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Christof Loy [Photo courtesy of Christof Loy and Royal Opera House]
06 Sep 2009

Christof Loy speaks about the new Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, London.

“Opera has so much to give” says Christof Loy, whose new production of Tristan und Isoldeopens at the Royal Opera House on 29th September. This opera is so familiar that everyone assumes they know it. But Loy’s approach involves going straight back to the score, and to the inherent drama in the music. “I don’t like superficial distractions".

Christof Loy speaks about the new Tristan und Isolde at the Royal Opera House, London.

Above: Christof Loy [Photo courtesy of Christof Loy and Royal Opera House]


This unflinching focus on the music can be shocking. Loy’s recent production of Lulu allowed the maze-like intricacies of Berg’s music to shine while also capturing the disturbing spirit. As Schilgolch says, when he steps on the polished marble in Lulu’s mansion, “Someone could get hurt around here”. What will Loy make of *Tristan und Isolde? *

Perhaps his secret is that he goes back to the soul of the drama. Understanding the roles and how they interact is part of the process. When we met, Loy was still in the early stages of rehearsal, working from the piano, with the singers and conductor, Antonio Pappano. “It is wonderful to be doing this with Nina Stemme, who has sung Isolde so many times. She’s so close to Isolde’s rich personality” Loy and Stemme have enjoyed a good relationship for many years, so working together is a pleasure.

“She understands so much”,he adds, “She knows what I mean when I talk about this opera as chamber-like. There are moments when the music explodes, boiling over with intense emotion. We all have habits and assumptions we don’t even notice we are carrying, but when you study the score carefully, there’s so much stillness, so much delicacy. There are habits we all have without even realizing it, so Sometimes I feel like a policeman, holding things back, saying Attention ! Stop and listen to the quieter parts in the music and hear them carefully. Don’t get too intense too early ! But Nina knows what I mean when I talk about the dangers of rushing in with the wrong kind of heroics, and together we discover more things about the parts”. Loy mentions the recording of Kirsten Flagstad, singing Isolde at Covent Garden in the 1930’s. “She is so fresh, so lyrical, she sings with so much tenderness”.

“There is a tradition of hearing Tristan und Isolde as some kind of Teutonic Romeo and Juliet, and simply portraying them as an unhappy couple in love, thwarted by the world around them. But in the music there is so much more”. The story in this opera starts long before the curtain rises. That’s why the First Act involves so much discussion of Isolde’s past and her motives for wanting revenge. Similarly, Marke’s long monologue fills in background. The action, as such, is in the characters. Thus it’s astute that Loy’s approach has come through understanding what motivates the characters and why they think and act the way they do. “They are like family to me now”, he laughs.

“These are fragile people”, he adds. “And fragile people often hide behind an emotional wall to hide their deepest feelings”. Tristan in particular is a much more complex person than his surface heroism might indicate. “He is an extremely damaged person, carrying so much guilt. His father died after begetting him, his mother died giving him birth, and he breaks his uncle’s heart. ‘Zu welchem Los erkoren, ich damals wohl geboren?’”

“So Tristan feels unworthy, but like so many macho men, he builds up an action hero image which has nothing to do with what he feels inside. He cannot express himself, he hides behind an emotional coat of armour”. To the world he may be “der Helden ohne Gleiche” but Isolde, ever sharp, sees him cowering, “in Scham und Scheue”.

Yet when Marke wants to reward him by making him his heir, it’s Tristan who demands that Marke marry a woman who may give him children. It’s not what Marke wants, but Tristan forces him. Tristan rejects the life Marke offers him, already self destructive. When he sees Isolde, he offers her his own sword, that she may kill him.

“Tristan probably has never had anyone to confide in. But Isolde has no problems at all expressing herself, even though Brängäne can’t keep up. She’s so direct.” ” All that night and day imagery, it’s as though Isolde no longer wants to hide.” So it starts Tristan him opening up, though it’s only when he knows he’s finally about to die that he makes full confession. So it’s so tragic that then he only has Kurnewal around, who doesn’t understand.”

Studying the score, Loy was struck by what it revealed about how relationships grow. “They are so used to being alone that it is quite a shock to them that they’re in love, and that they are loved in return. Throughout the opera there are references to things that aren’t necessarily what they first seem. “So Tristan asks Isolde if she will follow him, he talks about the bed on which he was born and on which his mother died, “das Wunderreich der Nacht”. But she assumes he means he’s going back to his estates, “dein Erbe mir zu ziegen”. “Wagner is extremely clear on many details,” says Loy, “but on some things he’s more subtle.” So I asked Loy about certain aspects of the libretto that I’ve wondered about in the past, like what actually goes on in the Liebestod. He smiled enigmatically, and said “Read the libretto”. In the Liebestod, Isolde is completely convinced that Tristan is alive and breathing, surprised that others can’t see him smile or hear the “melody” that arises from his body. What is the nature of that transfiguring “höchste Lust “?

Christof Loy was awarded the “Musikpreis der Stadt Duisburg” in 2001, for his London staging of Ariadne auf Naxos he was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award, and in 2003 and 2004 he was named Director of the Year by the critics of the periodical Opernwelt. In 2008, he was awarded with the “Faust”-Theaterpreis. In the near future his opera engagements will take him to the Theater an der Wien (Prinz von Homburg), Stockholm (Ballo in maschera), Amsterdam (Les Vêpres siciliennes), as well as to Geneva (Donna del Lago and Lustige Witwe) and Aix-en-Provence (Alceste). Recent works include: Lucrezia Borgia (Munich), Theodora (Salzburg Festspiele) and Lulu (Royal Opera House).

Anne Ozorio

“Tristan und Isolde” opens at the Royal Opera House, London on 29th September and runs until 18th October. Nina Stemme sings Isolde, Ben Heppner Tristan, John Tomlinson King Marke, Michael Volle Kurnewal, Sophie Koch Brangäne. Please see

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