Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde is not the best opera as an introduction to Richard Wagner. Described as a chamber opera, although the orchestra is vast, it is arguably the composer’s most intense and most psychological opera. So there’s a strong argument for a conceptual or heavily symbolic production which exposes the psychological themes rather than a naturalist design which portrays merely the superficial setting. The idea of a conceptual production comes much later than any production within the Richard Wagner’s lifetime so it is inevitably an expansion of the piece not within the composer’s intentions.

Nonetheless this is an illuminating production despite the contradictions. The libretto states the action of act one takes place on a ship whereas we see a formal banqueting room behind a faux and off-centre proscenium arch, downstage of which there is a severe asymmetric rake. Stage right there is a large flat which has shadows of the performers; their shadows deliberately vary from sharp and intense black shadows to two shadows deliberately offset. The performers specifically make shadow images that illuminate another facet of the character, for example a profile.

The lighting design integrates in to the production design to an unusual extent. As well as the usual modulations of lighting brightness and colour from warm to cool, there’s use of the faux proscenium arch to encompass a large black area, being very literal about dark and night in the libretto. Single or multiple shadows appear to point out the moods of the plot and character at that moment: multiple shadows highlight inner conflict etc.

The set is asymmetric compared to the real stage and pit. The effect is destabilising in a way analogous with Wagner’s famous lack of a clear musical key (the beginnings of atonality) or a clear time signature or musical pulse. The production adds to Wagner’s effect, except that - unlike in the music - the lack of comfortable squareness cannot be fluidly removed to enhance the mood of the action.

But Tristan und Isolde is notoriously and gloriously slow-moving in terms of plot development. This production makes a style of supporting performers not just being presented in cameo, but in striking and holding a pose they become scenery. The effect is to highlight the animated face reactions on minor characters such as Brangäne, Isolde's maid (Sarah Connolly).

The finale of act one involving a magic potion was suitably thrilling both musically and dramatically with the potion turning the heads of Tristan and Isolde to be lovers.

More thrilling singing in act two with Tristan (Stephen Gould) and Isolde (Nina Stemme) matching each other magnificently in the central duet. And a viciously accurate portrayal of Melot by Neal Cooper as a modern day middle-management hatchet man. An incongruous and illogical resonance in the context of the story but chillingly appropriate as a portrayal of the individual character.

John Tomlinson as King Marke playa the role both convincingly visually and with unerring accuracy of musical style. Watching Antonio Pappano conduct him during King Marke’s narration in act two was a treat as the conductor coaxed the orchestra to reflect the interpretation on stage. Similarly during Isolde’s Liebestod, which ends act three and the opera, Antonio Pappano was visibly coaxing the maximum expression from his orchestra players.

The symbolic design was less illuminating in act two. The story is more straightforward and quite often the music (through the use of leitmotifs) speaks more clearly and directly than the words. The tussle between dark and light is explicit in the libretto so there isn’t much scope for help from symbolism in the production.

Act three showed the lack of a clear ship on stage as a real inhibition to understanding. There’s so much explicit reference to a ship that not having one was nonsensical. My tolerance of performers dressed as waiters didn’t last far in to this act (they weren’t meant to be read as that...). The staging of the bloody battle also made little sense. But the singing and orchestral playing were fantastic. Nina Stemme’s singing of Isolde’s Liebestod, with Antonio Pappano’s fluid partnership was the highlight of the evening. 

Overall, Neither Tristan nor Isolde were portrayed with great warmth in their love, both obsessed with the dark side with almost no compensatory rapture. Even the final Liebestod, with its resolution of chromatic and rhythmic musical tensions, seemed overwhelmed by the cold of night. I could believe this Isolde as the Mother of Turandot.

The house was not full - it’s a Monday in December - but the reception was notably warm with many curtain calls.

I enjoyed the night despite my reservations. This is not the definitive modern production design although it’s not immediately clear what would be. A naturalistic production would now seem too limited.

This production should sound good on the radio.



Tristan und Isolde: Monday 8 December 2014

Director - Christof Loy
Set design - Johannes Leiacker
Lighting design - Olaf Winter
Dramaturg - Marion Tiedtke
The production is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera

Conductor - Antonio Pappano

Tristan - Stephen Gould
Isolde - Nina Stemme
King Marke - John Tomlinson
Brangäne - Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal - Iain Paterson
Melot - Neal Cooper
Sailor - Ed Lyon
Shepherd - Graham Clark
Steersman - Yuriy Yurchuk

Royal Opera Chorus, Concert Master Sergey Levitin
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

The Story

Tristan and Isolde have fallen in love – but Tristan has promised that Isolde will marry his uncle, King Marke. Isolde offers Tristan a deathly potion. Rather than bring death, it binds them still closer together.


Richard Wagner described Tristan und Isolde as ‘the most audacious and original work of my life’. The opera is a landmark in Western music. Wagner’s musical innovations, daring use of harmony and depiction of extreme emotions have influenced generations of artists. The opera draws on the Celtic legend of Tristan and Iseult, and explores the theme of eternal love through sublime music.

The divide between the real and the metaphysical worlds is powerfully conveyed in Christof Loy’s contemporary production. King Marke’s court is depicted as an elegant dinner party, divided from the world of Tristan and Isolde’s transcendent love by a curtain. As the opera progresses, the characters move between the sphere of private emotions at the front of the stage and the artificial ‘public world’ at the back. Loy’s subtle staging draws attention to the beauty of Wagner’s score, highlights of which include the Act I Prelude, the lovers’ ecstatic duet in Act II and Isolde’s Act III aria ‘Mild und leise’, in which she bids farewell to the world.