Tristan & Isolde

Richard Wagner. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden Autumn 2009

First and foremost: Bravo Pappano, the conductor. Magic music throughout.

Tristan and Isolde, the greatest love story ever put on stage? And everyone in the story totally screwed up just like they are today. Which is exactly what Christof Loy has done with his new production set somewhere pretty recent. It does work well though: dodgy Tristan, temper temptress Isolde, sweet King Marke, helpful but silly Bangane, and all Tristan's so called 'best friends.' Loy has shown that this truly is a timeless plot, an up-market contemporary soap opera. Every phrase of the text and music has been carefully thought about and enacted. No detail has been left un-illustrated, no nuance forgotten. A monumental achievement. But there are of course a lot of Buts…

During the overture Isolde, Nina Stemme, in a fluffy strapless white ball gown, crouches front stage looking unhappy. Perhaps it is the tight lacing of her dress and the anxiety knowing she has five hours of singing ahead?

When the action starts a purple velvet curtain draws back at the back of the stage to reveal a dining room full of long candle lit tables at which are seated a large and motley collection of gents in dinner jackets.

So far so good, we could be in the dining room of a luxury cruise ship, a possibility for this sea bourn Homeric Bronze Age tale brought up to date. Then Isolde puts on a cardie... umm… Tristan shows up looking scruffy, more like a farm lad who has been eating nothing but Big Macs for the last decade, Ben Heppner is hardly a girl's heart throb to look at, but close your eyes and the voice is blissful, a blind person would fall immediately in love with this tenor.

The two soon-to-be lovers go through all their recriminations, their singing is divine and once again:

Brangane gives the besotted romantics the love potion, big hugs and kisses all round.

As the story continues slowly to unfold, in ever mounting hysteria, by Act 2 I am still wondering where on earth are? The chorus is still in dinner jackets and Tristan hasn't tidied himself up at all. Alas and alack poor Isolde has Loy's favourite little black dress on again, but this frock isn't Channel, more two years old many times washed Top Shop. But Lo and Behold Johannes Leiacker, the designer, has created a baroque setting, for instead of, as in Loy's recent Lulu, where there was one chair on stage, we now have two school canteen style seats and even a metal table from a skip.

The most hugely erotic aria in the canon of opera is sung under bright lights with the two lovers sitting on these two chairs. I quite simply don't get it.



And so it all goes on until the end. All dead, and the chorus still in dinner jackets. Full compliments to all singers, and laurel wreathes to the orchestra. I am sure Leiacker only did what he was told with the design. I? But why a concrete bunker? It is clever, but where is it and where are we? Am still baffled at the end of Act 3

Tristan and Isolde is about air and wind and sea and wildness and royalty and power. Mind you I didn't fall asleep in the five hours, and the story has rarely been so clear and so musically beautiful. The production is pretentious and cross making, nothing wrong with updating the setting, rather a fine idea, and certainly this production is a lot better than the last Tristan and Isolde here a few years back.

Perhaps not worth crossing the Herring Pond for but you can catch it later in Houston.

Finally yet again: BRAVO ANTONIO PAPPANO

Polly Hope,