Review: Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera House

Posted on 10, Jun, 2015 in Uncategorized

Tristan und Isolde

Royal Opera House, 14th December 2014

Directed by Christof Loy

Review by Charles Furness-Smith


Christof Loy’s production of Tristan undnIsolde has garnered a significant amount of fashionable abuse for notnonly belonging to that pervasive brand of regietheater thatnsome feel is undertaking an inexorable march towards conquering all Europeannopera houses, but also for ignoring the opera’s key themes and substance innfavour of the director’s own agenda. Some of this is certainly true. Anyonenwishing to see tapestry-adorned tent-like cabins on ships, castle gardens withntall trees, or lime trees at Kareol – all as stipulated in the libretto – areneither going to be disappointed or will have to undergo some rigorousnsuspension of disbelief. However, since the Second World War we have learntnthat one does not necessarily need Otto Schenk or Franco Zeffirelli tonappreciate an opera’s subtler points. Wieland Wagner’s Parsifal atnBayreuth in 1951 stoked so much outrage from traditionalists that it resultednin the creation of the “Club for the Faithful Rendition of Richard Wagner’snWorks”, and yet nowadays we often hear people yearning for one of Wieland’snproductions on the grounds that it would allow them to focus on the music,nlibretto and the often philosophical subtext. His minimalist productions gavenaudiences mental space to breathe, and the popularity of Longborough’s RingnCycle production over the last seven years shows that such minimalismncan elicit great favour from the Wagner crowd.


Loy’s production is not minimalistic, although in some ways it is relativelynuncluttered. Its real crime, however, judging from reviews and a littleneavesdropping during intervals at the Royal Opera House both this year and inn2009, is that it has not replaced the aforementioned ship, castles and limentree with a blank canvass à la Wieland Wagner, butnrather with opaque ideas, imagery and sometimes action that veers dangerouslynaway from the libretto. This latter point should be the essence of anyncomplaint with an opera production. Any production that presents us with a newnprism through which to appreciate existing themes inherent within the music orntext can only be deemed interesting (if not aesthetically pleasing to all).nMeanwhile a production that presents an interpretation of the opera that is notnconsistent with the music or text should not be surprised to receive criticismnfrom audiences. Two productions have appeared at Covent Garden in the last fewnyears that are guilty of this crime. Both require a divergent leap ofnimagination away from the libretto for no reason other than that the prismnthrough which the director wants us to see the opera was conceived as thenstarting point for the production: the action, libretto and even music (cuts, changesnto tempi and so on) were then amended to fit the concept. Overall, ChristofnLoy’s Tristan und Isolde is not guilty of this.


One of the problems that Loy has encountered is that he has publicly expressedna lack of interest in the historic canon of celebrated Wagner productions,nfeeling that they traditionally underestimate the psychological intricacies ofnthe characters. Furthermore, with specific reference to Tristan undnIsolde, Loy has chosen to abrogate both the idea of Tristan and Isolde’snlove as being heroic in nature, and the idea of their love representingnSchopenhauerian denial of the world. These latter points provide thenprosecution with a significant amount of fuel, especially given that to denynSchopenhauer’s influence on Tristan und Isolde is like denyingnthat Rossini was pretty good at writing overtures. And yet Schopenhauer’sninfluence on the opera is inherent in the fabric of the libretto and it isntherefore not essential for a production to focus on it. Regardless of whetherna director appreciates a theme or not, a production’s lack of focus on itnshould not render it flawed per se, especially if the production does notnpurposefully attempt to disprove or undermine the theme. At worst Loy’s Tristannund Isolde simply ignores Schopenhauer, at best it complements anphilosophical reading of the opera. In fact, Loy’s focus on the themes of Daynversus Night and Life versus Death results in a production full of starkncontrasts, and therefore such a strong impression of the division between thenouter world and the world of Tristan and Isolde’s relationship is drawn thatnthe production has actually been (mis)interpreted as being Schopenhauerian innnature: the world of Night representing noumenon and the worldnof Day representing phenomenon.


