had expected the opera to be a test of endurance, rather like running a marathon, but I was absolutely riveted for the greater part of that five hours. And I wasn’t the only one. The auditorium was absolutely packed and the applause at the end was overwhelming: without a doubt the most enthusiastic response to any opera I’ve attended. And it’s quite true that the cast deserve every accolade they get. Admittedly there were parts which went on a bit too long for my liking. I’d still question whether, even if you love someone very much, you need to sing about it for forty minutes, but that’s probably just my English reserve coming through. And operatic German does seem to be ever so slightly like Entish, in that it takes a very long time to say anything which is worth saying. But it was nevertheless compelling stuff: I’m used to opera which fizzes and sparkles around the ears, but this was a great monolith of music, sober and wrenching and timeless, which didn’t bother flirting with the ears and went straight to the solar plexus.

Christof Loy’s production had a very film noir feel, which accentuated the psychological undertones. The set was divided into two parts, foreground and background, separated by a curtain; the stark foreground had a sharply-raked stage and a large blank wall along the left, onto which bright lights cast strange, looming shadows. Here the characters face their private demons and face the raw scrutiny of their own hearts. Beyond the curtain, in a clever division between private selves and public faces, a throng of dinner-jacketed Cornish courtiers are glimpsed mingling and feasting. That represents the public world, where reputation is always at stake and eyes are always watching. I was also struck by the fact that the convivial courtiers were all male: the curtain divided not only private and public, but also the passionate emotional conflict of the female characters and the staid, poised, clubbable world of the men.

As time goes on, of course, the division between the two worlds becomes more permeable and Tristan, in particular, is drawn more and more into the psychological intensity of the private realm as he is forced to weigh up loyalty to king, country and uncle against his all-consuming love for Isolde. The set was very bare, very crisp and clean, but for me that worked extremely well. It focuses your attention not on external trappings but on the characters themselves and the tense, turbulent world of their suffering. (My one regret, and it’s small, is that the cast were particularly fond of a little corner down at the left-hand front of the stage. Being up in the gods on the left-hand side, we had to crane to see this part of the stage and some of the most intense moments were out of our eyeline.)

Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

Isolde (Nina Stemme)

As far as I can judge, the cast seemed to be universally excellent. I had come to see Sarah Connolly of course, and she made a wonderful Brangäne: faithful, devoted and troubled, trying to protect her mistress from herself. It was interesting to see that the production hinted at a parallel love affair between her and Tristan’s servant Kurwenal (Iain Paterson). It was rather odd for me to see Connolly in a female role at all, but I was also surprised by how different she sounded from when she sings Handel or Monteverdi: it showed me very clearly how versatile singers can be in adapting themselves to a style. But she was definitely worth the wait. The two other supporting roles that made a strong impression on me were Paterson’s Kurwenal and John Tomlinson’s King Marke – Paterson allowed Kurwenal to grow during the course of the opera, presumably reflecting what Tristan says about him: that he loves whom Tristan loves and hates whom he hates. Thus, at the start, Kurwenal is all swagger and arrogance towards Isolde and Brangäne, but as he watches his master slipping into this ill-fated romance he too softens, and in the third act we see him unmasked: doggedly loyal unto the very end. As for Marke, Tomlinson’s clear and carrying voice suggested the bedrock of force and power beneath the veneer of gentle old age: he gave the king great dignity and grace.

And then we had Tristan and Isolde themselves. Stephen Gould was a powerful Tristan, both physically and vocally: he conveyed the knight’s inner struggle beautifully, moving from his initial caution and reserve into the passionate abandon of love, and finally into the tragic melancholy of loneliness and anticipation. And yet there is no doubt that the night belonged to Nina Stemme. I hadn’t come across her before – I had no idea what to expect – but she was incredible. Isolde is one of her great roles, I now know, and I really had the sense that I was in the presence of something amazing. She moves between pride and anguish, between hubris and melting love, with such facility that it’s astonishing. And her voice had a marvellous range, between soft lower notes and high notes of such intensity that they almost pierced you in your seat. The indisputable highlight for me was her last, thrillingly intense piece (and obviously there are some spoilers ahead) – the Liebestod. Isolated on the stage with her dead beloved, pushed beyond the limits of human endurance, Isolde finally achieves what she and Tristan have dreamed of for the whole opera: the transcendence of the individual; the abnegation of the self in the vast ocean of eternity. It’s one of the most stunning pieces of music I’ve heard for a long time.

For me, this was an experience more than an opera. To say I ‘enjoyed’ it would somehow be to trivialise it. The music grabbed me by the throat at an early stage and simply didn’t let go. It was massive and elemental. Wagner is quite didactic, of course. His music tells you exactly what it wants you to feel in a way that Baroque music doesn’t – Baroque often hides psychological intensity under surprisingly jolly music – and I found myself responding physiologically to all the pointers – goosebumps rising on my flesh, breathless anxiety as the net closed on the lovers, delight at the more triumphant parts. It was an emotional rollercoaster. I can’t say that I’m going to be rushing off to see more Wagner any time soon – it is the kind of thing I think I’ll appreciate more in rare doses – but as the cast came to take their bows, and the Royal Opera House shuddered from the reverberations of applause, I certainly felt that I had been privileged to witness something extraordinary.

3 thoughts on “Tristan und Isolde: Richard Wagner (1865)

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