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Isolde travels with the severed head of her dead betrothed in a jar. Trapped in the claustrophobic confines of a plush ship’s cabin, she is a formidable woman surrounded by brutal men. Her passions are too big for her world, and her doomed love for Tristan will eventually explode from the confines of stifling convention.

The Australian stage director Barrie Kosky here continues his exploration of Wagner’s operas. Tristan und Isolde follows his dynamic Fliegende Holländer at the same theatre a year ago, and an introverted Lohengrin for the Vienna State Opera last April.

This Essen Tristan is the best of a good lot. Kosky’s work is detailed, whimsical, poetic, intelligent, and above all profoundly musical. It has a dark, dream-like edge. Isolde’s cell-like room in the second act begins to rotate on its own axis when the lovers meet. The floor becomes the ceiling; their love turns their world literally upside down. A hallucinogenic Underworld is palpably near. It becomes visible in the last act, as priest-like shepherds move sculptured sheep through the gloom as if playing an eschatological chess game (sets and lighting: Klaus Grünberg). Tristan and Kurvenal fall through the fourth wall of their imprisoning room and into the infinite darkness.

As Essen gears itself up to become cultural capital in 2010, work of this quality makes the goal far more plausible than the city’s grim exterior might suggest. Essen’s bunker-like Aalto Theater boasts a fine acoustic and an excellent orchestra. Under the general music director Stefan Soltesz, the Essen Philharmonic plays with warmth and precision, never swamping the singers and stringently avoiding any hint of pathos.

Evelyn Herlitzius makes an Isolde of animal intensity, incandescent in her Act One rage, meltingly resigned in her Liebestod. She has both the volume and the stamina to sing the part with apparent ease. There is little subtlety of shading; her expressive power owes more to charisma and stage presence than to technical complexity. But whatever she does, it works. Jeffrey Dowd is an attractive and dependable Tristan, and Ildiko Szönyi’s Brangäne is deliciously listenable.

This is a well-paced, finely wrought, lovingly detailed Tristan, as good as you will find anywhere.

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