In the 2009 programme for this production, an interview with Christof Loynhighlighted his understanding of the psychology of the characters. Forninstance, Loy believes that Tristan does not act on his immediate love fornIsolde when they first meet because his own insecurities lead him to assumenthat someone as beautiful as Isolde could never return his love. The directornis particularly interested in the idea of Tristan and Isolde holding divergingnviews on the nature of their love, something he derives primarily from thencouple’s debate in Act 2 Scene 2 regarding Day, Night, Life and Death. Tristannlongs for death, but sees his love for Isolde as capable of conquering allnthings, transcending even death. Isolde, meanwhile, is concerned that deathnwould destroy the bond between them. The real controversy in Loy’snunderstanding of the libretto is that he argues that Wagner never resolved thisndebate, and leaves it unresolved to the end of the opera. To see this point ofnview requires one to believe that Isolde’s compliance in Tristan’s fatalistic,nalmost suicidal, ode to Death throughout Act 2 is due to being both caught upnin and seduced by the moment, by the Nacht der Liebe. Loy’s view isnthat Act 3 solidifies this discrepancy of opinion regarding love: Isoldenappears to be able to harness her love for Tristan and contain it within andesolate life, while Tristan (having welcomed Melot’s attack as stipulated innthe libretto) follows a path towards death. Loy’s reading therefore results innthe liebestod becoming a description of the state between lifenand death, the state between Tristan and Isolde at the opera’s end.


This view – one that isnfundamentally unromantic in nature – is a controversial one, and one which isnsure to raise hackles on the backs of purists. And yet, despite the fact thatnLoy clearly outlines his personal understanding of the libretto in thenprogramme, his production is not arrogant enough to force us to comply with hisnviews. Instead, this production’s primary concern is asking the audience to psychoanalysenthe characters, and its central achievement is that it brings to our attentionnthe opera’s numerous psychological cohesions and conflicts. Moreover, whilenLoy’s motivation for presenting these cohesions and conflicts stems from hisnunusual comprehension of the psychological makeup of each character, the resultnintentionally allows us to form our own opinions rather than force-feeding us ancreative agenda.


For the most part Loy’sncommentary on the characters is provided via careful use of space and light. Itnis clear when watching this production that meticulous care has been taken withneach line of the libretto. Every word is accompanied by purposeful gestures,nblocking, colour and lighting. Loy and designer JohannesnLeiacker have created a set that is essentially made up of large greynrectangles, giving the effect of an elongated monochrome chessboard, or perhapsnthe backstage of a theatre with its dark surfaces and malleable blocks that cannbe reordered or adjusted to suit different production requirements. This designnfills a rectangular area downstage, while upstage, beyond a curtainednpartition, is a stylised representation of the kind of extravagance that a mannof King Mark’s stature might inhabit in a non-specific but more or lessncontemporary era. In other words, the upstage rectangle looks like a theatrenset. Loy has made it clear that these two distinct areas represent the worldsnof Day and Night and concordantly of Life and Death. He has also explicitlynsaid that the world of Night is an area in which existential questions arenasked, the sorts of questions that are rarely asked in the social façade of thenworld of Day.


I remember thinking that thisnstaging had been exceedingly ill conceived when I saw it first in 2009. A largenportion of the action takes place against a wall downstage right that cannbarely be seen by 20% of the auditorium. The sightlines have been adjustednslightly for this 2014 revival, but irrespective of this change, watching thenproduction from the centre of the auditorium this year illustrated thenimportance of this wall. At first glance the positioning of the wall appears tonbe arbitrary. However, one can scarcely fail to see that it protrudes from onenside of the curtained partition, out of the proscenium and slightly into thenauditorium. There is no reason to do something as logistically challenging asnthis unless there is a clear purpose behind it, and a second glance revealsnthat this wall resembles a door that has been flung open into the auditoriumnfrom the upstage area. In effect it appears that we, the audience, are lookingnat the exact reverse of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In A Doll’snHouse, the main stage is used to represent Nora’s home: the constricting,nrepressive and oppressive world of 19th Century maritalnmisogyny. In many productions of Ibsen’s play, when Nora breaks out of thisnworld, the entire back of the stage opens up, as the door of an actual doll’snhouse might, enabling her to walk out into another world. In this production of Tristannund Isolde, we are looking in at the world that Nora escapes into: annexistential plane beyond the sociological confines of everyday life. Thisnreference to Ibsen is enhanced by the theatrical use of a curtain as anpartition between the two zones of the stage, and by clear references tonandrocentrism in the tableaux that are portrayed in the Day world (boisterousnBullingdon-esque drinking parties and so on).


