Friday, 9 October 2009

The Royal Opera House Tristan, or the Tragic Tale of the Allergy Ridden Heldentenor and the Director who despised the Text

Readers of other arts websites will be aware that this production has attracted a fair amount of commentary, including rumours of a sightline screwup of Biblical proportions and a denunciation of the booers on opening night as, essentially, rich philistines. As I was seated on the right hand side of the auditorium, I cannot report on the sightline issue (though it did look to me as if adjustments must have been made), I can say that having been in doubt about my position on booing during the first two acts, I suddenly understood at the beginning of the third the raging fury that must have gripped them.

We will start with this moment as it pretty much sums up Christoph Loy's near complete contempt for the text. You may remember that the first lines of Act 3 are given to the Shepherd, who asks Kurwenal whether Tristan is awake. The stage was set as follows. Tristan, down stage right seated – Shepherd, two feet away and looking straight at him – Kurwenal far away on the other side of the stage and looking anywhere but at Tristan. Now I ask you, what is the point of the Shepherd asking Kurwenal whether Tristan is awake? Presumably he can see for himself, unless he was blind, a point not established by the staging. Some may think this a trivial complaint, but the point is that it was symptomatic of Loy's whole approach. It isn't simply that the staging almost never takes any notice of the settings described in the set, but that it makes a mockery of great swathes of the characters' actions. So, on the same theme, Kurwenal next explains that they are in Kereol (I think – anyway Tristan's ancestral castle) not Cornwall – Tristan can hardly be blamed for his confusion since the two places in this staging look identical. Next, Tristan raves and passes out at the back of the stage having carefully wrapped himself in part of the curtain. Kurwenal cries out in apparent distress from the front of the stage before remarking that it's alright because Tristan is only unconscious – how he can possibly know this when he has never bothered to look round at his beloved master is a mystery (to say nothing of the indifference to that master which Loy apparently believes Kurwenal is feeling in total contradiction of the text). Finally (and as so often one was profoundly grateful for it), Isolde's ship arrives and Kurwenal and Tristan stand next to each other at the front of the stage giving their two completely different descriptions of the ship's approach. Since they are either both seeing the same thing, or both seeing nothing at all, the only conclusion one can come to is that this is a hallucination – a contention which Wagner makes nonsensical moments later when everybody starts pouring off the ship to, among other things, slay Kurwenal – unless of course he is imagining his own death. My disgust and indeed fury finally passed off the scale when the curtain drew back for the upteenth time to reveal eight or so dinner suited men fighting in slow motion, blood gradually becoming evident on their white shirt fronts. I should perhaps add that the fighting in this production is probably the least convincing I have ever seen.

Compared to the infuriating third act, the first two are simply a combination of silly and boring. Loy provides a lengthy programme note to justify the splitting of the stage by a crimson curtain which opens and closes ad nauseum through the opera. The front part of the stage is apparently supposed to represent an existential space in which Tristan and Isolde converse with each other (which would be fine except that all sorts of other people including King Marke show an odd propensity to invade the space and deliver speeches addressed to other people besides the lovers). The back part of the stage is filled with dinner tables which apparently represents the public world of Marke's court, and finally becomes the setting for a bizarre game of musical chairs during Tristan's ravings at the end of the second act. Almost the sole change in the set during the entire evening is the periodic movement of the curtain, a device which becomes less and less effective as time goes on.

Within this barren landscape the singers meander with seemingly little purpose, although one increasingly suspects that Loy has firmly ordered them not to fraternise too much. Indeed, he repeats a trick from a previous ENO production (every bit as fatal here as there) by practically stopping Tristan and Isolde from touching during the great love tryst in Act Two. The result is that despite some stellar singing, the opera left me completely cold.

Musically, the laurels go firmly to Nina Stemme's Isolde who did her best to make up for the staging with her magnificent singing. It says something about the overall experience that even her performance of the Liebestod was not enough to salvage my mood at the end of Act 3. Matti Salminen gave a fine King Marke but their excellent musical moments were flowers drowning in thorns. Ben Heppner's Tristan was nearly disastrous. He sounded strained and feeble in Act 1. Act Two verged on the catastrophic with Pappano having to slow the orchestra to a crawl, which did little to cover the increasingly sour sounds from Heppner. At that point I was fairly convinced that there would have to be a substitution. Before Act 3 it was announced that he was suffering from an allergic reaction but would continue and thereafter there was a modest improvement – but I am not sanguine on this showing, and allowing for his indisposition, about his ability to last out the run or his long term future in the role. Michael Volle (Kurwenal) and Sophie Koch (Brangane) both sang impressively, though why they were wrapped in each other's arms in Act Two when the text specifically states that Brangane is watching alone was beyond me. It is probably not fair to judge Pappano on this performance, as his vision of Act Two plainly had to be sacrificed for the mere achievement of somehow reaching the interval, but whether it was the production or something else I did feel that his reading lacked dramatic punch – particularly in Act One things seemed to plod, with moments like Isolde's command to Brangane to summon Tristan before her - “I command it, I Isolde”, which should be powerfully chilling falling very flat.

