Monday 19 October 2009

Tristan and Isolde at Covent Garden

The Sunday matinee bug hit Covent Garden again on Sunday when Ben Heppner was taken ill with a viral infection. Lars Cleveman had sung the role from the wings on 15th October and on Sunday he took over properly. Cleveman, a member of the Royal Swedish Opera, had previously sung the role of Tristan with Nina Stemme as Isolde in another staging, so that they had this to build on. Even so, taking on the role in a brand new staging was something of an undertaken, bravely done.

Any staging of Tristan und Isolde by Christoph Loy was bound to have a cerebral element. In this case, the stage was divided into two; the front was a plain 'existential area' in which the main action took place. The rear, hidden by a curtain, was a more naturalistic representation of King Marke's court. The setting was modern day and all the men work evening wear, though Tristan had a black shirt. Isolde started in her wedding gown and then moved to a black dress. Brangane (Sophie Koch) had a red, bob wig and a short, stylish grey dress; she looked bizarrely like Anna Wintour which could hardly be the intention.

I rather liked the idea of the existential area. The opera opened with Nina Stemme wandering through the remains of her wedding party one the rear stage before entering the front stage. The way that the action of Act 1 was intercut with excerpts from the wedding party, so that when the ships sailors sang we actually saw the guests at the wedding on the back stage. Cast members came and went from the Wedding to the main Act 1 action. It sounds confusing to describe, but the result worked well and gave the feeling that the whole of Act 1 was playing in Isolde's mind at the wedding as she tried to come to terms with how she got to where she was.

All this would have worked wonderfully, but the front stage was simply far too lacking in design interest. The walls were grey and the only props were a table and two chairs of a type that could have appeared in any rehearsal room, in fact the front area looked just like a rehearsal studio. When the curtain between front and back was closed, we could only look at the singers in their boring evening wear, no style, no design interest, nothing. This was fatal and meant that the whole production took on a rather cerebral air. It certainly did not help that Tristan and Isolde looked like a middle aged couple from Frankfurt rather than the protagonists of one of the most romantic operas around.

Much of the action in the 'rehearsal studio' took place against the left hand wall which added to the problems, as a large chunk of the opera house could not see it properly.

During act 2, the curtain to the back area opened occasionally, to reveal the wider world around Tristan and Isolde's love and then during the love duet, Isolde draws back the curtain to reveal the courtiers observing them. Finally in act 3 the rear stage revealed not the reality, but a different conceptual space representing Isolde.

In keeping with the general concept, Antonio Pappano's conducting kept the orchestra rather quieter than usual, which helped the voices; but though beautifully moulded, you were never blown away. Similarly Nina Stemme's Isolde is one of the most beautifully sung versions of the role that I have ever heard. She has developed a wonderful gleaming top, but her instrument does not easily dominate the orchestra. She was passionate and impassioned. But the performance seemed slightly at one remove; a feeling that was generated by the distance inherent in the performance. Perhaps I am being a little unfair, but the performance impressed me without overwhelming me.

Regarding Cleveman's Tristan, we should allow him some leeway. It must be admitted that he is slight and short of stature, in complete contrast to virtually all the other Tristans I have heard who have generally been bear like men. His voice in the first half of act 1 seemed small and carefully managed, but he let go during the closing pages. This was repeated in act 2 when he really only seemed to let go during the closing pages of the love duet. His was a neatly sung and well shaped account of the role, his voice does not have excessive wobble which means that he sang with a fine sense of line. But I was constantly aware of the care he was taking and the husbanding of his resources. That said, he got to the end of Act 3 without ever seeming to be overpowered by the role, which means that he has got the measure of his voice. His is a Tristan I would like to see again in less fraught circumstances. His previous relationship with Nina Stemme helped, so that the two of them did develop the sort of rapport necessary.

Michael Volle was a fine, rich voiced Kurwenal. He was allowed some intimate moments with Sophie Koch's Brangane in Act 2. And was profoundly moving in his contributions in Act 3. Sophie Koch turned a beautifully sung and passionate account her role.

Matti Salminen was far more involving as King Marke than I could ever have anticipated. King Marke's monologue at the end of Act 2 has always been a stumbling block for me, few singers seem to be able to bring it off. But Salminen almost had me convinced.

Pappano and the Royal Opera House orchestra were in fine form. As I have said, Pappano seems to have kept the orchestra under quite a tight rein. Not since the days of Bernard Haitink have I heard such a singer considerate accompaniment. I will go back to this Tristan if it reappears in the schedules, especially if Lars Cleveman is given a proper go at the role.

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