This revival of the 2009 production is an object lesson on how revivals should be handled. (cf comments about WNO on 28 November, 2014). The key here was to pull together the same creative team that worked on the original: Antonio Papanno in the pit, Christof Loy directing and, crucially, Nina Stemme in the role of Isolde. It’s significant, that Stemme was creatively involved in the original conception of this production. Her mesmeric interpretation of Isolde redefines the role (for me, at least) and she is completely in tune with what Loy is doing in this production, which is why it works so well.
It will be a few years, I imagine, before a better Isolde emerges. Stemme completely inhabits this role not just technically but emotionally as well. It is a tour de force of beautifully nuanced singing that ranges from petulance and indignation in Act I through the febrile sexuality of Act 2 to the aching beauty of the liebestod in Act3 which I never heard sung better. And what controlled singing it is too, with never a false or harsh note and no shrillness or fatigue evident at any point.
To find a Tristan to match is a tough challenge, but the American tenor Stephen Gould more than rises to the occasion. Indeed the entire cast work so well as an ensemble that there is at times, almost a feeling of chamber opera. Two, however are worth mentioning.
Sarah Connolly exemplifies Loy’s assertion that Brangäne and Kurwenal are pivotal rôles in the drama by presenting Brangäne as a fully-rounded character making us aware of the emotional highs and lows of a maid who is also a close confidante. Connolly is emerging as a formidable Wagnerian mezzo. John Tomlinson as King Marke is electrifying in Act 2 when Tristan’s betrayal is revealed. His reaction is more disappointment and regret than anger and his singing is steeped in sadness and pathos which cuts to the quick.
Because Wagner chose the legend of Tristan and Isolde primarily to explore universal existential ideas, the historical and geographical setting is of little matter. You won’t see any ships, forests, or huntsman in this pared down production. Johannes Leiacker’s set and Olaf Winter’s lighting design clearly demarcate Schopenhauer's realms of Phenomenon and Noumenon. It is a set which subtly points us in the direction of understanding Wagner’s obsession with Schopenhaur’s philosophy. Noumenon, the realm of night occupies the main part of the upstage area. It is a blank canvass upon which the characters’ deepest desires and longings are painted. Downstage behind a curtain we occasionally glimpse the realm of Phenomenon, the brightly lit day where a wedding party for the ill-conceived forthcoming marriage of King Marke seems to be in full swing (a wedding party which consists entirely of men – well, there is no chorus part for women’s voices in this opera, so why waste money dressing sopranos in expensive costumes just to stand around doing nothing). Characters drift between these two realms as their psyches battle with the impossibility of fulfilling their desires given the conventions and social mores of daily existence in the King’s court.
But there is a third, implied space in this set. A great grey slab-like wall stretches laterally at stage right. Is the realm behind this wall, the state of death itself? That is certainly our perception, and – crucially - the perception of the characters. We get one brief glimpse as the wall slides back for a few moments at the very end of Act 2 when it seems to the onlookers that Tristan has been fatally wounded as he throws himself on Melot’s sword. Throughout the piece characters find themselves pinned against this wall at moments when they believe themselves to be in mortal danger. And yet when Tristan dies in Act3 he remains in the realm of Noumenon where the two lovers are ultimately united.
When the Royal Opera is firing on all cylinders, as it was in this production, it is a wondrous thing to behold. Papanno is sure-footed in the pit with perfectly judged tempi drawing exceptional playing from the orchestra. Four and a half hours never for a moment seemed like a marathon. There were no longueurs. At the curtain call cast and conductor appeared as fresh as proverbial daisies. Quite how they felt the next day is anyone’s guess.