Glyndebourne Festival 2021 Review: Tristan und Isolde

A spare but compelling production of Wagner’s sensuous drama gets its fire from Robin Ticciati

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper)

Glyndebourne’s final production of this year’s festival is a semi-staged realization of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” conceived by Daniel Dooner and featuring Glyndebourne music director Robin Ticciati in the pit, accompanied by their resident orchestra the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s a production that boldly sets out several role debuts, in Simon O’Neill’s Tristan, Shenyang’s Kurwenal, and Miina-Liisa Värelä’s Isolde.

A Reflective Vision

Semi-staging can describe a multitude of sins and virtues. Dooner’s presentation veered towards the latter and is best understood as a distillation of the late Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production, first performed in 2003, from which it takes aesthetic and interpretive cues. Lehnhoff worked directly with Wieland Wagner, the originator of the psychologically incisive and philosophically reflective revisionist Neo-Bayreuth style of the postwar period. As a consequence evocative lighting and sparely abstract settings are key to his (and Dooner’s) shows, both of which accentuate metaphysical questions and philosophical intricacies.

It’s a “Tristan” that is more ruminative than sensuous, Act two’s great love duet was surprisingly light on physical closeness and roiling passions. Lighting is evocative and cool, following Lehnhoff’s vision – it is uncredited in the program. There are many decisive dramatic moments – the drink of atonement in Act one washes the stage in a dark red glow as Isolde throws the bowl to the ground; her Liebestod concludes with her wrapped in a blue cloak, as if from myth or dream, and bathed in darkness. A screen behind the orchestra, who take up most of the stage area, glows blue.

It’s a reflective vision of the work, which rather suits the extended day out entailed in a visit to Glyndebourne, encompassing two long intervals and sauntering around the grounds. That atmosphere was channeled into the very final moments of the show, where Ticciati held a pin drop silence for a full twenty seconds before the blackout. The archaic pastoral of the Act three cor Anglais solo had the same mystical, ritualistic quality, drifting in from offstage. 

Costumes are plain and contemporary, with the exception of the Shepherd, sung by Stuart Jackson, in Act three, who wears an atavistic white mask and carries a bent and blasted white staff, both evocative of avant-garde invocations of the primitive and archaic, the final act was imbued with an hieratic aura. The action takes place on the raised pit, which has some levels provided by a set of steps. Critics are drawn to praising semi-stagings of Wagner because they foreclose what are imagined as directorial indulgences with which they disagree. The merits of Regietheatre notwithstanding, here Dooner’s approach intensifies Lehnhoff’s vision of the work rather than diluting it.

Superb Conducting

Robin Ticciati’s conducting of the LPO was the secret ingredient in this intoxicating musical brew. It seems incredible that this is his first Wagner in an opera house given his assurance and insight. His prelude was a textbook realization of Wagnerian melos, the pulse present but seamless, the beat hovering between two and six to the bar. This feeling of sustained transition was exquisitely realized in the pulse-perfect “O sink hernieder” Act two duet. Ticciati particularly grasped what Wagner in his treatises on conducting would call “tempo modification:” a necessary flexibility in tempo according to dramatic and musical dictates.

There were many moments of textural inventiveness. The Act three prelude showcased raw, guttural strings that then floated upwards to shimmering pearlescence, before the sumptuous duet of horns and cellos. Ticciati offered both luxury and lucidity, pointing the score towards Debussy (something redolent of Pierre Boulez’s recording) as well as the more apocalyptic energies of Barenboim or Fürtwangler, whipping the strings and brass into a frenzy in Act one. The only complaint might be the glacial starting tempo of the Liebestod, which sucked the emotional oxygen out of the work’s famous climax. 

A Thrilling Cast

A uniformly superb cast rides Ticciati’s thrilling musical and emotional rapids. Despite three role debuts – two of whom are singing amongst the most vertiginously difficult music in the repertory, there are scarcely any teething problems. Simon O’Neill’s Tristan had superb presence and is untiring, bravely opening up the regular Act two cut. In Act three there was no drop in intensity of sound or stagecraft, despite the demands of the role. Indeed it made for the most scintillating singing of the evening.

Vocally he gleamed and, whilst bright in voice, was never metallic or nasal when working above the stave. His diction in particular was excellent and there is a keen attention to the text across the cast that saw consonants crisply enunciated at the ends of phrases and, even more crucially, before the beat, which gave the storytelling in this opera of languorous narration real focus. The only criticism one might muster would be a little more diversity of color and shade across his registers, and particularly in the top. Sometimes his vowels wanted for a little more Germanic darkness.

His loyal friend Kurwenal was sung by Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang. He could do with loosening up a bit with his movement and acting.  A few of the physical beats didn’t quite match up with the superbly executed musical ones, which would open the door to a deeper sense of the character and his journey through the opera. But vocally he excels in Wagner’s fearsome tessitura, with the requisite richness and tenebrous mystery in his lower reaches too. High notes pinged off the back of the auditorium and the many top Es and Fs were dispatched without breaking a sweat. He was aptly glowering and melancholic in the opening scene of Act three.

Karen Cargill continues to be an outstanding Brangäne, whose more velvety hues offered an emotional and psychological contrast to Isolde’s fury and despair in Act one. Her Act two warning, sung from the gods, was memorably haunting and tender.

Isolde was sung by Miina-Liisa Värelä. She already presents an assured and rounded version of the character, both vocally and in her movement. Apart from raw power and impressive stamina, there was a hint of weariness towards the end of Act two and the final transfiguration. She brings many vocal nuances to a role that, all too often, singers mainly survive rather than shape.

Her assured lower register can compete with many mezzos for its intensity and core; she also deployed a clean, straight tone at moments of icy focus and resolve, especially in Act one. This kind of vocal control makes the backstory delivered in Act one compelling. Her entry in Act three, tending to the fallen body of Tristan, was heart-stoppingly tender.

John Relyea was indisposed so could not perform the role of King Marke. The very morning of the performance saw Glyndebourne favourite Brindley Sherratt step in. To arrive at a role like Marke, singing without a score and slotting directly into the staging,  at the eleventh hour is remarkable in itself. But to sing it with such gravitas and imagination after scant rehearsal doubly so.

There’s no doubt Sherratt showed a little vocal strain when it came to a few top notes. But this hardly mattered in what was a touching Act two performance. Rarely has the cost of Tristan and Isolde’s night of love been totted up so painfully for the audience. Sherratt sang of Marke’s pain with eloquent vulnerability, some lines whisper quiet and etched with disappointment. It was a tender portrayal of a broken individual whose pathos must somehow – and did – balance the erotic effulgence of what has just proceeded it: one of the remarkable performances of a superb night.


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