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.