It therefore comes as no surprisenthat if the Day world upstage appears to be set-like and theatrical, the Nightnworld downstage beyond the curtain appears to be backstage-like with thenaforementioned matt grey floors, walls and ceilings, and little more than anscrappy wooden rehearsal chair and table to adorn it. If we follow the theatrenanalogy, then we find a clear explanation of the costumes. Costumes in the Daynworld are formal and theatrical: white dinner jackets, a white wedding dressnfor Isolde, and formal attire for the wedding quests (all men). Meanwhile,ncostumes in the Night world are essentially those worn by stagehands: blacknt-shirts, no frills. Overall the analogy is a good one. How are we supposed tonvisualise an existential plane, a place of infinite incomprehensibility thatnPlato, Kant and Schopenhauer said was impossible to imagine let alone define?nAs directors of A Doll’s House have found, to break thendimensions of a stage and show anything beyond its traditional parameters isnthe perfect analogy. In this production we, the audience, are sitting outsidenPlato’s cave and watching as its inhabitants come out to us and question theirnexistence.


So the wall helps the theatricalnanalogy with a nod to Ibsen, but its other function is of primary importance.nAs mentioned above, Loy has orchestrated this production with precision, and ifnhe uses space to illustrate subtext then he uses light for the same purpose andnwith equal clarity. The wall becomes an additional dimension beyond the twonworlds already established on stage. Downstage, the world of Night is litnalmost exclusively from one location – somewhere directly opposite the wall,nlow and offstage. The result of this is that Loy is able to suggest bothncohesion and conflict by projecting colours and casting shadows on the wall.nFor instance, when Tristan and Isolde are debating the effect that death wouldnhave on their love – each holding a contrasting opinion – the wall is darknabove and light below with two vastly different shadows cast upon it. Isoldensits in contemplation at a table beside the wall casting a meagre shadow, whilenTristan paces downstage left throwing an enormous shadow against the wall. Innthis way, opposing ideas are given clear physical manifestation in the blockingnof the characters on stage and additional metaphysical implication. When thentwo lovers stop debating and give themselves up to love, the light and darknmerges to grey and their entwined bodies cast one distinct shadow on the wall.


Nowhere is this tool better usednthan in the discourse between Tristan and Kurwenal in Act 3 Scene 1. Kurwenalnis unable to understand or bear his master’s delirium. Their shadows arenentirely at odds throughout the discourse as Tristan repeats three times, “das kannnich dir nicht sagen” (“I cannot tell you”),nunable to explain that he is destined for weltennacht, somethingnKurwenal is not able to comprehend and somewhere he is unable to follow. Yet,nwhen Kurwenal tells Tristan that he has sent a faithful servant to bring Isoldento Kareol, the two men are suddenly aligned in mutual understanding. AsnKurwenal reveals the favour that he has performed, he approaches Tristan fromnbehind, stepping into his master’s shadow. As the two men embrace, theirnshadows become one. Later in the scene when Tristan recounts his pitiablenchildhood (from which much of Loy’s psychoanalysis stems) the two men’s shadowsnare again at odds – Kurwenal’s horror and dissociation is at its greatest atnthis point – only to be reunited when Kurwenal finally announces the arrival ofnIsolde’s ship.


Given thenambitious dimensionality of this production, there is plenty of room fornconfusion. The entire spectrum of the opera’s action cannot so easily bensegregated into black and white, the worlds of Day and Night, Life and Deathnand so on. There is more to the story and drama than this. The multiple uses ofnthe dividing curtain illustrates this issue: sometimes the curtain simply actsnto highlight the theatrical analogy, sometimes it acts as a doorway, and atnother times it slides like a conveyor system to imply a movement in time andnspace: for instance, Brangäne walking from Isolde’s cabin to Tristan and back again in Act 1.nTo keep a firm grip on our understanding of the Night world, Loy has provided anrehearsal chair downstage that, for want of a better analogy, appears to be somethingnakin to the conch shell from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.nWhen there is possible confusion over whose psychological space we are in andnwhose existential questions are being illustrated, the answer can be found bynlocating the character interacting with the chair. What could make more sensenthan to see the discovery of Tristan and Isolde’s illicit liaison through theneyes of Melot, the man who betrayed them? Hence, in the moments before Tristannand Isolde are interrupted, Melot slowly takes his place in the chair and leersnat the guilty couple. Later, it is through the eyes of the shepherd that wenwitness the fight in Act 3. He – one of the few characters with no emotionalninvolvement with the main players and events of the opera – watches on askancenas a pointless battle ensues and blood is spilt for no good reason. Only hisncharacter could provide such dispassionate analysis in that moment. Then,npurposefully, the shepherd vacates the chair, handing it over to King Mark, andnwe enter the mind of the king. And so on…


This idea of the downstage worldnbecoming the psychological sphere of a single character helps clarify keynmoments in the production. Tristan twice pins other characters against the wallnwith this arms, simultaneously oppressing them with both his physicality andnhis mind’s fatalistic ideas concerning the world of Night. Kurwenal’snmelodramatic, almost crazed, response to Tristan’s delirium in Act 3 makes morensense if he is being subjected not to his friend’s words, but to an actualninsight into his mental state. This would explain why Kurwenal gently touchesnthe wall and addresses it directly when he asks, “bist du nun tot?nLebst du noch? Hat dich der Fluch entführt?” (“Are younnow dead? Are you still alive? Has the curse taken you away?”)


