If you can't spend hundreds to get to Glyndebourne's Tristan und Isolde, there's a download available on their site. It's not the current performance but a film of the 2004 production originally directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, starring Nina Stemme and Robert Gambill. Check the sample videos before buying. The download process is cumbersome, and takes almost as long to load as to listen. So why are the producers so proud to announce that half the costs go to them? For £24.99 you might wait for the DVD release which is £27.99 on Opus Arte. Glyndebourne isn't backed by the super efficient Siemens, but still....
It's interesting to watch this production after the Bayreuth version also available on download for half the price. One is grim to look at but connects to the ideas in the opera. The other is glamorous visually, a "designer" look, but in which Wagner's more complex ideas don't intrude.
The design concept for this set must have looked wonderful on the drawing board. Basically the stage is ordered in steps facing the audience, with huge semi-circular arches curving round the performance space - clean and crisp. Because the same elaborate construction can be adapted in all three Acts, it's economic to present. Yet if any venue can accommodate lavish scene changes, it's Glyndebourne, where the intervals are longer than anywhere else. A lost opportunity.
What does the set tell us about the opera? Generally I much prefer abstract, uncluttered settings because they throw attention onto the music. In this case, the minimalism draws attention away without giving much in return. Perhaps the hard surfaces reflect hard situations like Mussolini architecture reflects fascist discipline. Yet, powerful as King Marke may be he's no autocrat. He's such a nice guy he doesn't even force Isolde to sleep with him because he respects her too much. Techno-brutalism isn't his style. Nor "image" because he's not a slave to keeping up surface appearances. Isolde and Brangäne spend a lot of time sitting on the steps, physically and metaphorically. They sing but don't really inhabit the stage. Of course they don't belong in Cornwall, but there's little else in the production to further draw out their plight.
After all the King lives like that too. Act Two is visually the strongest of the three, because the set is lit up by an ever changing light show, evoking the colours of stained glass, or moonlight or daybreak. The lighting also softens the harsh lines: in some ways Isolde's predicament comes about because she has been soft, healing Tristan's wounds even though he'd killed her lover. Admittedly she had a cunning plan but she's overtaken by the tenderness that is love.
Much of the acting is done by the costumes, elaborate mock-medieval get-ups that are part shroud, part Arthur Rackham romantic. These are lovely to look at, contrasting well with the spartan set. Rather like a very expensive boutique where nice things are displayed in voids of chrome and glass. But is Tristan und Isolde a paean to designer styling? Don't the wild emotions overwhelm safe, neat order? What is the nature of those extreme emotions? Are they in love at all?
Years ago I saw Herbert Wernicke's production at the Royal Opera House. Tristan and Isolde inhabited two separate white cubes, suspended in space. They didn't look at each other. It was so shocking, I thought it was "Tristan und Isolde on Prozac", emotionally deadened. Over the years, though, that production has stuck in my mind more than many things, much as I hated it then. Wernicke was making the point that T and I are fantasists, in love with the idea of love rather than with each other. They were drugged after all.
Yet Wernicke's bizarrely barren set was saying something about the deeper ideas in the opera. Tristan and Isolde both have intense personalities, troubled by traumas in their pasts. Tristan's childhood didn't prime him for warm, healthy relationships. At least, not with women. No wonder everyone's so surprised. And Isolde has a thing for extreme reactions. They live in their own feverish minds rather than in the mundane world. They get off on death and high drama rather like medieval Kurt Cobains. So what does Lehnhoff's production tell us?
It's nonsense that productions aren't supposed to have vision. Every time anything is performed it comes to life via a process of interpretation. Even when you read notes on the page and translate them into sound, you're interpreting. Because opera is visual as well as aural, direction and sets are important: a director is almost as significant as a conductor. A conductor can't "just play the notes" any more than a director can just follow the directions. In any case, composers are musicians not stage specialists. As Alban Berg said "I write for the directors of the future" who will have different resources and know how to use them. Ultimately it doesn't matter at all whether a set is period or modern, abstract of realistic. All that matters is whether it inspires insights into a deeper understanding of the work.
After 100 years of recording, we've become accustomed to thinking of opera in purely musical terms. Indeed there's a lot to be said for not watching opera at all. But Wagner wanted Gesammstkunstwerk, creations that pulled together all kinds of art to convey ideas as fully as possible. Still, in the absence of thought-provoking staging, a perfomance can stand by singing and playing alone. Nina Stemme is a lovely Isolde, vocally secure. If the harsh lighting drains her face of colour, she doesn't sing as if she's washed out. Robert Gambill isn't striking, though he isn't strained by the part's demand on higher register. Katarina Karneus can be an excellent singer, with personality, but the way this Brangäne is directed, she might as well have gone on autopilot. There is a lot more to the character, as the Marthaler Bayreuth production demonstrates. That Brangäne is a match for Isolde in terms of spirit and vitality.
This summer's Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde is conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, with Anja Kampe and Torsten Kerl in the main roles. Last December, Jurowski conducted a concert performance of the Second Act at the Royal Festival Hall. See HERE. It wasn't that wonderful, but that's understandable given it was a work-in-progress, all parties new to the work. Kampe was much more impressive in this spring's ROH Der fliegende Hollämder where she quite frankly stole the show from a pedestrian Bryn Terfel. She may not have Stemme's experience but she'd be interesting. And we know Jurowski's good.
Subsequently I had a thought. Why not a puppet Tristan und Isolde? That would solve the problem of having good singers who can't act and singers who look good but can't sing! That would also solve the problem of people who think the opera is "boring" because there's "no action" and no sex. At last we'd get to see Morold die, Isolde's mum, Tristan's mum etc and T & I could take their clothes off. Definitely a market there. For some.....