What do with with staging Wagner? For all the composer-librettist's theories of total theater, his works are fiendishly difficult to produce, not only because of the superhuman demands on his singers, but because they are not dramatic in a conventional sense. There are so many monologues, so many moments when psychology is more important than conventional dramatic conflict. Opera is often about what people are thinking and feeling more than what they are doing. Wagner's works are extreme examples of this. So how do you produce them?
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, perhaps the most influential of Wagners' works musically, is a prime example. Little happens. An hour into the work, lovers drink a love potion. An hour and a half later they are discovered in flagrante and Tristan is mortally wounded. Another hour later Tristan dies, a couple of other people die in a quick duel and Isolde sings her famous Liebestod. That, like so much of the opera, is an internal moment. Even the fifty minute love duet is less about love than longing to be removed from earth and conventional life. It's about death as much as it is about life. In other words, there isn't much for singers to do physically in TRISTAN. Moreover, the opera is so vocally demanding on the two singers playing the title roles that they can't be expected to move much. And, typical of Wagner, there are long orchestral passages between their vocal lines. So, in the best of productions, TRISTAN is a static work. We listen -- and there is an enormous amount to listen to -- more than we look.
What was offered at the Royal Festival Hall yesterday was neither quite a concert or a fully staged performance. The singers were in front of the orchestra in concert dress, but they were "off book" and, to some extent, acting their roles. There was a black piece of furniture to be Isolde's couch in Act I, a bench in Act II and Tristan's bed in Act III. There was some minimal blocking and some theatrical lighting. Most impressive was the placement of some of the cast around the Royal Festival Hall. Brangane delivered her warning from a high box, the chorus welcoming Isolde at the end of Act I was in the back of the hall. The shepherd's mournful horn came from another side box. Trista and Isolde began their love duet in the auditorium and moved slowly onto the stage. This spatial variety of sound was extremely effective. Less so were Bill Viola's projections which appeared on a large screen behind the singers. Supposedly they gave another mythical, symbolic dimension to the work, if one needed such a thing. I found them either banal or distracting. After a while I ignored them and watched the singers. There were surtitles, which are essential for Wagner. One needs to know exactly what characters are singing in this complex, poetic work.
Musically the performance is as good as one can get nowadays. I grew up on Birgit Nillson's Isolde which was a perfect realization of the role musically and dramatically. No one has equalled or surpassed her. However, Violetta Urmana was the best we have now. She has a rich, lovely voice and enormous vocal power -- a necessity when competing with Wagner's rich, often loud orchestration. One never felt she was straining or forcing. The Liebestod was ravishing. Tristan is almost an impossible role vocally. When I first went to performances of the opera, much of Tristan's third act -- almost solo for forty-five minutes -- was cut because no one could sing it. Gary Lehman came as close as anyone has in the past generation. His third act -- uncut -- was as intense as it needs to be as Tristan, in delirium, sings of his longing for Isolde and for death. His is not a conventionally lovely voice, but at least he doesn't make the ugly, strained sounds one hears from most tenors essaying this role. The supporting cast, particularly Anne Sophie von Otter as Isolde's devoted lady in waiting, Brangane, and Matthew Best as the deeply hurt King Marke, father figure for Tristan and betrothed of Isolde, laments his betrayal by his dearest friend.
The Philharmonia Orchestra played magnificently for Esa Pekka Salonen whose account of the score after a too slow beginning was thrilling.
There was a much-deserved rapturous standing ovation at the end, more for what happened musically than for the five hours of projections of water, candles and homely people stripping. At least this multi-meda event wasn't as silly and obtrusive as some recent Wagner productions, particularly in Wagner's own theater at Bayreuth.
TRISTAN UND ISOLDE. Royal Festival Hall. September 26, 2010.