Shadowy Visions: Tristan und Isolde at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde

Tristan – Samuel Sakker
König Marke – Albert Dohmen
Isolde –
Carla Filipcic Holm
Kurwenal – Vincenzo Neri
Melot – Mark Gough
Brangäne – Dshamilja Kaiser
Ein Hirt – Hugo Kampschreur
Ein Steuermann – Simon Schmidt
Stimme eines jungen Seemanns – Hugo Kampschreur

Koor Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Symfonisch Orkest Opera Ballet Vlaanderen / Alejo Pérez.
Stage director – Philippe Grandrieux.

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, Ghent, Flanders, Belgium.  Saturday, March 25th, 2023.

A new production of Tristan und Isolde is always a challenge for an opera house, both in the casting and in the way that it gives a house orchestra a workout.  This Tristan at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen has been a long time coming.  Originally due to be premiered in 2021, it was delayed due to the plague and finally received its premiere here, in Ghent, a few days ago.  This staging marks the operatic debut of noted experimental filmmaker, Philippe Grandrieux.  The house made a lot of background information available in advance, both on its website and by email to ticketholders.  The advance information promised an immersive experience and, on entering the auditorium, the dimmed lighting suggested a link to the score’s nocturnal tinta.  Grandrieux apparently insisted that there be no surtitles, in order to allow spectators to focus on the visuals.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Indeed, a focus on the visual aspect is perhaps inevitable for a director with a background in filmmaking.  The problem is that opera isn’t solely a visual medium – it’s the ultimate artform precisely because it combines text, music and physicality, in addition to the visuals.  If one of these elements is lacking, the remainder has to work even harder.  Grandrieux fills the proscenium with a video that takes us through the evening up until Tristan’s death.  Behind it, the singers perambulate, barely lit, living in a shadowy world, where we can scarcely perceive their faces.  Grandrieux shows us images of naked women.  As Act 1 progresses, we see her breasts exposed on stage with the climax of the act coinciding with the big reveal of her lady garden.  The video in Act 2 starts with images of an actual garden, while the love duet is accompanied by visions of a woman seemingly experiencing an epileptic fit.  Throughout, it’s unclear if she’s in pain or ecstasy – though the sight of a hand over her vulva at the start of Act 2 suggests she may be digitally pleasuring herself to achieve the latter.  I asked myself frequently whether these images did actually magnify and amplify this revolutionary score, or whether they simply distracted.  In the case of Act 3, having the proscenium filled with the sight of a surging sea, with Tristan emerging from it, did indeed create an impression.  On the other hand, the calmness of ‘o sink’ hernieder’ accompanied with the aforementioned images of a woman having an epileptic fit was less convincing.  Yet, I can’t escape a feeling of déjà vu, given that Peter Sellars and Bill Viola did something very similar – and arguably more effective – twenty years ago.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

The personenregie was rather risible – my seat neighbours couldn’t stop laughing.  Isolde was directed to either contort her body as if practising yoga, lie on the floor as if giving birth, or squat as if caught short on a road trip to Cornwall and needing to relieve herself behind a bush.  Brangäne walked around aimlessly, hands aloft, as if indulging in slow-motion Bollywood dancing, while Tristan, rather than being stabbed by Melot, instead raised his hands and stared to the front – although he did have a bleeding wound in Act 3.  Perhaps, in removing the stage action away from the sung text, Grandrieux wanted to say that desire and longing are irrational.  The problem is that, even if you remove the surtitles the text is still there to be heard and understood – though Carla Filipcic Holm’s Isolde was verbally indistinct.  Grandrieux’s staging is certainly original and tries to do something new.  In that respect it made for an interesting evening.  It just felt that it might be more at home in an art gallery with a soundtrack of the score, rather than an actual theatrical experience.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Musically, things were significantly more positive.  Alejo Pérez’ conducting was a revelation.  Indeed, I cannot recall hearing a Tristan so insightfully conducted live.  He was rewarded with magnificent playing from the house orchestra.  Pérez brought out so much detail in the score, it was almost as if viewing an x-ray of the music, the interplay between the musical ideas vividly brought to life, making the score sound even more cogently argued than I’d ever heard before.  The burgeoning danger of the lower strings under the calmness of the love duet, or the passionate tremolos in the violins as Tristan raved in Act 3, felt so much more immediate.  The way that Pérez held on to the Tristan chord seemingly forever, as Tristan and Isolde drank the potion, was absolutely captivating.  His tempi were nicely fluid, Marke’s monologue for once didn’t drag, although he did luxuriate somewhat in the more placid sections of Tristan’s big scene in Act 3 – the effect heightened because the evening was behind the scheduled running time and one feared one wouldn’t make the last train home.  That huge, orgasmic moment of relief that we had waited five hours for, was glorious.  Throughout, the orchestra didn’t put a foot wrong – string intonation was impeccable, their burnished sound was beguiling to listen to, the winds were full of character and brass solid.  The chorus sang with superb tuning and made a tremendous noise in those riotous closing pages of Act 1.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

