Tristan und Isolde, Welsh National Opera

A work the size of Tristan
und Isolde
is something of a challenge for a touring company like WNO and
this production will only be played in Cardiff (19/5, 26/5, 2/6) and Birmingham
(16/6) with a concert version at the Edinburgh Festival.

The production has worn well and Kokkos’s sets still look very handsome.
Kokkos provides a fixed structure of a frame with a frame, and within this uses
semi-abstract sets to evoke the ship in act 1, the forest in act 2 and the
rocks of Kareol in act 3, in generally cool grey tones. In doing so he gives
himself a fluid and flexible acting area. Costumes are timeless, evoking
medieval but with quite a heavy reliance on that old stand-by, the great coat.
The results mean that the women looked elegant and the men suitably heroic.

Kokkos has not specific axe to grind in the production, no psychological
idÈe fixe and he seems content to tell the story with clarity, and
certainly no dramatic additions such as Brang‰ne’s liaison with Kurwenal
during act 2 (in the recent Covent Garden production).

In act 1, Tristan (Ben Heppner) and Kurwenal (Phillip Joll) are on the upper
level, behind a scrim, with the the action of the ship evoked in a series of
tableaux, whilst at the front Isolde (Ann Petersen) and Brang‰ne (Susan
Bickley) are at the front on the lower level, separated physically and
emotionally from the men. In act 2, the forest forms the back-drop for the long
sweep of stairs on which the lovers’ meeting takes place. This is not a
production where Tristan and Isolde never touch; Kokkos arranges the love-duet
into a series of static scenes where the lovers intertwine. For act 3 the set
is reduced to a single, huge slab sloping down the stage, resting at the rear
on the rocks from which the Shepherd (Simon Crosby Buttle) keeps look-out.

Within this, there was a lot of scope for drama, this opera essentially
relying on the interactions between the principals. Here the revival director
does not seem to have been able to engender a real dramatic spark between
Heppner and Petersen. In act 1, Petersen delivered Isolde’s curse with
brilliant vehemence and gleaming tone, but in her scene with Heppner’s
Tristan, the two seemed just a little too polite with each other. We relied on
the music to transport us. The same happened in act 2, where non action of the
love duet very much relied upon the music to give it dramatic impulse. In their
solo moments both Heppner and Petersen proved acute, so it was a shame that the
two did not develop their relationship more.

Petersen is a young Danish soprano who is developing as a dramatic soprano.
Recent engagements have included her first Leonore and Marschallin, along with
Elsa, Elizabeth and Ariadne. She has further Isoldes lined up plus Senta, the
Empress (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and Sieglinde. That her progress to
more dramatic roles is being carefully considered is confirmed by the way she
sang Isolde with a voice of great lyric beauty. Her voice rode the orchestra at
the crucial points, but she did not force the tone. Conductor Lothar Koenigs
seemed to be a sympathetic partner, not pushing the orchestra towards drowning
the soprano.

Petersen had a good feel for the text; her coloration of the words was
always notable. This was a dramatic performance, certainly not one where the
voice was content to coast over Wagner’s luxuriant orchestration. Physically
as well, Petersen is an apt performer, ensuring that the unspoken/unsung
moments of drama tell for as much as the spoken ones. She was at her best in
this in act 1, where there is much that an acute Isolde like Petersen can do to
develop the drama.

She was a strong and equal partner to Heppner in the love duet, each egging
the other on musically towards the ultimate coitus interruptus of the climax.
Here her performance was less dramatic, and you sensed a desire to allow the
music space. Though, as I have said, I feel more could have been made of this

Her account of the Liebestod was beautifully rapturous. At all
times she preserved the beauty of tone and moulded Wagner’s phrases
intelligently. Kokkos phased out the drama during this scene, gradually
focusing attention on the single figure of the transfigured Isolde to close the

Having been through a difficult period with his voice, attention inevitably
focused on Ben Heppner’s Tristan. I had missed hearing him in London when he
cancelled due to illness, so was pleased to catch up with him in the role in
Cardiff. Heppner remains a hugely vivid and dramatic performer, one who can be
intensely expressive notwithstanding his bulk. His size meant that, inevitably,
Tristan had a substantial and heroic presence from the start. His voice has
lost its burnished beauty of tone, but retains a massive, granite-like
grandeur. The feeling that Heppner was hewing the tenor part out of rock
contributed immensely to his performance. Heppner’s Tristan was a warrior who
had suffered and would continue to do so, achieving even the rapture of the
love duet with difficulty.

