The miracle of Tristan und Isolde is its transformation of a romantic ideal into rapturous music. You don’t need to understand the philosophical concepts of which it is made in order to appreciate its glory. All that’s required is that you surrender to Wagner’s sounds and detach yourself from life.
For this purpose there’s nowhere more suitable than Glyndebourne – especially on a summer’s evening as rapturous as Wednesday’s – where the combination of Arcadian splendour and two long intervals gives ample opportunity to absorb the potion. It’s a potion that should be so heady in the moment of performance that it blinds us to the pessimistic moral of the opera – that the greatest love is tragic, because it cannot be bound by the demands of society or the limitations of earthly existence. It finds fulfilment only in death.
It’s as well to remember this in the context of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging, because Tristan and Isolde rarely make physical contact, and the performance ends not with the usual stage-full of carnage but a poetic evocation of night, the world in which lovers thrive. Roland Aeschlimann’s set, an oval cauldron, variously suggests the ribs of a ship, a crashing wave, a space-capsule, a Greek amphitheatre, the pressure-cooker of emotion. Together with Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s medieval costumes and Robin Carter’s suffused lighting, the aesthetic owes much to New Bayreuth, the post-war style created by Wieland Wagner, from whom Lehnhoff learned his craft in the early 1960s. The beauty of it is that everything remains classically focused from start to finish. The disadvantage is that its inspiration has begun to look old-fashioned – not just the visual aura but also the singers’ poses, reminiscent of Art Deco engravings and pre-war Hollywood.
When this Tristan was first staged in 2003 it marked Wagner’s belated debut at Glyndebourne, a festival originally conceived by John Christie in the 1930s as an English Bayreuth. The new theatre finally made it possible, and Lehnhoff’s staging was welcomed above all for the way it married the energies of a fresh young cast to the intimacies of the Glyndebourne stage. This first revival, to be followed next month by a short run at Baden-Baden, preserves those intimacies – but this time the
cast is neither so young nor so fresh.
An added twist is provided by the presence of cameras, not just for a commercial DVD but to enable Tristan to be seen at 10 Odeon cinemas across the UK on October 26. This has lent the show a studied appearance, as if everyone is being careful to give the definitive performance. Jirí Belohlávek’s pacing of the music is noticeably more deliberate than in 2003. The London Philharmonic sounds loud and over-cautious, and Lehnhoff has chiselled the acting to the point where it looks manicured.
Nina Stemme’s Isolde suffers least. She knows how to strike statuesque poses, and her lush, dark soprano has grown along with her experience of singing the part at Bayreuth. Robert Gambill’s Tristan seems more concerned to follow Lehnhoff’s directions and husband his resources than create an inspiring stage-portrait. Katarina Karnéus’s Brangaene sings well but looks ridiculously mannered. There are sturdy contributions from Bo Skovhus’s Kurwenal and Stephen Gadd’s Melot.
The production’s potential is realised only in the closing scene of Act Two, thanks to a monologue by René Pape (as King Marke) that shows us what Wagner is really about: a fusion of art, song, intensity and personality that justifies and transforms every stage convention. Short of that, Glyndebourne’s Tristan potion is a case of modified rapture.