With thenknowledge that Loy has used space, light and shadow to underpin the events ofnthe opera, some of the production’s more opaque moments begin to makensense as part of a cohesive whole. Tristan’s delirium in Act 3 results in hisnpassing out directly underneath the curtain: in the space between Day andnNight, or half way towards Death. Isolde’s dilemma at the end of Act 1 isnvisualized by having her stand directly between the worlds of Day and Night,nthe curtain fully drawn back, her psychological disconcertion and conflict laidnbare, wearing the black of Night but holding a white wedding dress with andepressing sense of obligation.


Onenmoment that has riled strict adherents to the libretto is the fact that Brangäne and Kurwenal participatenin their own Nacht der Liebe during Tristan and Isolde’s Act 2ndialogue. However, the comparison between the two relationships is relevant.nWhile Brangäne and Kurwenal’s infinitely baser and less meaningful liaisonnplays out upstage in the world of Day – Kurwenal has even passed out by thentime Brangäne sings Einsam wachend, in der Nacht – Tristan andnIsolde’s relationship has entered the point of existential musing in thendownstage world of Night. The contrast between two types of love could not benclearer: one is base and physical, the other has passed that point to becomenethereal and metaphysical. Brangäne and Kurwenal’s affair also enhances thenfollowing scene. When Mark enters the downstage world, he takes control of the space,ntaking the chair (it is in fact given to him by Tristan) and having the rest ofnthe cast line up in an identity parade against the wall. During Mark’s longnspeech, one by one the characters return upstage and out of Mark’s mind, exceptnfor Tristan. For all of their culpability, it is Tristan’s betrayal that isnmost on Mark’s mind, not Isolde’s betrayal, Melot’s obsequious politicking ornthe complicity and inappropriate behaviour of Brangäne and Kurwenal.


Of course, the production isnlikely to prove aesthetically unpleasing to some. Don’t get me wrong, there isnnothing like a realistic (or perhaps even naturalistic) Wagner production tonget the hairs on my arms standing to attention, but Loy’s production of Tristannund Isolde provides enough interesting insights into the psychologicalnaspects of the libretto (specifically the themes of Night and Day) that it isnhard not to find something of interest in it at least.


Loy’snunromantic notion that Tristan and Isolde’s romance ends in existentialndissonance is unlikely to fly with most Wagnerians: we tend to be a fairly romanticnbunch at heart. However, Loy makes it clear that his understanding is thatnWagner left unresolved the question of Death’s relationship to Tristan andnIsolde’s love. Accordingly, he leaves his production without definitenresolution. The production finishes with the sun rising; an amber glow graduallyngrowing against the downstage wall (the first time in the production that anstage lantern implies any colour other than white, black or grey). Isoldensmiles peacefully at the rising sun. For every individual who perceives thisntableau as Isolde greeting the new dawn in the knowledge that she has found anway to live on alone in the world of Day, there will be a romantic, like me,nwho believes that she is smiling because despite the fact that dawn is usheringnin the world of Day, Isolde is wearing black and presiding in the chair innTristan’s world of Night, a world from which I think it unlikely she willnreturn.



A short wordnon the performances. A lot has been said about Nina Stemme’s Isolde, and indeednwe should be exceedingly grateful that we have had such a wonderful performancentwice in London in the last five years. She is a real treat to hear from anvocal perspective and clearly loves the dramatic requirements that thisnproduction demands. Her silent tears before the overture has even ended had annaudience member next to me weeping. However, I would like to pay specialncompliment to Stephen Gould who hit every note all evening, and in no way tiredntowards the end of the exceptionally difficult Act 3. Given Ben Heppner’sninability to do either of the above at the Royal Opera House in 2009 or at thenRoyal Albert Hall in 2010, I think we are lucky to have heard such anperformance. 


Charles Furness-Smith

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