His voice took time to warm up and I was worried at first that he might have
tuning problems. But things settled down to a feeling of rough-hewn grandeur.
In the quieter moments, particularly in the opening of the love duet, Heppner
achieved a beauty of tone which matched that of Petersen. Though at the top of
his voice there was a certain tightness, a lack of freedom at times. It has to
be admitted that he noticeably tired during the performance, with odd notes
failing to register properly. But in act 3, he was simply astonishing,
achieving a degree of dramatic transfiguration that I would not have believed.
Here was a massive character, really suffering.

Susan Bickley’s warm and intensely dramatic Brang‰ne was one of the
strong points of act 1. She formed a strong and believable link with
Petersen’s Isolde and Bickley’s vivid performance helped anchor the drama.
As a singer, Bickley never ceases to amaze me, she has a wide repertoire and a
knack of making a role her own, whether the composer is Handel, Berlioz, Wagner
or George Benjamin. Strong Brang‰nes cannot make a performance of this opera,
but with principals as strong as Petersen and Heppner, Bickley was able to
contribute to the powerful ensemble feeling of the opera.

Phillip Joll’s Kurwenal was a bluff, old soldier figure; warm and
sympathetic with intense regard for Tristan. He provided rock-like support for
Heppner’s dramatic power in act 3.

Matthew Best was a committed and intense King Marke. He is one of the best
around today and deserved every moment of the long applause he received at the
end. But I have to confess that I generally find King Marke a prosy bore and
that Best did not quite convince me otherwise. Marke’s long solo at the end
of act 2 requires a very, very special touch to pull one’s attention off the
love duet. Though Best acquitted himself intelligently, he did not quite manage
to pull focus the way he should.

Simon Thorpe was dramatically committed in the role of Melot, Simon Crosby
Buttle was nicely mellifluous both as the sailor and the shepherd, with Julian
Boyce as the Helmsman.

Lothar Koenigs conducted with sympathy and a good ear for accompanying the
singers. He has clearly developed a good relationship with the orchestra and
drew a strong performance from them with some good individual solo playing.
Koenigs speeds were on the moderate to fast side, but the music never felt
rushed. He seemed content to let the drama flow. There weren’t the slow
speeds and architectonic feel you get with some conductors, which can be a
distinct advantage when it comes to running time.

Any performance of Tristan und Isolde is a landmark and this was
anything but a routine revival. The combination of Heppner’s heroic,
rough-hewn Tristan with Petersen’s mellifluously intelligent Isolde and
Koenigs’ sympathetic accompanying ensured a memorable evening, even if
dramatic sparks did not quite fly the way I would have liked.

To a certain extent the virtues of Kokkos’s production are negative, in
that it does not get in the way of the music and Kokkos does not try to re-make
the work in his own image. But where a company can afford to revive Tristan
und Isolde
only rarely, and when many of the audience may be seeing it for
the first time, this clarity of style can become a positive virtue.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_by=Sailor: Simon Crosby Buttle; Helmsman: Julian Boyce; Isolde: Ann Petersen; Brang‰ne: Susan Bickley; Kurwenal: Phillip Joll; Tristan: Ben Heppner; Melot: Simon Thorpe; King Marke: Matthew Best; Shepherd: Simon Crosby Buttle. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Director and Designer: Yannis Kokkos. Revival Director: Peter Watson. Choir and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, 19th May 2012.
product_id=Above: Ben Heppner as Tristan and Ann Petersen as Isolde [Photo by David Massey courtesy of Welsh National Opera]