Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Tristan Und Isolde

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Tristan Und Isolde

Article excerpt

Tristan und Isolde

Royal Opera House

Any adequate performance of Tristan und Isolde , and the first night of the Royal Opera's production was at least that, leaves you wondering what to do with the rest of your life, as Wagner both feared and hoped it would. What Tristan does -- one of the things -- is to present an image of romantic love, in both its torments and its ecstasies, which makes everything else seem trivial; and at the same time to undercut that image by asserting the claims of ordinary life, but in the subtlest way. So, however swept away one is by the agonies of Tristan in Act III, and the raptures of the love music in Act II -- and for the first time in decades the duet was given uncut, with the 12 minutes of music in which the lovers make their transition from the everyday world to their private one -- there are these things to be remembered.Tristan dies in a state of delusion. So, separately, does Isolde. Earlier in Act III, when Tristan collapses after cursing the potion 'which I myself have brewed' his squire Kurwenal, thinking him dead, laments that he has fallen prey to 'the world's most beautiful illusion'. One of Wagner's least celebrated qualities as an artist is his comprehensiveness, his matchless capacity to present the most glamorous images of what we imagine life could be, and to puncture them gently but decisively by slipping in the indocile realities that are what we have, finally, to live with.

Christof Loy's production, here revived for the first time, is structured broadly along these lines, but severely underplays the heroism and is determinedly prosaic. Johannes Leiacker's design is simple: a bare, slightly tilted stage, a kitchen chair, a massive deep purple curtain at the back, which is drawn at crucial points to reveal a wedding feast, or perhaps a stag night, all-male, tuxedos, lots of candles. There is no hint of the sea or of being onboard a ship. Loy argues in the programme book that that would be redundant, which is clearly absurd. So we must assume the guests are sufficiently far gone for their shouts of 'Lower the anchor' and so forth to be deluded, though so are Isolde and Brangäne in talking about being near to the Cornish coast. In fact, Act I is as firmly located onboard a boat as the first two acts of Siegfried are in a forest.

In Act II blowing out a candle seems a poor substitute for lowering the torch to indicate to Tristan that he can approach. …

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