Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde ROH - first thoughts

One of the slogans often put about is that there is some kind of "traditional" staging that must be enforced. Yet Wagner himself famously said "next year we'll do everything differently". The drama was what mattered to him, not the packaging.

Look again at the Aldophe Appia sketch for Tristan und Isolde I posted earlier. Wow! It materialized onstage at the Royal Opera House last night, with the extra benefit of modern technology and lighting. The ROH stage is angled anyway, so no need for a "platform". One wing extends into the stage diagonally ( which may have to change angle for future productions so upper left galleries get a better view). And there's even the tall arched windows Appia sketched!

Then the colour scheme - planes of black and white, but lots of shades of grey, like silver, silk, suede, marble, extremely elegant and beautiful. Obviously evoking Appia but more importantly a reference to the recurring themes in the opera of light, dark and in-between.... nothing in this opera is really black and white, as the text keeps reminding us, again and again.

The significance was probably lost on many, as the booing started almost as soon as the prelude began. This was an unusually inattentive crowd determined to prove a point whatever the production actually might be. Up in the galleries someone noticed that the booers were having a wonderful time, enjoying themselves. There is nothing wrong in principle about disliking something intensely. Everyone has different tastes. But for every person who boos because they've actually thought about the production, there must be a hundred who boo because for one moment in their lives they have power. It's fulfilling : they've all read about the Met Tosca booing and now they are venting themselves on ROH. Just because "everyone" says something doesn't make it right. Once people cared enough that they'd go listen. Now going out is a sort of communal bloodsport. No one has the same taste, but booing is not fair, it's bullying.

As Wagner tells us over and over in this opera, what you see just might not be what you get. Illusion, delusion, things that need to be properly understood not taken at face value.

This was uncommonly musically literate: all irrelevance stripped away, revealing the music. Every gesture, every movement directed towards showing what's on in the music. Often those who hate "modern" opera claim they come for the music. This time the music "was" the star. Loy doesn't spell things out literally, forcing you to really listen and think about what the sounds and words mean.

Also very good was the way the stage was separated into foreground and background, concentrating the main action on the spartan "inner space" which really matters. The background fills in background. The grandeur of a royal banquet is shown, very formal and entirely male, power oriented. Which is Isolde's predicament, she's a spoil of war, and not the kind of person who gets off on surface glamour. One of the main points of the opera is that Isolde doesn't play games, and Tristan has turned his back on them.

At the end, the men in the banquet hall stab each other in stylized slow motion. At first I thought, why? Then it dawned on me that it's a comment on the themes of treachery, death, betrayal all over again acted out in society. Since this occurs in the background, not the
foreground it does not overpower the main action at all. Far from being "wilful" Loy puts his comment behind the main scene, reinforcing the themes rather than placing his extension for their own sake.

And the Liebestod ? Magnificent singing - Nina Stemme is passionately committed, she burns with intensity. Tristan and Isolde embrace tenderly - it's very touching and intimate, particularly against the vast empty spaces (part of the meaning too). Read the libretto: the borders between life and death are not as simple as they seem. Throughout the opera, people are seeing things in different ways, mistaking surface for reality. Eventually Ben Heppner's arms drop away in one last spasm. It could be rigor mortis but it connects to the ideas of death and illusion, and of different realities. And then the soaring, glorious transfiguration that is the Liebestod which ends with Isolde sitting where Tristan had been earlier. So the lovers are united in deeper ways than we can imagine.

I've been offline til this pm so I'lll write more - watch this space! There is so much in this opera that it's hard to reach all levels in any production. Anything good is like that, not easy to "get" at first and benefits from thoughtful consideration. This production with its silences and subtleties isn't easy, but it's worthy of an opera like this where what's really happening isn't literal at all.

MORE TO COME !!!!!! Please see review above and also second night. There's so much in this production that grows the more you you listen and think about it. Please keep looking in, there will be more. I'm going again Friday. Please also read the other posts on Tristan und Isolde at Glyndebourne and Bayreuth on this blog and on the ROH Lulu

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