End of the Affair: Tristan und Isolde at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Stuart Skelton
König Marke – Franz-Josef Selig
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Kurwenal – Josef Wagner
Melot – Dominic Sedgwick
Brangäne – Jamie Barton
Ein Hirt – Linard Vrielink
Ein Steuermann – Ivan Thirion
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Linard Vrielink

Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, London Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle.
Stage director – Simon Stone.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Sunday, July 11th, 2021.

This new production, by Simon Stone, of Tristan und Isolde is a co-production with the Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg.  The festival invited the London Symphony Orchestra, with their current music director Simon Rattle, to provide the orchestral forces, while a cast of both experienced and debutant interpreters of their roles incarnated the principals.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Stone’s staging takes an interesting premise as its starting point.  He contrasts the mythical story of Tristan and Isolde with the life of a Parisian woman, potentially a manager in a design agency.  Act 1 takes place in her apartment where, as she falls asleep after a dinner party, she’s awoken by the voice of the Seeman, the panoramic vista of Paris, France from her apartment windows turning into video (Luke Halls) of the raging ocean.  Act 2, takes place in what appears to be the design agency, where we see doubles of Tristan and Isolde during the love duet, at different stages of their lives and relationships.  In the final act, Tristan raves in the Paris métro, surrounded at times by other passengers immune to his plight, at others by Kurwenal and the Hirt alone.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Stone’s is a staging that grew on me as the evening progressed.  I must admit that I found Act 1 to be the most problematic, with Stone’s vision in conflict with the music and text.  Rather than enhancing and amplifying this revolutionary score, it felt that the Act 1 narrative that Stone had constructed, was at odds with the characters’ motivations and the text itself.  Stone posits an interesting theory – that humans, in our love affairs, often mythologize the relationship itself, searching for a deeper meaning, or an escape from quotidian realities that may not always be there.  Where this worked best was in Act 2.  Here, the image of a woman escaping her mundane life through a relationship with Tristan really came to life.  Particularly as the images of doubles of Isolde and Tristan in various stages of life (younger and copulating on the desk, or an older Isolde pushing Tristan in a wheelchair) created an extremely moving visual alongside the surging textures of the love duet.  Even Marke’s intervention felt logical here, as if chastising Isolde for wanting something more out of life.  At the end of Act 3, Stone gives as a fascinating final tableau – the image of Isolde walking out of the métro car, returning to her previous life, Tristan seemingly recovered, perhaps an anonymous man Isolde might have imagined a future with – left a sense of resolution that felt as one with the music.  There was a heartfelt reminder that all relationships are temporal, that we may have spent five hours in the company of these people aching for resolution, but we got it in the end.  It’s a flawed but interesting reading of the work.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Musically, the evening benefitted greatly from the presence of the LSO on superlative form.  Yes, there were a few ragged horn entries here and there, but other than that, this was orchestral playing of the very highest quality.  Rattle’s famed ear for orchestral colour also had a big part to play in the transparency of the textures and the sheer range of sonorities he obtained from his orchestra.  The prelude started on a thread of sound, the gossamer strings making full use of portamenti, while the closing pages of Act 1 blazed magnificently.  Those surging textures of the love duet offered a rainbow of sound, while the Act 3 prelude took us deep into the darkest night of the soul.  Rattle’s tempi were generally well paced, but I felt a distinct drop in tension in Act 1, not helped by the problematic staging of that act, with an awkward gear change into the closing pages.  That said, he ratcheted up the tension in Act 3 most grippingly and when that resolution came in the Liebestod, it was utterly overwhelming. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Nina Stemme is an experienced Isolde and she was at one with Stone’s conception of her role.  It would be wrong to deny that her soprano is no longer in the first flush of youth, but her experience got her through the evening.  Stemme in many respects reminds me of a Volvo.  The drive will be safe and will always get you to the destination, but it isn’t always the most exciting ride.  That said, one will always appreciate the relative security of her vocalism, even if one might want her to live the text even more.  She negotiated the higher-lying passages of the curse and the love duet through sheer experience, the top not quite as easy as in the past.  The lower registers also now require a bit more careful negotiation.  Her Liebestod was a little choppy in phrasing, but she sang those closing lines radiantly.  Given that Stemme has been singing some of the most demanding roles in the repertoire for many years now, it’s striking how the vibrations are even and the voice can still ride the orchestra in full flight.  Stemme’s Isolde tonight certainly inspired admiration. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Stuart Skelton sang Tristan with his bright, focused tenor.  He had clearly worked hard on the text and he too was able to ride the orchestra with ease in Act 3, revelling in everything that Wagner could throw at him.  He made a genuine attempt to sing with softness and tenderness in the love duet, even if the emission wasn’t always consistent.  Skelton also threw himself fully into Stone’s conception of the role.  There was something haunting about his Act 3 presence.  That idea of the isolation of urban life, of living a torment that is his alone, while around him others went around their business – again, this was an idea that I found very moving and amplified the music most effectively.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Jamie Barton had also worked hard on the text as Brangäne.  She offered some impressive dips into a juicy chest register.  Unfortunately, from my seat, she was frequently inaudible even with Rattle’s singer friendly conducting, and the middle and top of the voice sounded brittle and lacking in amplitude.  I’m afraid to say that I was left wondering if this role is a size too big for Barton currently.  She did, however, float her warnings from the tower (here from the orchestra pit) with an admirably smooth line.  Josef Wagner brought a firm and resonant baritone to Kurwenal, singing with musicality in a role that so often sounds barked.  Franz-Josef Selig sang Marke in a massive bass of wonderfully complex depth of tone.  His verbal acuity meant that his monologue was full of heartfelt feeling, rather than the interminable dirge we often hear.  In the supporting cast, a special mention for Dominic Sedgwick as a handsomely sung Melot and Linard Vrielink who sang his roles mellifluously and with an energetic stage presence. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Tonight’s Tristan und Isolde most certainly offered multiple rewards.  Musically, getting to hear a great orchestra such as the LSO performing this score, that experience of feeling the floor vibrate underfoot and being enveloped in the sound, that is something that no recording or streaming can replicate.  The singing was decent and that is really the very least one can ask for in a piece as demanding as this.  Skelton revelled in the challenges and Stemme brought all of her experience and technique to her role.  Stone’s staging is flawed.  At its best, however, it amplifies the music and brings it closer to us.  It makes us reflect on both urban isolation and the innate desire to escape mundane reality.  The evening was greeted by an instant standing ovation from the Aix public.  

One comment

  1. I share your reservations about Stemme’s vocalism, but I think you make less of what she really does do with the text. She probably could go further but I think the meaning is there and while it’s not unique it’s clear she has a personal connection to what she’s singing about. She has grown as an artist IMO. And she sings these roles better than anyone. Who else has the security she does after singing the roles as long as she had?

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