Sunday 18 October 2009

Tristan und Isolde take two

My brother has already given his take on the Royal Opera House's new Tristan, which had its final performance tonight, since my experience was rather different (and for some interesting reasons), I thought I would add my two cents.

First things first: vocally, this was a pretty special night. Nina Stemme's Isolde was simply stunning. I've not had the pleasure hearing her live before, but she clearly follows in a long line of great Scandinavian Wagnerian sopranos. There is the effortless power, the wonderful tone and the clarity and precision of her sound. It is a tireless voice too, sounding completely fresh when, after five hours, she reached the Liebestod.

Of course, my brother had Ben Heppner as Tristan, battling off illness and showing it. So dependent is the work on these two characters that having a weak link can make for an experience that really drags. Heppner bowed out of the run earlier this week and instead Lars Cleveman stood in, having already sung the role from the side while Heppner acted on Thursday. Fortunately, he did the whole part tonight - I find singing from the side looks silly and have never seen it carried off well. Given that Cleveman's replacement was announced to us via e-mail on Friday, there was ample time to reprint and copy the cast list inserts for the programme, or at the very least provided a biographical insert as they have always managed to do in the past. That Covent Garden seemed incapable of doing either, despite the hefty £7 fee for a programme is, frankly, pathetic. Fortunately, there was nothing pathetic about Cleveman's singing, quite the reverse. He had a fine voice, if perhaps a little small, and sang the part well. Indeed, so much so that given reports I've read of Heppner's performances, I think we probably had the best deal.

Elsewhere the cast was never less than good, from Michael Volle's powerful Kurwenal and Sophie Koch's Brangane to Matti Salminen's solid King Marke.

In the pit was Pappano. He has, of course, already recorded the work with the Royal Opera House orchestra and Stemme, a recording notable for featuring Domingo as Tristan, something impossible on the stage. His reading didn't quite seem to have the fire of those discs and while he achieved wonderful sounds and superb playing, something was missing. He didn't seem to get the flow to the music or the inevitability of the finest readings. At times during the opening prelude I was slightly concerned the whole thing would grind to a halt. However, the orchestra played their socks off and cannot be faulted.

But what, then, of the production, which has occasioned such fullsome praise from many critics and such vehement booing on the opening night? Well, in the first act, I was more than a little bored. There seemed to be little by way of chemistry between the cast, and the blocking often seemed odd, with everybody intent on never looking one and other in the face.

Then, during the interval, I went downstairs from the amphitheatre to talk to two people who had been in the stalls. They had had the opposite experience. For act two, then, I made hefty use of my binoculars. Sure enough, there was some pretty impressive acting taking place down there, and a phenomenal chemistry between the lovers. The only problem was that because much of the acting was so subtle, and the stage so dimly and indirectly lit, this was largely invisible to the naked eye. Now, opera almost always looks better from the expensive seats, as it should, there's a reason for the price difference, after all, but it should look better from my not exactly cheap £50 seat in the gods than it did. Opera glasses should be on hand for the occasional close up, constant use makes it very difficult to read the surtitles. I found myself imagining clever binoculars with build-in subtitles.

That said, I do like a lot of the ideas of the production, and there is a lot to be said for just having the lovers with no fuss, as was often the case. I don't at all mind not seeing boats or the absence of other literal things. The dream world/real world conceit, provided through the curtain dividing the stage, did provide some interesting insights, especially in the third act: I felt at times I wasn't sure whose imaginings these were; it helps make sense of the strength the mortally wounded Tristan finds.

Sadly, there were many silly things from director Christof Loy that either added nothing or actively took away from the drama. At one point the curtain pulled back during the act two love duet to reveal Brangane keeping watch. So far so effective, but why did Kurwenal need to be fondling her? When it pulled back in act three to show the wannabe Reservoir Dogs slow motion fight amongst dinner jacketed wedding guests, it neatly undercut much of what had been built up.

Apparently even more silliness had fallen by the wayside, perhaps to make the production easier to learn for Cleveman, as he and Isolde no longer had to serve one and other dinner during act two.

The set itself, which was positioned with much of the action taking place up against a wall extreme stage right, was probably a mistake, and one that helped with the boos on opening night (since so many could see nothing). Certainly, if they revive it, go and sit on the right side of the auditorium. I've heard that this was rearranged to make the problem less acute. Sitting on the right side myself it's hard to be certain, but it certainly did look that way (the construction of the wall visible in a way that suggested that was not how it had been intended to be placed). All I know is that if I'd been unable to see much on opening night, and my seat hadn't been sold as restricted view, I'd have booed (something I generally oppose).

All of which does say something worrying about the House's management. Just because people pay less, unless the seats are sold with a caveat, they should still get a decent view. Loy didn't really provide this. A good director should have a good sense for his house, and Loy appears not to have. It's all very well headlining it in the programme note as a "chamber drama", but you need to remember the place seats over two thousand people. Surely a competent production team wants as many of them as possible to get the best possible experience but it didn't feel that way. It's rather shocking that nobody in the house spotted this prior to opening night. Such things are not rocket science.

Then again, the house's management seems to have developed a contempt for those of us in the upper seats. I notice that the stairs straight down to the coat check area are now closed at the end of the show and we're sent the long way round. Doubtless this is to help ensure the people in the expensive seats get to the head of the queue. For a publicly funded organisation this is a pretty shocking bit of a elitism. I wonder if the management has any comment?

So, would I go back and see it again? Probably not. Without a stellar cast the production could become annoying. Then again, if were one Donald Runnicles in the pit....

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