Maybe it's impossible for any new Wagner production to be mounted without the word 'controversial' appearing somewhere. The exception, I guess, is the Glyndebourne Tristan by Nikolaus Lehnhoff with its magical lighting and mythical timelessness (download it from the Glyndebourne site here).
But much as I loved that one, it didn't leave me with heart and soul shredded the way that Covent Garden's has. What possessed the first night boo-ers?
One friend even wrote to me questioning the artistic validity of director Christof Loy's interpretation. Artistic validity? When he has grasped the very heart of Tristan - "endless longing" - and made it palpable? Some question the monochrome design, the absence of furniture, props et al - but when everything is in the music, the words and the relationships between the characters, and when these are put across so vividly, whyever would one wish for distraction?
The division of the stage is clear: the background the sham theatre, curtain-fronted, of real life, in this case a formal wedding banquet with candelabra; the foreground the inner reality of the bared soul (and why would there be any furniture in that?). Tristan and Isolde's obsessive love takes place in the mind; Tristan's wound, more emotional than physical despite the flickknife in Melot's hand and the blood on his palm in Act III, is the guilt inflicted twist by twist by King Marke which seems to push him over the edge to madness, so that Kurwenal seems to be at his wits' end, perhaps humouring him by looking for Isolde's ship while Isolde herself stands powerless at the window, her back turned upon her husband. The wall - the device which has left many fuming because apparently it stops people on the left from seeing the action (though I sat on the left and I could see everything) - seems to suggest the block of reality and hopelessness against which this obsession must always founder.
And as impossible love is always in the mind, as it can indeed cause the destruction of all around it without ever finding fulfilment, as it can at its most extreme turn the finest of us towards breakdown, collapse and the living death of the heart, this Tristan is gut-crunchingly real.
It would have felt even more real if Tristan had been singing...Ben Heppner walked the part while Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman sang the role from the side, wedged rather uncomfortably between the proscenium arch and the start of the offending wall (which continues the line of the auditorium's horse-shoe); he might have projected better had he been just a tad further forward, but his voice was of superb quality, intensely musical and expressive, one that I look forward to hearing again under happier circumstances. Nina Stemme's Isolde, though, is a tall order for anyone to match: searing yet gorgeous, steely yet flexible, shining and overpowering. Matti Salminen's Marke was both affecting and oppressive. Pappano worked wonders in the pit - the prelude a great slow vortex pulling us into Wagner's altered state of consciousness, and the emotional pacing always apposite and strongly characterised.
One performance remains, tomorrow. Beg/borrow/steal a ticket unless you like stages full of bright-coloured things, and try not to sit on the left in case it's true about the wall.
(Photo credit: Bill Cooper, via Musical Criticism)
Jessica Duchen is a music journalist and the author of four novels, two biographies and several stage works. She writes regularly for The Independent and BBC Music Magazine. Her latest novel, Songs of Triumphant Love, is published by Hodder.
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