Posted December 15, 2014

Posted on December 15, 2014

Completely satisfying and fearless: Nina Stemme

From London Times by Hugh Canning, Dec. 14, 2014

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was last staged at the Royal Opera House five years ago, when Nina Stemme, the main returnee for the Royal Opera’s current revival, along with the RO’s music director, Antonio Pappano, established herself as the world’s reigning Isolde. But Christof Loy’s minimalist, undemonstrative production provoked equivocal responses. Some were infuriated — apparently more by restricted sightlines on the left of the auditorium than by directorial whims — others puzzled. 

I was in two minds from my unrestricted-view seat, admiring Loy’s austere view of Wagner’s least action-packed music-drama and his achievement — not a mean one — in making the composer’s totem-like, “heroic” characters seem like people we know in contemporary theatre, cinema and possibly real life, while wondering if his staging added up to anything substantially new about this oft-staged masterpiece. I longed to see it again, and this second run brings the staging into closer focus. 

The Wagnerian trainspotters will undoubtedly be disappointed that Loy makes explicit his lack of interest in the philosophical concepts of Arthur Schopenhauer and Ludwig Feuerbach that inspired the composer’s intellectual (though surely not theatrical) ideas — this kind of staged footnote or academic essay approach to Wagnerian drama is the kiss of death for me. But the emotional panorama Loy unfolds, and the searing performances he gets out of Stemme, Stephen Gould, her new Tristan, and the rest of the fine cast will surely enthral anyone lucky enough to have a ticket, as it did me. 

Loy’s Tristan and Isolde are fully fleshed-out people, with complex and contradictory views of love, but the crux of Wagner’s drama — the interruption of their Act II duet, when they are caught in flagrante by King Marke and his court — is more poignantly staged by Loy than in any other production I have seen. The look of desolation, shame and despair, not only on the faces of the central Tristan-Isolde-Marke triangle, but on those of their servants as well, could not be more devastating. 

John Tomlinson’s Cornish king now sounds vocally weather-beaten, but in the context of this staging, his grandfatherly Marke convinces dramatically. Although, ideally, I would prefer to hear Marke’s monologue more beautifully sung, I don’t think I have ever been more moved by it, thanks to Loy’s creative direction of Tomlinson and the other principal singers. 

Stemme is in her pomp: not the most beautiful-toned Isolde I have heard live, but certainly the most completely satisfying and fearless, biting in the vindictive sarcasm of her Act I narration, expansive and sensual as she yields to the power of love, majestic, all-encompassing, in her final transfigurative monologue. In Gould, she has the most plausible Tristan the Royal Opera has presented in 40 years or more. He is less charismatic than the unforgotten Jon Vickers, but, unlike Vickers, he sings the role uncut, and tirelessly; his tone is as burly as his frame, yet he is capable of refining it to a thread of sound without Vickersesque crooning. His imposing physique — he’s a great bear of a man — is adroitly exploited by Loy, who conveys Tristan’s transcendental Act III agonies without histrionics. Sarah Connolly’s lovely, soft-grained, girlish Brangäne — perhaps placed too far upstage for her Act II warning — and Iain Paterson’s youthful, lyrically sung Kurwenal are huge assets, as are Ed Lyon’s Sailor, Neal Cooper’s heroic-tenorial Melot (Longborough’s Tristan next year) and Graham Clark’s sinister Shepherd. 

Pappano may not be as natural a Wagnerian as he is a Puccinian or Verdian, but his Tristan continues to develop. On Monday, the prelude suffered from chording imprecisions and tempi that made legendary Wagnerian slowcoaches sound nifty, but Pappano is a wonderful accompanist and never drowns his singers: in the love duet, especially, he achieves a luminous translucence of orchestral textures, the wind solos winding like tendrils around the voices in rapturous musical accord, which was something special. He digs deep into his orchestra’s string sound in the depiction of Tristan’s transcendental tristesse in the orchestral introduction to Act III. There is probably no such thing as a perfect Tristan und Isolde, but this one comes closer than any other I have heard at Covent Garden.