Taken as a whole this is an evening at the opera which ranges from the boring to the infuriating. Critics who have raved over this and attacked the recent Don Carlos baffle me. More, even with the blessing of Stemme, there is simply no comparison with the amazing Glyndebourne production. My advice – sell back your tickets and start saving for the next Glyndebourne revival.


  1. This is an interesting response. You talk about "contempt for the text" and then go on to talk about stage directions. The text is what the characters say to each other (and themselves) and, in the case of Tristan, is so ambiguous and baffling, as to render almost any interpretation as valid. Any first year drama student learns that stage directions are there merely for reference and any director worth their salt will not follow them slavishly. That applies to almost all drama except perhaps Beckett, where it's more debatable. Your emotional response to what you saw is as valid as any other but your anaylsis of why it pissed you off so much shows a lack of understanding of how theatre works. If you feel Loy has gone against the text (as opposed to the stage directions), please give some specific examples.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Clearly I have not used words with sufficient care. Let me try again. I did not refer at any point to stage directions but to the words sung by the protagonists (the lyrics if you will) which were consistently contradicted by Loy's stagings. Let me try repeating some of my examples:

    1) The first words of Act 3 are the Shepherd asking Kurwenal about Tristan's condition - a query rendered ludicrous by Loy's positioning of the characters on the stage.

    2) Brangene and Kurwenal's romantic embrace in Act 2 totally contradicts Brangene's sung - "I watch alone".

    3) Act 3 again - when Tristan passes out, Kurwenal reports on this and is frantic with concern - yet he never once looks at Tristan or makes any move to go to him - again creating a situation where one does not believe a word the character is singing.

    Perhaps these issues seem trivial to you, but I would suggest that they were merely symptoms of the larger problem that Loy never built up convincing relationships on the stage between his characters - Tristan and Isolde's apparent inability to touch one another during the great love duet in Act 2 being the paramount example.

  3. So, if Brangaene says "I watch alone", does she have to be alone? If it says she is unseen, must she not be seen? If someone says "I see a ship", must he be looking out of a window? If someone talks to somebody else, must he be looking at them? In Eastenders, perhaps. Like Shakespeare, Wagner's stage directions are often implied in the text rather than stated. The director can choose to use the action, stated or implied, as s/he likes.

  4. Personally I think the implication of lines like "I watch alone" is pretty clear. I think the idea what when Wagner wrote that what he really meant was the opposite is downright nonsensical. Sure, there are lines in Wagner and Shakespeare that are ambiguous, but that isn't one of them.

    I'm also not sure Wagner was happy for directors to play fast and loose in the way you suggest. I don't know the Tristan libretto all that well, but the one for the Ring has some extremely detailed stage directions and I suspect he put them there for a reason. Then there's the fact that he forbade productions of Parsifal outside of Bayreuth because he didn't feel it could be done elsewhere faithfully to his intentions.

    On the basis of your argument, why play a B-flat simply because Wagner writes one, why not an F instead if the conductor thinks that might work better.

    The review isn't saying that there is only one way to do things, and of course there have been many outstanding productions that do things that aren't in the text. When they work, the reason is because they add to what's already there and find new ways underscoring points already made. However, when the 'insight' is gained by staging things in a manner directly contradicting to what's on the page, it can't really be called an insight at all.

    One more point, I'm not sure how helpful it is to lump Wagner and Shakespeare into the same conversation. Given the way that Shakespeare's texts are derived from the quartos and folios, a definitive version of the text is an impossibility. With Wagner this is not the case. Consequently, there is far greater scope for doubt as to Shakespeare's intentions compared with Wagner's.

  5. Anonymous - I would be grateful if you would use the correct terminology. I have not referred at any point to 'stage directions' but to the words sung by the characters - or the libretto or the lyrics.

    Since you have not commented on my larger point, I presume you found the Act 2 love scene a deeply passionate experience?

  6. One further point - if you are going to ignore the text you must provide a compelling alternative - as I argue in the review as a whole this Loy failed to do.

  7. I did.

    On a last note, I'd agree with your point about providing a compelling alternative. A director should only change things if he has a good reason to do so. I thought Loy had. You, I imagine, would say not.

  8. This is an excellent summary of a hideously selfish directorial indulgence, and I totally agree with you. But for the fact that Stemme was so fabulous, I am sure the first night booing would have been far greater. Tales of large swathes of the audience being moved or financially compensated because of the sightlines suggest monumental management failure to stop directorial masturbation.