It was like a shouting match with competing boos and cheers, often from patrons sitting next to each other, for a production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde seen from the inside looking out. Christoph Loy's iconoclastic reading, the first new production of the season, obviously jolted some in attendance. There was, however, unanimous acclaim for the spectacular singing at London's Royal Opera on opening night, September 29.
Nina Stemme had an undeniable triumph with her masterful work as the Irish princess. Her Isolde was a tour-de-force of raw energy and her "Liebestod" left the audience transfixed. This places the Swedish soprano among the top rank of Wagnerian sopranos.
In the daunting role of Tristan, veteran tenor Ben Heppner was also stirring. He was treading carefully with his voice and had some rough patches in the Second Act, but when the music swelled so did his voice with its usual warm, burnished tone. He retains his "heldentenor" title without question.
German baritone Michael Volle started hesitantly but, by the Second Act, was a commanding, passionate Kerwenal while the exciting young French mezzo Sophie Koch, as Brangane, continues her move into heavier repertory.
A special word is appropriate for veteran bass John Tomlinson. A stage injury is keeping bass Matti Salminen out of action and Tomlinson agreed to take on new roles in his absence. Earlier it was the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlo. This night he was singing King Marke for the first of three performances before Salminen returns on 9 October. His Marke, with unfailing nobility despite overwhelming agony was an interpretive gem.
Others in the cast were sturdy contributors including the chorus. The opera's music director, Antonio Pappano proved an inspired interpreter of Wagner and the orchestra was as near perfection as it gets.
There were two prosceniums this night. The first one was behind a black curtain that only opened when the outside world intruded. Despite what locale in specified in the libretto, this stage behind a stage was always a gala dinner with guests in formal wear keeping their eyes on the action downstage. Otherwise, much of the opera was played in front of this curtain on a bare grey stage, with a banal table and chair, when either of the two is with another friend or each other. What likely surprises many, even those familiar with this opera, is just how much of the time in this opera there are only two people on stage.
I have never seen a Wagner production of any kind which had such belief in, and focus on, the story itself - as if the text was by Ibsen or Chekhov. The theatrical involvement of Heppner and Stemme and others in the cast was passionate and complete and it has an palpable effect in the hall.
The opera will be broadcast on BBC Radio on October 24 at a time to be specified. This opera runs through 18 October at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden and details can be seen of upcoming operas at www.roh.org.uk.
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All photos by Bill Cooper.