Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday May 12 2019

Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Production: Ralf Pleger. Sets: Alexander Polzin. Costumes: Wojciech Dziedzic. Lighting: John Torres. Tristan: Bryan Register. König Marke: Franz-Josef Selig. Isolde: Ann Petersen. Kurwenal: Andrew Foster-Williams. Brangäne: Nora Gubisch. Melot/Ein Steuermann: Wiard Witholt. Ein Hirt/Ein junger Seemann: Ed Lyon. La Monnaie Orchestra and Men’s Chorus.

This will be a shortish write-up as I'm off today for two weeks in Central Asia.

La Monnaie's new Tristan can be summed up as an odd but genuine case of three sets in search of an opera. Alexander Polzin designed and built three impressive, monumental performance installations, not obviously related in any way to this particular plot but impressive, and with great potential. But in them, Ralf Pleger staged the degré zéro of opera directing, a pale imitation of Bob Wilson with everyone creeping round at a snail's pace, making putatively significant, symbolic gestures and singing to the audience, from the front of the stage, rather than engaging with the other characters. And the costumes were the very worst 70s space-mediaeval fantasy, apart from Isolde's act two kimono, turquoise and fuchsia, that made her look like a rich Beverly Hills hostess welcoming us to a cocktail evening round the pool.

Back to the sets. In act one the floor and rear were mirrored, so the giant, translucent stalactites were met, at stage level, by their stalagmite twins and the characters were similarly doubled and more in reflection. Pleger took this as a cue to have the singers do some corny mirror movements, pairing off Tristan with Isolde, logically enough, but also Brangäne with Kurwenal. I'm not sure people in the stalls were aware of the mirror effect, suggesting deep water underfoot, as they wouldn't see the stage. In press reviews, I read about stalactites, not stalagmites. But from where I sit at La Monnaie, up on the second balcony, the effect was quite clear. The lighting changed constantly and the stalactites could be lit from within, dimly or brightly, as the mood required.

In act two the stage was plain white and the rear sometimes white, sometimes black. In the centre was a giant, circular tangle of trunks and branches, all white, vaguely anthropomorphic, like twisted limbs. The tips, it transpired, were translucent and could light up, like the stalactites in the previous act. As the action progressed, the limbs came slowly but startlingly to life: dancers, all white, had slipped in stealthily and started crawling sloth-like round the structure. The was very effective. Melot wounded Tristan simply by singing at us from the front of the stage: there was no contact between them. I'm not sure Tristan ever touched Isolde at any stage either, even when they'd clambered up into the tangle of white branches.

In act three we were confronted with a wall, filling the whole of the rear of the set and outlined in white (later red) neon, in which holes of various sizes appeared to be filled with bottle glass, through which light shone more or less dimly (the lighting technicians were very busy throughout this production). These apparent 'portholes' would turn out to be the ends of perspex rods of various thicknesses which were pushed through the wall, to various lengths and lit from various angles to create a complex, beautiful shadow play, and pulled back again, unfortunately rather noisily when some got stuck. Tristan was now draped in red, blood-red I suppose, with his face and hands gilded. I didn't get that. He was surrounded by dancers in identical costumes and gold leaf. I didn't get that either and it seemed superfluous, other than giving the dancers something to do. The shepherd wore one of those traditional, stiff and sleeveless Turkish felt capes called a kenepek, with matching beige fez: a far cry from Cornwall. Isolde, in an off-the-shoulder gown such as you might expect when leaping off a ship in a cold clime, dashed in to heal Tristan at the by-now-customary snail's pace and sang at us from the front of the stage while he languished on the floor yards behind her. Brangäne was dressed in a sort of constructivist vision of hospital operating-theatre green. Melot and Kurwenal fought simply by glaring at one another bad-temperedly and, once dead, stood facing the rear wall, as if in dunce's caps at school. At the very end, Tristan and his dancers got up (slowly, of course) and crept off in full sight. Another thing I didn't get: 'C'était quand même un peu con,' remarked my neighbour, referring to the production, as we applauded at the end.

Wagner
So we had some spectacular visuals, thanks to Alexander Polzin and his lighting designer John Torres, but piss-poor directing in silly, unflattering costumes that made it hard for the singers to project any personality other than that provided by the score.

The cast was strong if not stellar. Ann Petersen was impressive though hard-sounding to my ears. I could have done with less of what sounded to me like barking and more morbidezza, but I'm no fan of Wagner and Wagnerian braying and sympathise with the poor singers forced to bash away at it. I hope they are well paid for the effort. I am particularly impervious to Tristan which to me veers alternates between sheer tedium and exasperating hysteria (and Parsifal, which is just plain tedious from start to finish). My neighbours were happy. Bryan Register was a very good Tristan, particularly at the tenderest or darkest moments, when he sang daringly softly, only just audible over the pit. Franz-Josef Selig, the biggest name of the afternoon, had the biggest voice - vast and dark though not always under full control. I found Andrew Foster-Williams's tuning a little bit unstable as Kurwenal, but his timbre was clear and his singing was committed (however much his drab, droopy costume and the un-directing fought against any decent characterisation) and again, my neighbours were happy. All agreed that Nora Gubisch was stretched to the limit, and perhaps beyond, as Brangäne but still concluded that the afternoon had been a musical success for those who like the work. For the record, Altinoglu's tempi were pretty stately - especially for those who would prefer Tristan to be done and dusted as quickly as possible - but it's amazing what he can now coax out of La Monnaie's orchestra.

The same sets, with its dancers and lighting, should be offered to a proper director to be recycled, in this work or a different three-act one - as I said, I saw no obvious link with Tristan. The potential is there; it just needs someone intelligent and professional enough to make more of it.

In this clip, Maestro Wenarto chooses a similar tempo to Altinoglu's for the Libestod.

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