This blog was supposed to strike a balance between operatic musings and various ramblings about work and life generally. It hasn’t quite panned out in that way, with opera as the main subject. However, work formed an important context to my visit to Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden on Friday, having been a difficult week (to say the least) which followed the return to work after a lovely, relaxing week in Mykonos. My energy levels were not, therefore, at their best, and my general frame of mind tinged the inevitable excitement with just a hint of dread at the prospect of some of the longeurs that are built into Tristan. With that context, it is a tribute to all concerned that the evening was as unremittingly wonderful as it turned out to be.
What the hell is controversial about Christoph Loy’s production? It was coherent, dramatic and thoroughly engaging. It threw a spotlight on individual performances and characters in a way that its truly dreadful ‘red-box-blue-box’ Covent Garden predecessor completely failed to do, as it reduced them to mere symbols illuminating the Schopenhauerian subtext. This was intelligent, mostly well-executed and elegant to look at. The aesthetic was as engaging, clean and interesting as the same director’s wonderful Ariadne auf Naxos.
It wasn’t without a few problems. The curtain which was drawn across the back-scene at various speeds was noticeably drawn by feet visible from where we were sitting in the left Lower Slips. More significantly, when we arrived at those seats, we were greeted with little notes sellotaped to the backs (so elegant!) saying that they had tried to get hold of us but been unable, and we would be getting a £21 refund on our £30 tickets because of the ‘severely restricted view’. There was no need for the action to take place against the left-hand wall, including many of the critical scenes in the opera and much of the ramblings of those longeurs I mentioned. The note made reference to realising the problem after the transfer out of the rehearsal room, but this has to be rubbish: surely the management know their theatre and know the limitations of the restricted view seats. Someone should have said to Mr Loy that such an approach to the positioning of key scenes needed tempering for this theatre. As it happens, from the best Lower Slips (on the end before the break and the start of the Amphitheatre) we could lean over and see most of what happened (albeit through a forest of little lampshades on the balcony front). I would have been angry indeed to have been in any worse position, this was either sloppy management of the staging process or wilful insolence on the part of a director that refused to adapt the concept. As a final nail in the coffin, Isolde started the Liebestod laying in Tristan’s arms, stage left, got up and moved slightly centre stage and then slowly backed all the way to the wall as she finished. There was no dramatic reason for that whatsoever, and it should surely have been easily amended after the dress rehearsal to give those on the left a final relaxed engagement with this most important crowning moment of the musical drama.
And what musical drama it was! I have to start with Nina Stemme: she’s an utter marvel. Seemingly effortless, her voice projected richly into the auditorium, was nuanced and matched to a phenomenal dramatic intensity. I don’t think I’ll see as good as this again. When we saw her at Glyndebourne we were impressed, but this seemed a whole new level again. Her approach to the character seemed to suit the production, and she seemed to wring every opportunity for ‘real’ characterisation out of her role, of the kind that the Glyndebourne production makes a little more difficult with its more abstract shape-and-colour world. A thrilling performance to revel in.
I’ve never been a Ben Heppner fan, indeed I am rather a sceptic. Nothing that I’ve seen him do has ever been totally satisfying, and it always seems that the effort involved carries across the orchestra pit far more clearly than the result. My opinion hasn’t changed significantly but, again, there were flashes of interesting dramatic presentation. In particular, the higher-octane histrionics of the third act were carried through very effectively, all the more impressive for having had an announcement before the third act that he was suffering ‘an allergic reaction’ but would continue. This would have explained some really very curious sounds that he made in quieter passages, particularly noticeable in the second act love duet. It was a curious explanation that was given as well: Torsten Kerl had an allergic reaction which prevented him from singing Tristan at Glyndebourne, and Ian Storey stepped in. Are Heldentenors a particularly sensitive bunch when it comes to allergies? Are they all allergic to the same thing? Perhaps we should be told…
Sophie Koch’s Brangäne, Michael Volle’s Kurwenal and Richard Berkeley-Steele’s Melot were all tremendous and kept the drama buoyant and convincing throughout. The curious reworking of the ending, wherein Kurwenal killed Melot and the Shepherd killed Kurwenal turned a normally quick, impetuous clash into something reminiscent of Titus Andronicus, but it didn’t detract at all and fitted the concept well. Not entirely sure about the Kurwenal-Brangäne relationship that was played out, but no harm done as far as I can see.
Nina Stemme’s remarkable achievement sits alongside that of Pappano, conducting a fabulously on-form orchestra. The volume dynamics were tremendous, with clear ‘forward’ playing underpinning all of the drama, but the extent to which the orchestral volume was in fact held back to support the singers only becoming apparent at occasional moments: the (non-)climax of the love duet, for example, or the rumbustuous end of Act 1. The whole thing was fast-paced, but not noticeably hurried, and the overall effect was of a genuine drama being played out not, as can sometimes seem the case, the reading out loud of an undergraduate essay on post-Kantian philosophy. That said, the stillness that was thrust upon the auditorium for the opening of the prelude, as well as some of those reflective passages that can come hard on the heels of moments of high drama, was electrifying.
And the reason for the title of this blog entry? London can be a bastard to live in: expensive in all respects, an appalling transport system, and a general requirement that you put in a hell of a lot in order to get the best out of the place. And the reason I go through all of that hell on a daily basis (not to mention work in London local government with all the crap that goes with that)? Quite simply, for evenings like yesterday…