I can’t imagine what must have been going through the singers’ minds as they walked around the stage as if in a trance.  Filipcic sang Isolde in a deliciously creamy soprano.  Hers was a beautifully sung assumption of the role, full of rosy pulchritude of tone.  Her soprano is a good size, particularly in a more intimate house such as this, with a ringing top that she exploited with ease in those high Cs in Act 2.  She gave us a commanding curse and her Liebestod saw her pouring radiant tone into the house.   It seems churlish to mention that we waited five hours for her resolution and she was flat on ‘Welt’, and throughout it was hard to discern what language Filipcic was actually singing in.  If she could sharpen her diction, she could be a notable interpreter of this iconic role – the beauty of the voice is undeniable.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Samuel Sakker returned to Tristan following his debut run in Nancy a month or so ago.  His is an intelligent assumption of the role.  His tenor sounds to my ears in this context as probably a size or two on the small side for the part, and when he pulls back on the tone it becomes grey and dry.  Yet, he knows how to pace it by now, knowing where to let rip in Act 3, which he did with determination.  The biggest pleasure in his performance was the clarity of his diction, savouring the text, using it to find and bring out meaning, even in a staging as far removed from the words as this one.

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

In the remainder of the cast, Dshamilja Kaiser gave us a glamorously sung Brangäne, sung in a claret-toned mezzo with beautiful sheen and easy reach on top.  She floated her warnings gloriously.  Vincenzo Neri gave us a handsomely-sung Kurwenal, the voice firm and masculine.  Albert Dohmen brought a lifetime’s understanding to the role of Marke, his bass full of humanity and resonance.  Mark Gough sang Melot in a compact and extrovert baritone.  The remaining roles reflected the excellent quality of the house. 

Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

This was unlike any Tristan und Isolde one might have seen before – and indeed is likely to see again.  Grandrieux set out to give us an immersive experience, one that heightened the senses and aimed to allow us to live this score as new.  I’m afraid to say that, for me, he didn’t particularly succeed in this.  In privileging the visual, Grandrieux ignores several key aspects of the work – the sung text and the physical manifestations of the singing characters, surrounding them instead in shadowy gloom, both verbal and physical.  Yes, it’s audacious and ambitious, and yes I’d rather that than some AMOP-friendly unimaginativeness.  Yet, Grandrieux’s staging comes nowhere near Calixto Bieito’s Vienna insights, for instance, in amplifying the revolutionary aspects of this score.  A shame, because Pérez’ conducting and the playing of the house orchestra were both absolutely superlative, and the singing was always decent.  There were a few boos at the start of Act 3, while the close of the evening was greeted by those who were still there at the end with polite and brief applause. 


  1. We too were there on that 1st night and also found the music playing a revelation & the whole evening thrilling. My wife & our friend found the filmed self pleasuring/self anguishing female form a distraction but by its sheer length. We differ on audience reaction however, joining in much appreciation and applause & with a good view of the house, did not notice many vacated seats?

    • It certainly gave much to look at. My review was of the second performance and I imagine a very different audience to the premiere. Certainly in the orchestra section I’d say a good quarter of the seats were vacated by the start of Act 3

      • Sir, Aha – was about to check date of your visit, but may I warmly say that we have preceded you for our 1st visit to this house (& Antwerp’s Purcell the night before & Idomeneo Arabella & Turandot in Berlin, on a highly time-efficient* & very special for us 6 nights from Scotland, *perhaps even worthy of your travels. Vlaandaren are frequently praised by you & without your reviews we would scarcely have known or visited, so thank you!

  2. Proscenium filled with a real-time video (which is rather distracting than supporting the production) can be experienced these days as well at the Theater an der Wien during Der Freischütz…

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